A former annual Russian tradition, whereby the military and political strength of the country would be trumpeted by parading troops and military hardware through and over Red Square. All were watched by hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens and the current Premier, who cheered and revelled in their country's "might".

Also a major source of the peculiar phenomenon sometimes called 'Red Nostalgia', whereby the sufferer will pine for the days of Cold War solidarity and an indistinct but ever-present threat; as demonstrated by those grainy black and white photographs of tanks and soldiers marching through Red Square seen in military manuals and various Jane's books. In the words of (probably) the coiner of the term:

"Freedom can be boring. I'm nostalgic for those dull men in their overcoats who used to stand on Lenin's tomb and salute red flags. I miss their square-jawed dedication to order and their thick eyebrows. Mostly, I miss knowing that I'm a visa away from being able to visit enemy territory and feel the crackle in my nervous system when everything around me is strange."

This occasion was a prime time for the West to gather information on Soviet weaponry that they didn't know about yet; since there was little restrictions on visitors to the country any more than there were to the US at the time, foreign nationals could easily get to see these occasions. Many missile systems, tanks and various other things that blow stuff up were first discovered by Western observers present at the parades.

The parades began to go downhill in impact and splendour towards the end of the 1980s and during 1991's parade, Mikhail Gorbachev was actually jeered by protesters who raised their banners to obscure the visages of Russia's famous former leaders. Today, it seems mainly to be a slot for protesters than for any kind of chest-beating on the part of the Russian government, although the annual Victory Parade on May 9th still takes place.

In actuality, the May Day Parades were more or less a complete farce, and hardly an accurate demonstration of Soviet Military Might even at full spectacle. See, the soldiers and hardware seen in the parades belonged to special units whose sole purpose was to spend the entire year training, just to march (or drive, or fly) in the May Day Parade. Think about that. A whole year spent doing nothing but practising marches, tuning engines, applying coats of paint, and polishing boots. They saw action once a year, and spent the rest of it in preparation. Unsuprising that the West had this picture of the Soviet military as a vestige of power and excellence.

Most humorously (depending on your perspective, I suppose), this folly of Russia foiled the West for some time. Observers at the parades would look up to the sky to see what they thought were many fleets of bombers flying overhead. Taking this news back home, military strengthening continued in order to combat this 'huge' complement of Soviet aircraft. In fact this, like the rest of the parade, was a very simple deception: a small number of aircraft of each type (probably five to ten) would fly overhead, evenly and widely spaced. Once at the horizon and out of sight, each would turn around and fly back to their starting point in a wide arc (so they would not be seen by the crowds) then fly overhead again, creating the impression of a huge fleet of aircraft.

Presumably Russia's duplicity became more obvious to the rest of the world when its forces suffered in wars from poorly trained soldiers and failing equipment. Russia's image was also not helped by defections of military personnel, sometimes with hardware, allowing analysis by the West which often revealed a different picture than that of glistening and precise miltary excellence displayed by the May Day Parades. A prime example of this is the defection of Viktor Belenko. Up until 1967 when he seceded from the Soviet Union and took a MiG-25 Foxbat with him, evaded pursuing fighter planes and landed at a Japanese civilian airport with only 30 seconds of fuel left, the MiG-25 was thought to be far in advance of any aircraft the West had. After Belenko surrendered his aircraft, Japan and the United States stripped it down and analysed it*. In relative terms, the basic opinion of it afterwards was that it was a rocket with a window.**


*The MiG-25 was in fact returned to Russia - albeit two weeks later and in bits.

**"My God! Look what this thing is made of! Why, the dumb bastards don't have transistors; they're still using vacuum tubes! These engines are monsters! Maybe the Sovs have a separate refinery for each plane! Jesus! See these rivet heads sticking out, and look at that welding! They did it by hand! Hell, the pilot can't see a thing unless it's practically in front of him! This contraption isn't an airplane; it's a rocket! Hey, see what they've done here! How clever! They were able to use aluminium! Why didn't we ever think of that? How ingenious! It's brilliant!"

Sources:

  • Barron, John; "MiG Pilot";
    written word, via http://www.aviation.ru/MiG/25/MiG-25.html
  • Chorlton, David; "Red Nostalgia";
    <http://www.acidlogic.com/rednostalgia.htm>

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