WASHINGTON — Protesters stood at the gates of the Russian Embassy, jeering at anyone who walked through their throng and into the marble fortress, where on Thursday evening diplomatic officials marked Defender of the Fatherland Day, a national Russian holiday to celebrate the armed forces.
“Shame on you,” the protesters shouted, waving Ukrainian flags. For the last year, Ukrainian flags have also lined the surrounding blocks of Wisconsin Avenue, as have less-than-polite messages to Russian President Vladimir Putin, endlessly reminding the Russian diplomats inside that Moscow’s crimes will not be forgotten.
Thursday’s holiday is supposed to mark the 1918 founding of the Red Army, which would go on to sacrifice nearly 9 million soldiers to defeat Hitler. But reverence for Soviet heroics in World War II has been thoroughly eclipsed by revulsion at last year’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, which started on the day after the Fatherland celebrations.
“Putin=Hitler,” read a placard hoisted by one of several dozen demonstrators. The sentiment is bracing, and controversial. At the very least, it is intended to keep anyone inside the embassy complex from believing that the spetsoperatsiya, or “special military operation” — as the Kremlin demands the Ukraine war be called — has been anything less than an atrocity.
For the demonstrators outside, anyone willing to celebrate that atrocity on Thursday evening would be shamed accordingly. “What are you doing, standing there in the middle of Washington?” the protesters called out to a military officer posted near the embassy’s entrance. They wondered why he wasn’t at the front, where thousands of Russians have died — and where thousands of Ukrainians have been killed and displaced in the supposed name of pan-Slavic kinship.
There had been a huge rally in Moscow on Wednesday, with Putin urging national unity in the face of a determined Ukrainian resistance. “When we are together, we have no equal,” he told an estimated crowd of more than 70,000. Unremitting propaganda and deft economic moves have led many Russians to accept the war, whether they initially supported it or not.
Thousands of miles from the Kremlin, solemn okhraniki, or security guards, watched the protests on Wisconsin Avenue without reaction. Back in Russia, protesters are easy enough to “manage.” In Washington it is another matter. Up the block a Secret Service patrol car idled, in case things got out of hand.
At least on Thursday evening the Russians did not have to contend with the presence of Yo-Yo Ma, the celebrated cellist who had gone to the embassy for an impromptu protest performance last spring.
Guests scurried in and out of the complex. If they ignored the protesters’ taunts, the protesters wondered if they had “forgotten their Russian.” It is, indeed, difficult to be a Russian diplomat in Washington these days.
Of course, living in a well-stocked Washington redoubt is not nearly as hard as being a Ukrainian now facing a second year of war, a war the Ukrainians never wanted, a war that may yet go on for years but that few outside the Kremlin seem to believe was truly necessary in the first place.
If there were such believers, they were inside the embassy’s great hall, outfitted with Soviet-era mosaics. A video screen played promotional Russian military videos, including ominous footage of a ballistic missile test launch.
On a nearby pedestal, posters displayed reproductions of letters that Russian children had written to soldiers at the front: drawings of fighter jets and helicopters, colorful depictions of sanctioned brutality. The display seemed cynical, dishonest, a forced show of patriotism by Russians far too young to understand what kind of country they would inherit. On one of those posters loomed a large Z, the war’s controversial and enigmatic symbol.
Diplomats from across the world dined on Russian delicacies, as Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov circulated around the room. Not a member of Putin’s inner circle, Antonov appears to be ingratiating himself with the Kremlin by regularly, and loudly, denouncing Western aid to Ukraine.
Guests sipped bourbon, wine and, of course, champagne. There was the traditional Russian spread, heavy on, well, just about everything that might do a body harm. If the mood was not exactly festive, nor was there the solemnity one might have expected in the midst of a conflict that at best has been a quagmire for Russia.
The profusion of military uniforms — Mexico, China, Guatemala, Congo, Pakistan, Mongolia, Belarus, Egypt — suggested that in many parts of the world Russia continues to enjoy some degree of support. China’s seniormost diplomat, Wang Yi, just visited Russia, reaffirming the close ties between Beijing and Moscow. India has also stood by Putin, if not always enthusiastically.
Black-and-white images from World War II lined the room, in an obvious if unconvincing effort to tie the invasion of Ukraine to the fight against Hitler.
“Same roots,” a military attaché told Yahoo News, standing before an image of Red Army soldiers in a trench. But the argument that Kyiv’s ruling regime is rife with Nazis has been transparently preposterous from the start, not least of all because Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, lionized as a modern-day Churchill, is Jewish.
One display was devoted to the battle of Stalingrad, the bloodiest in world history. Last month marked 80 years since German Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus surrendered his encircled Sixth Army to the Soviets. From there, Hitler would experience defeat after defeat, until the red Soviet flag was raised above Berlin.
“It is time to look back on the past where history falsification was nowhere to be found and everyone knew who saved the world from the Nazis,” the accompanying text said.
But if anything, the invocations of true heroism — the defense of Leningrad, for example, in which this author’s family participated — only underscored the vast divide between World War II and Putin’s disastrous spetsoperatsiya.
Other displays outlined the Russian case that it was “Ukrainian Nazis” who are committing war crimes, not Russians. There have been allegations against Ukrainian troops, but those pale in comparison to the war crimes Russian troops have reportedly committed against Ukrainian civilians.
So how much longer will all this go on?
Nobody knows, and many fear the most likely answer: much, much longer.
Top embassy official Anatolii Muntian told Yahoo News that in this week’s state of the nation address, Putin had promised victory. And so, naturally, victory is forthcoming. It was impossible to know whether this was the company line or Muntian’s conviction. Perhaps it no longer makes a difference.
Yet like many Russians, he seemed discomfitingly fatalistic about what the conflict could bring next. He blamed Zelensky for resisting peace talks.
“If I only had a magic wand,” Muntian said wistfully. Presumably, he would wish peace in Ukraine, only at the expense of territory the Kremlin had illegally annexed.
Asked what he thought of President Biden’s speeches for Kyiv and Ohio, Muntian smiled cryptically. “He didn’t go to Ohio,” he replied, mirroring conservative criticism that the Biden administration has been too slow in addressing the chemical spill in East Palestine.
Outside, the protests continued. Before dawn on Friday, protesters painted an enormous Ukrainian flag on Wisconsin Avenue.
Among them was Benjamin Wittes, the noted legal commentator. “I want the Russians to know that it will never be comfortable to be a diplomat here as long as Russia is murdering Ukrainians,” Wittes told Yahoo News.
He said the protests would continue.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly described protesters as climbing over the fence of the Russian embassy. They did not breach the compound.