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Parade to mark wartime siege stirs anger in Saint Petersburg

Marina KORENEVA in Saint Petersburg with Anna SMOLCHENKO in Moscow
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Some survivors of the WWII siege of Leningrad are among those protesting at the planned military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of its endthe lifting of the Nazi siege

Some survivors of the WWII siege of Leningrad are among those protesting at the planned military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of its endthe lifting of the Nazi siege (AFP Photo/OLGA MALTSEVA)

Saint Petersburg (AFP) - Plans for a military parade in Saint Petersburg marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the siege of Leningrad have provoked an outcry in the city, including among survivors.

Opponents of Sunday's parade -- which will feature 2,500 servicemen in modern and period uniforms -- have denounced the event as a prime example of sabre-rattling and militaristic propaganda under President Vladimir Putin.

Some say it insults the memory of those who went through unspeakable horrors when Saint Petersburg -- known in the Soviet era as Leningrad -- was encircled by Nazis troops for 872 days between 1941 and 1944.

"I am against militarism," Yakov Gilinsky, an 84-year-old siege survivor, told AFP. "War is horrible."

The best way to honour the ordeal would be to hold a minute of silence and memorial concerts and not to glorify war, Gilinsky said.

- 'Outrageous carnival' -

Russia's former imperial capital is home to some 108,000 war veterans and siege survivors.

Out of its pre-war population of around three million people, more than 800,000 people died of hunger, disease and shelling during the siege. Many historians say the true figures are even higher.

Etched in Gilinsky's memory is a truck full of dead bodies that he saw from his window as a little boy.

"The vehicle was collecting them from the streets after winter," he said. "I remember everything."

Gilinsky was one of nearly 5,000 people who signed a petition calling on authorities to cancel the parade as an "outrageous carnival".

The petition said the authorities had few reasons to celebrate as they had yet to compile a full list of civilians and soldiers who died in the siege. Thousands of soldiers who tried to break the siege went missing and never received a proper burial.

Historian and author Vyacheslav Krasikov also found the idea offensive. During the siege, his mother had to share a bed with her dead little sister because their mother was too weak to bury her.

Conducting the military festivities would be like holding parades at the Auschwitz or Buchenwald concentration camps, he said.

"Human tragedies should be remembered differently," he wrote in the Saint Petersburg-based online journal "Gorod 812".

"It feels strange that these simple things are not clear to some people."

Another Saint Petersburger, historian Daniel Kotsiubinsky, blamed wartime leader Joseph Stalin for abandoning the city and wasting tens of thousands of soldiers' lives in often-bungled attempts to lift the siege.

Any events commemorating the siege, he said, should condemn the authorities for such policies.

"Holding a parade is first and foremost immoral towards the memory of those who perished," Kotsiubinsky told AFP.

In an online poll conducted by Fontanka, a Saint Petersburg-based news portal, more than 50 percent of over 3,000 respondents said they were against the parade. Less than 40 percent said they approved.

The authorities in Saint Petersburg declined to comment.

- 'Soldierly ritual' -

A defence ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, brushed aside the petition.

"We have an order to conduct a parade and we will conduct it," the Saint Petersburg-based official told AFP.

He insisted the event was not celebratory in nature.

"A military parade is a soldierly ritual," he said.

The event will feature tanks including the famed T-34, multiple-launch rocket systems and infantry fighting vehicles.

Young cadets will wear World War II-era uniforms including sheepskin coats and felt boots worn by militia.

"Modern-day cadets will probably get a good feeling of what it is like to defend your homeland in winter," said the defence ministry official.

Not all siege survivors oppose the parade.

"A parade cannot insult anyone," said 80-year-old Anna Nezvanova, calling it a "symbol" of the city's never-say-die spirit.

Zinaida Arsenyeva, 84, who lived for two years under the blockade, said: "The city put up a fight, we were not passively waiting for death."

"This is our common victory."

But Alexander Golts, a prominent military analyst, said the parade was part of Russia's transformation into a "militarist state".

The country already conducts three annual military parades, including the main Red Square parade on May 9 and a naval show of force in Saint Petersburg in July.

Putin's Kremlin, he said, has co-opted the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany to boost its own standing.

"The memory of the national tragedy has been transformed into an optimistic patriotic performance," Golts said.