As warm-up acts go, it was at least fitting. A Russian soldier in military fatigues performed a rap on stage in Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium on Wednesday, boasting that he had been “up to his elbows in blood” on the frontlines in Ukraine.
Whether the claim was true – and his soldiering would in that case be a good deal more convincing than his rapping – it could certainly be said for Vladimir Putin, the man he preceded at the stadium that held the World Cup final in 2018.
Putin was the headline act at a war-anniversary concert that represented modern Russia, a glaringly different place from five years ago – one where B-list entertainers provide the backing track to a descent into full-bore totalitarianism.
Around 100,000 people filled the stadium, waving giant Russian flags as choirs of yet more soldiers sang war anthems and children “rescued” from Ukraine were paraded on stage.
In temperatures of minus 15 degrees, the Russian president kept his address short. “I just heard from the top military leadership of our country that a battle is ongoing right now, for our historical lands, for our people,” he said, before leading the audience in a chant of “Russia! Russia!”
Although the TV production values were slick, the propaganda bore as little scrutiny as Putin’s claim that the “whole country” supported the war – something hardly borne out by the lack of volunteers for the fight and the indifference, at best, of most citizens.
Tickets for the event were never on sale and there were multiple local media reports that university students were either forced to attend or offered perks such as exemption from class. In the car park outside, inter-city buses disgorged flag-waving “extras” from regions across the country. The pay for attending, Russian news site Meduza reported, was just $7 – a drop in the previous rate for displaying patriotic fervour.
The standard of performer was also second-rate. Many of Russia’s best-loved singers and performers have fled the country or been virtually banned from public life because of their anti-war views. Stars who still perform across Russia – without offering whole-hearted support for the war – were also nowhere to be seen at Luzhniki.
Instead the extravaganza was hosted by an obscure TV personality and a female TV host best known as the ex-wife of former Arsenal footballer Andrei Arshavin.
The rapping soldier was introduced as First Lieutenant Nikolai Romanenko, a well-built, clean shaven man who moved woodenly across the stage in a uniform adorned with medals.
“I’m not afraid if my hands were covered in blood to the elbow/This is a war, and we were not the ones to start it,” he sang, mixing the the legendary Soviet WWII-era song Katyusha with his rap routine.
The tune was reminiscent of Kasta, a Russian rap group who have released an entire album dedicated to criticising the war – a stance mirrored by many of their popular peers.
Other fatigues-clad performers went for more traditional genres: Alexander Vanyushkin, dressed in a baseball cap emblazoned with the letter Z, cradled an accordion as he sang an upbeat ditty about Russian troops pummelling Ukrainians with artillery.
Patriotic singer Oleg Gazmanov, now into his seventies, took to the stage in a £3,700 Prada jacket with the label covered by black sellotape, apparently aware of the risk of being seen as “out of touch” in a war economy.
Some of Russia’s anti-war anthems were meanwhile repurposed for a country being prepared for a lengthy conflict: a group of washed-up rock stars performed a rendition of “Blood Type,” an iconic peace anthem by the late Soviet legend Victor Tsoi.
In the most chilling event of the bloodthirsty festival, unidentified children were ushered on stage to praise the conflict. One group in beanie hats and sandy jackets sang about writing a letter to a soldier on the front lines: “You’re in the trenches but I’m at home,” it went. “I’d like to thank you for a peaceful sky over Russia.”
Shortly afterwards, Yuri Gagarin, a namesake of the first man to go space, was introduced on stage as the “saviour” of Mariupol children. A video showed battle scenes and him guiding civilians through the bombed-out city.
About a dozen children, from toddlers to teenagers, huddled together in their down jackets and beanie hats as the host invited the burly officer on stage.
“There are lots of kids around us but these are not ordinary kids: These kids were saved by an angel during the liberation of Mariupol,” the female host, Yulia Baranovskaya, said as she introduced the Russian officer, who she claimed “saved” 367 children from the Ukrainian city that was pounded into submission by Russian bombs for two months.
A teenage girl named Anya Naumenko was then prompted to thank Mr Gagarin for “saving” the children of the city decimated by the Russian army.
Thank you Uncle Yura for saving me, my sister and hundreds of thousands of children in Mariupol,” the girl said as she stuttered and teared up.
“You can come and hug him, kids! Let’s hug him,” Ms Baranovskaya shouted to the children in her hoarse voice.
When some audience members were spotted sneaking out in the middle of the performance, a reporter for an opposition-minded Telegram channel asked why they were leaving the stadium while Russian soldiers were still in the frigid trenches. “The guys in the trenches? It’s their choice to be there,” an unidentified man with a folded Russian flag replied.