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And you thought the 4th of July was a big deal . . .

May 13, 2009 at 9:43 am
By Laura Roberts, Kevin McGrath, Ben Tyler

 Early May is a busy time in Russia, holiday-wise. While we didn't see much of the May Day celebration (being occupied by a seven hour bus tour around Petersburg at the time), nearly all of us managed to get out and experience Victory Day (May 9th) this last weekend.

 In brief, Victory Day is a celebration of Russian (Soviet) victory in WWII, much like VE or VJ Day. However, it is hard to overstate the continuing cultural significance that WWII has in Russia. The horrible facts of the war have been recounted over and over, but the Russian casualties totalled more than those from all of the other major European theatre combatants combined.

However, Victory Day is more celebration than memorial. The day is marked by military parades, very low flyovers by bombers and fighter planes, fireworks, concerts, and general festivity.

Jet flyover 

As an example of how important and popular this holiday is, we've included a chronological timeline of the day's events from the point of view of three Carls: Ben, Kevin, and Laura.

On May 9th, several of us agreed to meet at Pushkinskaya square to watch a part of the parade as it left the City. I (Ben) was running late, having spent a good portion of the morning chatting with my host mother about the day. After running to the metro station and navigating the suspiciously empty stations, I realized that 1) my phone was locked, given my failure to pay into it this week, and 2) there were a LOT of people on Pushkinskaya square. Walking out of the station there, the streets were already lined with people on both sides of the metro station for hundreds of yards. Park walls were lined with people standing for a better view, and more people poured out of the station as the expected time for the parade got closer. Trying to locate the other Carleton students, I used a very large Samsung ad as reference point, not realizing that several equally large ads adorned buildings on both sides of the street. After struggling for about 20 minutes, we gave up and I remained on the far side of the street, standing on an elevated curb. Crowd highlights included people climbing on top of bus stations (and arguing with the Militsia who told them to get off), scaling the scaffolding on nearby buildings (even up to the roof), and densely packed streets. Some pictures of the crowd:

Moscow Crowd on Den Pobedi 

After the parade, the celebrations continued elsewhere. One of the most popular sites was Victory Park, a massive memorial complex, museum, and monument designed by Tsereteli, the Georgian sculptor whose works seem to appear all over the city. Victory park was swarming with people, even more so than usual for a spring weekend. Even with a long row of booths for somewhat lackluster security screening, the Park was soon full to bursting, so much so that I (Kevin) managed to miss the 5 other Carleton students in the area when I arrived.

Aged veterans in old uniforms and bespeckled with medals, pins, and ribbons were handed flowers by young women wherever they went. On a central stage in front of the gigantic monument to those lost in the war, played the famed Marinskii Theater orchestra. Tchaikovskii's 1812 Overture made a musical appearance. The Orchestra gave way to a political speech and ceremony that awarded a medal to someone involved in the war with Georgia last summer. At this point, we (except Kevin) were just off the main plaza, happily setting up a slackline between two trees.

Slacklining in Victory Park on Victory Day 

When we set up the slackline, we were just waiting to be told to pack up and leave, since the activity is not a particularly Russian passtime.  The park was packed and there was little room, but our slackline quickly caught the attention of passers-by.  Little boys with sticks stared curiously and one woman asked to try as her boyfriend helped her across.  The weather was beautiful and everyone was smiling and giddy.  I (Laura) could feel the joy and I was so proud of the Russian victory in World War II.

After the park, we briefly returned home and then met on Sparrow Hills for fireworks.  As I was eating dinner with my host mother and her friend, they talked about how much the victory meant to them, and we watched specials on the television.  I can only imagine how much they and their families suffered, since no one made it through the war without losing a loved one.  However, they maintained an upbeat attitude towards the bittersweet holiday.  Ancestors and family are very important in Russia, and my host mother brought a picture of a beloved relative who lost his life in the war.  Next to him was a picture of her eldest son, who was named after this relative and strongly resembled his namesake.  She was terribly proud of them both, and her willingness to share her family’s history and pain made the holiday more powerful from my foreign perspective.

Park Pobedi 

After dinner we went early to beat the crowds, and managed to get a really good spot.  The rest of the group showed up later, but the show didn't start until around 10, when the sun was finally low enough in the sky.  There were large groups of young Russians celebrating, and when the show was over they chanted “Russia!” all the way to the metro.  Even the younger generation, which has never experienced the violence and suffering that forever changed their grandparents’ lives, is aware of their nation’s past and proud of their country’s sacrifices.  While we stood near the metro, waiting for the crowd to filter into the station, I, too, started to chant “Russia!”