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Assumptions vs. Reality

May 14, 2009 at 4:50 am
By Tigan Harrison, Mark Hagemann, Jennifer Hightower

It may be unfair to say that Russia's Victory Day is similar to America's Independence Day, but it's the best comparison I can think of.  Victory Day is celebrated on May 9 to commemorate the end of the Second World War, and the government definitely pulls out all the stops in honor of the occasion. Every park takes on the atmosphere of a carnival, families get together to celebrate, beer and vodka are seen everywhere, streets are packed with spectators for the morning parade, and everyone is excited.  Where Victory Day stops resembling the 4th of July is during the pre-parade ceremony.  Red Square is filled from side-to-side with spectators, government officials--and military personnel.  Because this is the focus of the holiday.  "A war ended on May 9 so many years ago, and we will remember those who brought about that end," the participants seem to say.

Victory Day veterans 

Units from every branch of the Russian military stand in precise formation as a government minister announced the 54th anniversary of Victory Day.  Upon the conclusion of President Medvedev's opening speech and the Russian national anthem, the units marched out of the square and down Tverskaya Ulitsa.  Overhead, fighter planes screamed across the sky, some with only a meter between their wingtips.  Whether the effect was deliberate or not, the combined effect of soldiers and planes could not but remind viewers of the solemn reason for the holiday.

Appreciation flowers 

A war ended on May 9, but it was a war that had brought terrible destruction and the death of millions of Russians.  This presentation of the soldiers honors not only those who fought that last war, but also those who will fight the next one.  (Tigan Harrison)

I, like what seemed like most of Moscow's 12-odd million inhabitants, spent much of Victory Day in the city center--watching the tanks, jets, and ICBM's parade on and over Tverskaya Ulitsa in the morning, and then generally milling about the closed-to-traffic streets in the vicinity of the Kremlin.  The parade was a definite reaffirmation of the military strength of the people who stopped the Nazis on the Eastern Front, differing markedly from the typical American Independence Day parade in its omission of civilian floats and any semblance of a stilt-walking Uncle Sam-like character.  The festivities that followed in the afternoon were of a much different, more festive character.  Stages were erected, showcasing pop stars and folk dancers alike, and the typically car-clogged streets were filled with throngs of ribbon-wearing (I hope somebody talks in more detail about the St. George Ribbon), flag-waving Russian patriots.  The only ones who didn't appear to be enjoying themselves were the perpetually austere millionaires (typical Russian law-enforcement), of whom there were some 12,000 (so my host father told me) on patrol on this particular day.  I'm sure the decision makers considered this an essential precaution, as so many people surely constitute a substantial safety risk, but I felt somewhat put-off all the same, having to constantly walk through metal detectors and allow my backpack to be searched.  And this was just moving from street to street in the city center--no buildings involved! (Mark Hageman)

Victory Day in Russia is an exciting time to be in Moscow.  The metro is covered with passengers displaying orange and black ribbons (the colors representing Russia's victory in WWII) and balloons reading "S dnyom pobedi" - a greeting referencing Russia's triumph over Nazi Germany.  Over the course of WWII Russia lost tens of millions in battle or due to starvation.  Tens of millions.  An especially horrific episode was the Siege of Leningrad in which German forces isolated the city and cut it off from regular food supply.  The majority of Saint Petersburg's then population died due to starvation or disease. While amazing to see and fun to watch, I found the celebrations on Victory Day lacking a certainy solemnity.  I would have liked to have seen a larger portion of the celebrations devoted to those millions who lost their lives. While walking through Park Pobedi (the location of the primary festivities for Victory Day), I observed a multitude of drunk men wandering around, with some picking fights and others hardly able to walk.  The heavy drinking induced by the holiday is not very respectful when considering the life-changing effects the war had.  This is not to say that this attitude towards holidays is specific to Russians, but only to comment on the disparate images of a drunken young Russian man and that of a starving child, like those in the Siege of Leningrad.  I think solemnity should be given the priority in such a holiday, especially given the catastrophic losses. (Jennifer Hightower)