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Victory Day and Russian Nationalism

May 14, 2009 at 10:19 am
By Andy, Kenny, Shane

On May 9th, Russia celebrates the end of the Second World War. The following are our thoughts about the celebration:

Victory Day is strange because of the contrary emotions that it elicits. On the one hand, Russia boisterously celebrates the Soviet Union’s victory against the Germans in the Great Patriotic War (WWII). On the other hand, it also mourns the death of about 14 percent of the Soviet Union’s population, some 23 million – other estimates range much higher. While Victory Day is certainly a day of celebration, the mourning of so many casualties hangs in the air. Another question that occurred to me (Shane) is how Russians, and other nations, too, truly relate to their veterans. Certainly we consider them as heroes, especially outwardly, but don’t we also look on them as victims? Soldiers don’t start wars, but they do die in them.  Aren’t they therefore the victims of nationalism and hatred on international levels? In other words, the celebration of Victory Day is a very bizarre feeling – elation and melancholy, pride and guilt, all wrapped together.

Victory Day, Moscow 

Victory Park was packed to the gills—the gills meaning the metro. Emerging from the metro car, I could barely move and the crowd progressed slowly. When I finally made it to the far side of the underground passage out to the street, I looked back and both directions were filled with a sea of faces progressing out of the metro. A voice boomed out that entry to the metro was closed, only exit was possible—but they didn’t need to say anything, you’d have to be a maniac to face that sort of human wave going the other way. Better to let it carry you out to Victory Park. There, past bronze columns symbolizing the fronts on which Russia fought, a wide walkway leads up to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Today the flowers were newly planted in the flowerbeds, the fountains were flowing, and the veterans were shuffling about struggling under enormous loads of flowers. Everyone wanted to give them flowers. One old man whose jacket was adorned with dozens of medals was trying to make his way out of the park (flowers bundled under both arms), but every four or five steps someone would approach him, offer flowers, and want his or her picture taken. I was truly struck by the overwhelmingly celebratory atmosphere and the scale of the event—the crowd was huge.

Victory Day, Moscow 

Music was in the air and we headed for that. In front of the museum, a stage had been constructed and the orchestra was playing Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Then, Mayor Luzhkov spoke. Honestly, my (Kenny’s) reaction progressed from that celebratory crowd feeling to alarm to downright aggravation with his words. These changes corresponded to Luzhkov’s choice of themes and diction, which progressed from remembrance to patriotism (tinged with just too much Soviet terminology for my stomach) to provocative statements about the war in Georgia that I think were very much out of place, but typical for Luzhkov. Then he introduced his good friend, newly arrived and in Russia for the first time, Daniel Ortega—that’s right, the president of Nicaragua (incidentally, Nicaragua was the first country to recognize along with Russia the independence of South Ossetia). Wait, I thought this event was about a different war… I was disappointed that modern politics had to pollute the memory of the victims of the Second World War. Ortega spoke perhaps three sentences in Spanish, they were translated, and Luzhkov continued his speech. He explained that the majority of all German soldiers and materiel lost in the war were destroyed by Russia; therefore, Russia alone stopped fascism. At this point I’ll spare you the rest. Suffice to say, I was impressed with the scale of the event but disappointed with the almost aggressive breed of nationalism I sensed in Luzhkov’s words. I know it’s their day of victory, but not a word was spoken about Russia’s allies and to say that Luzhkov’s fact-checking was of doubtful quality would be a generous conclusion. Perhaps my feathers get ruffled too easily. The experience was worth the trip if only to see the old veterans with flowers heaped around them and several generations brought together in celebration.

Victory Day, Moscow

Victory Day, Moscow 

Our Victory Day concluded on Vorobyevi Gori (Sparrow Hills), packed in with thousands of other Muscovites and visitors from the provinces to watch the annual fireworks display set off from different neighborhoods of the city.  Our group was standing above the Leninskiy Prospekt bridge that crosses Moskva-reka (Moscow River), from which you can see the Olympic stadium and downtown Moscow.  We all expected to see the fireworks far off in the distance, lighting up the city, but after standing for nearly an hour to preserve our spot up against the railing of our bridge, we were shocked, and the entire crowd with us, for the first rockets to explode directly above our heads.  For the next twenty minutes, the city of Moscow put on a wonderful display for the viewers on Vorobyevi Gori, firing the rockets so near to the crowd that the dust and debris came floating down on us, sticking in our eyes, and settling on the cars parked on the bridge below us.  Even though my eyes (Andy) were watering and I could hardly look up for the last ten minutes, the camaraderie of the crowd—“Russia” chants breaking out every other minute and the collective gasps after each successive combination of fireworks—was inspiring.  Nonetheless, the intense nationalism that burst from each Russian throat, chanting “Russia, Russia, Russia!!!” was unsettling for even a decidedly unpatriotic American.  Building on my experience at the military parade in the morning, where a visibly emotional older woman waved gratefully at each Russian soldier that rolled by in his tank, and little children ooohed and aaahed at the military hardware on display, this further unabashed pride in one’s country made me very uncomfortable. Nonetheless, given the reading we’ve done this spring on Russia’s experience in World War II and conversations with Russian friends, I have to admit that I have no understanding of their suffering and their appreciation to the military for protecting their country.  Even an anti-nationalist, pacifist Mennonite like myself has to reconsider some of my attitudes toward nationalistic pride after experiencing Victory Day in Moscow.

Fireworks on Victory Day

Meanwhile, on the far outskirts of the city, where the city meets the green of the surrounding parks, the local Shchyolkovskiy fireworks burst over the man-made, beer can-filled lake. It certainly wasn’t the spectacle that the others were seeing over the Sparrow Hills, but I (Shane) was impressed in any case.  That whole day the park in the neighborhood had been bursting with people. There was a band playing and barbecued meat for sale. It was beautifully sunny and warm and the park had been stuffed with flowers. Really, everything about it was beautiful. Even the kids were out riding their bicycles, playing with balls and generally ignoring the cultural significance of the day.  I had been into the city early in the day and had been both impressed by the spectacle as well as slightly disturbed by the pompous nationalism on display. I had been frisked three times in a half hour trying to work my way towards the center, herded with many others through the main streets. You can probably guess my conclusion already, but I’ll say it anyway. It was great seeing the center of Moscow on Victory Day, but I wouldn’t go back. Just as in America, you don’t necessarily need to go to Washington to celebrate July 4th.

Victory Day was not, however, to end on May 9th. The very next evening, Russia beat Canada to win the Hockey World Championship. Even the day after, at a soccer match, the crowd several times broke into chants celebrating Russia. Granted, the home team was destroying the visitors and the fans needed something to do, but Russian patriotism, nonetheless, is not taken lightly and makes up a significant part of the Russian persona. Having seen Victory Day, we feel like we’ve gained an increased understanding of our host nation.