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It's Victory Day!

June 2, 2012 at 9:05 am
By Mara and Jacob

It’s a holiday, with grey hair on the temples; it’s joy, with tears in the eyes; it’s Victory Day, Victory Day, Victory Day!

[If you're in Russia on Victory Day, you'll want to sing along to this classic:]

День Победы (Den' Pobedy), Russia’s dearest and grandest holiday, celebrates the surrender of Nazi Germany on May 9th, 1945. Russians have quite a different perspective on the Second World War than Americans – in fact, in Russia it is known as The Great Patriotic War. The Soviet Union endured the heaviest losses during the war; it’s estimated that 27 million died, or one in seven of the pre-war population. That’s almost half of all deaths in all of WWII. Furthermore, nearly two-thirds of the 27 million Russians who died were civilians. To put this into perspective, about 400,000 Americans died in the entire war, 1,700 of which were civilians.

Click here for an interactive map of Russia' part in the war:

For weeks leading to May 9th, Muscovites special ribbons of St. George to show their respect. The black and yellow colors of these ribbons symbolize death and rebirth. The ribbons could be seen everywhere, tied to handbags or pinned to lapels. The symbol is ubiquitous – they were even worn by television news anchors.

It’s little surprise that Victory Day is such an important holiday in Russia. However, it seems to have grown so large only in the past few decades. Victory Day was declared a national holiday in 1965 in order to rebuild feelings of patriotism and unity over the Soviet victory. After decades of planning, a grand park dedicated to the victory (fittingly called Victory Park) opened in 1995. Arguably the biggest festivities occur in Victory Park, and we were lucky enough to see it for ourselves!

Millions flocked to the vast park, which hosts memorials, the war museum, an enormous obelisk designed by the notorious Tsereteli, as well as an Orthodox church, a synagogue, and a mosque. The park’s most notable change on Victory Day was a large stage near the foot of the obelisk, where the reknowned pianist Denis Matsuev joined Russia’s superstar conductor Valery Gregiev and the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra. Many other acts graced the stage as well, from folk singers and dancers to military bands that played familiar marches and hymns.

As we entered the park through the crowded Square of Victors, the heavy fog from earlier in the day finally gave way to sunshine. Among the crowd were veterans of the war, their arms full of bright red carnations. By tradition, on Victory Day strangers approach veterans with flowers and gratitude, thanking them for their service. Even more flowers were laid on memorial stones for the millions who did not survive the war. Seeing these veterans was heart-breaking and awe-inspiring. In the United States, many people, if not most, have never personally known someone who fought or died in war. In Russia, however, nearly everyone was personally affected by the Great Patriotic War. We clearly witnessed the importance of this holiday in the respect and reverence shown by Muscovites as they honored the remaining veterans.

[here's a link to a taste of the Russian armed force's victory parade, which we watched in the morning]

[And of course, no Victory Day is complete without fireworks! The best viewing spots are the Sparrow Hills and near the Red Square:]