Victory Day

“…you’d better tell me, Bro, please honestly. Do you personally need Great Russia?”

“Of course! We are a Superpower! We defeated fascism!”

“Was it you who defeated it? I am brooding all the time… I don’t need this Superpower… don’t need… We should live honestly, Bro. Not forcibly.”

 

Even though it was ten years ago, I remember my first Victory Day quite clearly. I was in St Petersburg as a study abroad student, so of course, an excursion was in order. Liza said that she had seen fireworks shooting out of Lenin’s head, and nothing could possibly compete with that. To me, however, it was a magical moment. We stood on the banks of the Neva River with thousands of other residents of the city, and watched the fireworks coming from Peter and Paul Fortress. But what I really remember about that moment was the enthusiasm of those around us, repeatedly chanting, “Ro-si-ya! Ro-si-ya!” The excitement was catching, and I may have joined in for a few moments.

It took another story a few years later to make me realise that the holiday had its own dangers, and how pervasive the attitudes associated with the war were. A student in Crimea told me about how her grandmother had been in Germany during “The War”. She began to cry as she told the story, and it was almost as if it had been her own experience.

I understood then how sad it was for a society and culture to have nothing more to cling to than an achievement that had cost far too many lives to be truly worthy of such a victorious feeling. There is a point when a society becomes too fixated on their past. A point when a society is so infatuated with their past that they cannot move forward.

After that, the holiday was marred in some way, though I still enjoyed my experience the following year in Sevastopol. The martial air was palpable, even more so than my first Victory Day. This was to be expected as the Black Sea Fleet is docked there, and the whole city felt a bit like a military base. We were handed black and orange striped ribbons (commonly referred to as the Ribbon of St George [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ribbon_of_Saint_George]) to wear. The wearing of the ribbon gave some sense of solidarity. We were all together, and, in that moment, the same. My other memory about that holiday that year was the fact that you could buy food that was advertised as ‘ration food’. Bulgur, and lots of it, is all that I can recall of what was offered.

I was in Tbilisi for the holiday this year. It is a national holiday, but not one that is observed. Businesses remain open, and the only people who do not work are government employees. Something like what Veterans’ Day in the United States is turning into. There was no military parade. No people out in the streets waving flags. Just a few hundred people in the park at the World War Two memorial. Someone had arranged busses for the veterans. When I arrived a number of them were in a group singing in a cappella fashion. People were wandering around a still-torn-up park, just waiting for something. Many wore black and orange ribbons, though nobody was handing them out that I could see. As an outsider, it was unclear what exactly they were expecting. I wondered if I had missed the main event.   But after a little while, half a dozen men in traditional costume lined up in pairs on the stairs, making a kind of aisle. A band began to play a song and the President walked up the stairs between the men with a wreath. He laid the wreath at the memorial, people clapped and then he left. And that was it.

That was it? It’s The Holiday. I was disappointed. I’d watched the parade in Moscow’s Red Square on TV earlier, and the differences could not have been more marked. It occurred to me later, however, that maybe this was the better way.

In the past decade or so, the Kremlin has managed to force upon its citizens (and not only its citizens, but those in its “near abroad”, as well) this idea of an empire united by a common sacrifice. This is understandable in the wake of the separatism Russia faced in the 1990s and early 2000s. A way to combat such attitudes was seen as necessary. However, the dangers associated with a society so obsessed with its past have been made clear in the past few months. It gives the impression that the adventurism we have seen this year is somehow acceptable. And we have seen what happened in Simferopol and Sevastopol and other areas of Ukraine due to this belief.  

There were fireworks in the evening this year, of course. But now fireworks are an almost daily part of my life, so the moment was not quite as magical as that first time. My orange and brown ribbon is sitting in a box in America. It’s a memento of a holiday I will always remember and respect, but a little of the lustre has worn off for me. And perhaps that is what is needed.

 

**NOTE: the excerpt at the beginning was from a Russian anecdote that was published online years ago. Unfortunately, I don’t have a link for it.

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