A fraternity of peoples: Victory Day in contemporary Russia

(Photo credit: Giovanni Pigni)

72 years after the defeat of Nazi Germany, Victory Day resurrects the multinational Soviet people in the streets of St Petersburg

Hitler’s defeat

While the rest of Europe officially remembers Hitler’s defeat on 8 May, Russia celebrates it one day later: Stalin had demanded that Germany sign a separate capitulation to the Soviets late on the last day of the war—it came after midnight at Moscow time. The terms used to refer to the war are also different: what the rest of the world remembers as World War II, Russians colloquially refer to as ‘the Great Patriotic War’. This “exclusive” perception of victory is not entirely groundless. Prior to the intervention of the allies, the Soviet Union resisted the German invasion largely on its own. The death toll for the victory was enormous: an estimated 27 million Soviet citizens perished during the conflict—a number which far exceeds the combined casualties of the other Allied countries. The heroism demonstrated by the Soviet people in defending their homeland and defeating fascism is the source of immense pride for contemporary Russians.

“Russia liberated Europe from Nazi Germany. Thanks to the sacrifice of our relatives, we have a future, we can raise our kids and live freely,” says Svetlana, 41, a participant of the event, whose great-grandparents served in the Northern Fleet during the war.

Critics of the holiday blame the Russian authorities for politicizing Victory Day—vamping up the level of nationalism in Russian society—and for underplaying the many controversial aspects of the event. One of the more problematic aspects of the war’s legacy is the figure of Joseph Stalin, who led the USSR to victory against Nazi Germany but was also responsible for widespread repressions against his own people.

Nevertheless, people celebrating Victory Day firmly believe that the victory was worth the sacrifice.

“Yes, Stalin enforced harsh repressions, but he did that in order to lift the country up during the war’’ says Roman, 32, whose great-grandfather fell on the Leningrad front.

Zoya, 76, carries a portrait of her father, who died in the first year of the war after falling victim to political repressions. She doesn’t blame Stalin for her loss, rather, she acknowledges the leader’s success in rallying the people together. “Everybody was fighting for Stalin,” she argues.

“My father used to respect Stalin despite his mistakes and the huge human losses,” says Andrey, 57, another participant, who also pointed out Stalin’s ability to unite the country into “one fist.”

The Soviet Union, reassembled

Indeed, Victory Day seems to impart a sense of unity that prevails over historical and political controversies in Russia. During the celebration, patriotism and national pride manage to unite people belonging to different social, ethnic and religious groups. Russian Orthodox Christians celebrate the day together with Muslims from Chechnya and Buddhist Kalmyks. Representatives of Russia’s many national minorities march down Nevsky Prospekt in their traditional costumes. Besides the Russian tricolour and Soviet emblems, flags of other ex-Soviet republics can be seen in the crowd: after the fall of the Soviet Union, many countries continued to celebrate the Victory on 9 May together with Russia. Uzbeks, Turkmen, Tajiks, and Armenians were all seen marching in the Immortal Regiment, carrying pictures of their relatives who fought in the Great Patriotic War.

“This is our greatest, most joyful day,” says Hazidan, from Uzbekistan. Both of his grandfathers fought in the ranks of the Red Army; only one of them made it back home.

Mariam, from Armenia, didn’t know what front her great-grandfather had fought on, before seeing his name at the memorial on Victory Square in St Petersburg. Feruza, 23, from Uzbekistan, is proud of her great-grandfather, who participated in the battle of Stalingrad, as is her younger sister Nazegul,15, even though she never met him. The two sisters say that, on the occasion of Victory Day, they feel closer than usual to the Russian people. “This victory belongs to all the peoples of the Soviet Union,” they add.

It may be a momentary illusion due to massive euphoria, but one day, every year, the many shadows of Russian history seem to fade away, and the old ideal of the Fraternity of Peoples lives again.

A summary of the day

On 9 May, thousands of people gathered on Palace Square to watch the ritual military parade. As Fontanka reported, approximately four thousand soldiers and a hundred pieces of equipment paraded in front of the enthusiastic crowd. For the first time in St Petersburg, the Russian Air Force took part in the parade with helicopters and sleek fighter jets flying over the centre of the Northern Capital. In the afternoon, military vehicles mounted by veterans and other survivors of WWII drove down Nevsky Prospekt followed by the Immortal Regiment: hundreds of thousands of people holding pictures of relatives who served during the war. The day ended with a concert and a traditional firework show on the Neva Embankment.

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