For those of you who follow Russia and the former Soviet Union, it seems silly for me to tell you that yesterday, May 9, was Victory Day celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany. But for those of you who don't obsess over Russia like us, you may not have noticed the recent anniversary. This phenomenon - the fact that in the United States we hardly commemorate the end of WWII (whether VE or VJ day) - is worth a separate post and maybe someday I'll write it. But for now I'll focus on Russia's commemoration of this monumental event.
Those of you who do happen to celebrate VE Day (Victory in Europe) might be a bit confused, as that holiday is marked on May 8 in the West. I've heard at least four reasons why the Soviet Union celebrates on May 9, a day after the rest of us:
1) The Soviets insisted on a separate German-Soviet surrender to Marshal Zhukov which took place on May 9 in Karlshorst, a district of Berlin. Thus, the holiday was celebrated on May 9.
2) Germany surrendered unconditionally to the allies on May 7, 1945 in Reims, France. The terms of the surrender specified that all active operations were to end at 23:01 Central European Time on May 8. Because of the time difference, it was already May 9 in Moscow when the surrender took effect.
3) Related to the above, Western journalists broke the news of Germany's celebration prematurely, leading to the earlier than expected celebration on May 8. The Soviets, however, decided to stick with the previously agreed upon celebration date.
4) This one is my favorite, if a bit far-fetched: Weary of 5 years of brutal war, the Soviet Union chose to celebrate the first day of peace (May 9) rather than the last day of war (May 8). Right.
I suppose there are elements of truth to all of these stories, but I have neither the energy nor the will to untagle them. Maybe the historians in the audience want to do some research...
In any case, May 9 it is, and May 9 it was yesterday. My story actually begins a few days ago when I went over to Red Square to get some pictures of the setup since it would inaccessible on the big day:
Here's another historical footnote: orange and black have become the symbolic colors (along with a bit of good ol' Soviet red) for Victory Day. In the last week, orange and black striped ribbons have been seen everwhere - tied to car antennas, wrapped around light posts, and on peoples' lapels. Readers might not know the symbolism of the ribbons. Originally, the orange and black ribbon was associated with the Order of St. George, Tsarist Russia's highest military honor:
In a nod to the nationalist revival that helped propel the Soviet Union toward victory, the same ribbon was chosen for the Medal for Victory over Germany, first issued on May 9, 1945 and issued to all military personnel and civilians employed by the armed forces. The medal portrays Stalin's profile. Ironically, the words above Stalin's image, "Our Cause is Just," are the famous concluding lines to Molotov's speech to the nation announcing the German invasion on June 22, 1941. Ironic because Stalin was in too great a state of shock to address the nation himself...
The fact that the official parade on Victory Day is so inaccessible to the public was quite frustrating to me. I wanted to see soldiers marching with my own eyes, not watch it on TV. Sure, it wouldn't be like the notorious parades of the Soviet era with tanks and missile launchers, but it would still be impressive to see the formations.
Alas, it was not to be. I got up early and headed to the Tverskaya metro station and walked down toward Red Square, hoping to get close enough to see something. Anything. This was as close as I could get (and this was using the zoom on my camera at its highest setting):
From where we were (I was joined at the barricades by at least a couple hundred others wanting to see the action) we saw absolutely nothing until the fighter jets flew over us in formation marking the end of the parade. Oh well. If I'm ever in Moscow again on May 9, my plan is to get a room at the National Hotel, the building on the right side of the street in the picture.
Still, the decorations that we could see were impressive, including the dressing up of the Central Telegraph building:
I hopped back on the metro and returned up to the Pushkin Square area and decided to pop up above ground to see if there was anything interesting going on. I was not disappointed, as I landed right in the midst of everyone's favorite marchers, the communists:
Fortunately (and somewhat surprisingly) this was the only Stalin portrait I saw all day, strapped to the front of a microbus. I don't know how the driver saw where he was going:
Not sure which is more out of place - the sunglasses or the cell phone:
But marching communists is soooo last week, so I headed down to Gorky Park to see what was going on there. At the entrance a little old veteran was proudly posing with the men and women who lined up to have their photos taken with him. At one point he boasted that his helmet weighed 4 kilograms as he plopped it on his head (in case you're wondering, I'm not the one in the photo, I don't know that guy):
One of the most wonderful Victory Day traditions involves veterans dressing up in their uniforms and putting on all their medals to gather with family, friends, comrades, and strangers in places like Gorky Park. People come to the park with flowers and hand them to the veterans, congratulating them and thanking them for the victory. By the end of the day the veterans and their wives are loaded down with armfuls of flowers, an endearing sign of the respect and admiration the country pays them.
Dancing to old favorites with loved ones and young women dressed in period costumes:
Some veterans joined with friends and family for picnics (with plenty of vodka):
While others gathered around to sing wartime songs...
People lined up to be served kasha from a WWII era mess wagon:
While this group of veterans gathered to be led in song by a man who seems to have stepped right off the used car lot in Houston, Texas:
This man was standing to give a toast when I entered the park and he was still standing (this time leading his gathered family in song) when I left 2 hours later. No small feat considering the weight of all those medals on his chest!
After Gorky Park I headed out to Victory Park where the largest gathering and celebration took place. As you can tell from these photos, there were thousands upon thousands of people there:
Here you could do all your essential shopping in one stop: patriotic flag, kite, and wacky orange wig:
Beautiful tulips everywhere:
In fact, there was a riot cop guarding every flower bed at the park, just in case the tulips decided to hold an unsanctioned protest rally (tulip revolution anyone?)
But seriously, can't this country hold any public event without riot police?
At least one day out of the year it's not OK to play on the war memorials, as evidenced by this police officer chasing a kid off the monument:
Central Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Definitely worth a visit if you've never been there, and even if you have:
The sign forbidding skateboarding on and around the memorial:
And one of the kids doing it anyway, on Victory Day no less!
Tsereteli's "Tragedy of Nations," this time fortunately without the bikers.
I met the gentleman pictured below as I was leaving the park. The conversation went something like this:
Me: "Congratulations, happy Victory Day. May I take your photo?"
Him: "Where are you from, what's your nationality?"
Me: "I'm American. Our countries were allies, of course, during the war."
He proceeded to tell me about meeting Americans when U.S. and Soviet forces met at the Elbe, along with stories about the other major operations he took part in, including the taking of Warsaw and Berlin. He asked me if it was true that Americans don't understand that the Soviet Union "won the war." Not wanting to belittle the contribution of the other Allied nations, I replied diplomatically that yes, it's true that Americans don't realize and appreciate the price paid by Russia in the war. But they should...
Finally he asked me why I wanted to take his picture. I told him that I wanted to be able to remember this day and our conversation.
"But what will you give me to remember you by?" he asked.
"Um," I paused, trying to think of something, as I really had nothing of meaning to give him. Because who wants my business card?
Finally he broke the silence: "Do you drink beer?" I apologized and told him that I didn't. "Well, then how about a few rubles for a beer for an old soldier?" I gave him 100 rubles along with a big smile and a hearty handshake. As I was leaving he told me, "I've always thought that America was our friend. It should be that way, our countries should always be friends." How right he is...
Later that evening I went down to the riverbank opposite the Kremlin to watch the fireworks (unfortunately Red Square was still closed to the public).
At first the show started out slowly with a few sparkling fountains jutting into the sky. An comically indignant drunk guy nearby expressed his opinion to the man occupying the fortress across the river using increasingly diminuative forms of address:
"Vladimir Vladimirovich, you can do better than this, can't you?"
A little while later, "Volodya, come on! Is that all you can do?"
Finally, "Vova, PLEASE!"
Eventually he got his way and we were treated to a spectacular show in the skies over Red Square:
And so with that, I wish you all a happy Victory Day!
For additional photos from the day, click here