On 9 May – the Victory Day, as it is known in Russia – which commemorates the end of World War Two, I was looking through my Russian friends’ Facebook posts. Many shared photos of their grandparents, who fought in the war, inspired by the new tradition of “Immortal Regiment”, a peaceful march where ordinary Russians carry photos of war veterans.
This year, the “Immortal Regiment” spread internationally with Russian expats marching in Prague, Jerusalem, New York, Toronto and even Brisbane. On Facebook, friends shared greetings, lyrics from old Soviet songs and happy memories about their grandfathers.
I called my grandmother, who turns 90 this week. She was excited to tell me about this year’s parade she had watched on television. A formidable display of Russian armed forces included a showcase of new nuclear missiles. Fighters and helicopters flew over Red Square with Putin praising Russia’s “unity, strength and patriotic devotion”.
I visited Moscow last year to try to understand how Russians feel about the huge military display, but I was the only one who felt uneasy. Today I am further unsettled having read Second-Hand Time, a collection of interviews with ordinary Russians, recorded by the Nobel Prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich. It’s a brutal read.
Some people recalled first greeting German soldiers in summer 1941 with bread and hope, because they could not imagine Hitler, or anyone else, being more terrifying than Stalin. The Nazis ordered all Jews to be settled in ghettos; some Jewish children escaped and ran to the woods to find partisans who promptly sold the children back to the Germans for a chicken or a bag of flour.
After the war, one young girl from Belorussia applied to become a teacher but was turned away because she “had lived in the occupied territory”. Victorious soldiers returning from Germany felt confused, because they had seen capitalist households with a higher standard of living than their communist “land of plenty”.
If they ever mentioned it aloud, they were arrested and sent to labour camps. Veterans became depressed from the horrors of war and the terror of being back home where repressions had not eased. Tens of thousands of war veterans, including my grandmother’s brother, were sent to Siberia.
It’s not something I studied at school in 1980s-90s and not something Russians talk about. Our history is terrifying not least because it’s impossible to pin blame on a single man. For millions arrested, interrogated, humiliated in camps and shot, there were millions of informants, inspectors, prison guards and executioners.
Meanwhile, we were brought up watching glorious films about war heroes and their sacrifice. As children, we dreamed of becoming sappers and scouts.
Following Gorbachev’s glasnost reforms, some archives were made public, and people found out that their loved ones had perished because their nextdoor neighbour had fancied their room in a communal flat and had informed on them.
After the Soviet economy collapsed, our war veterans sold their medals at the Moscow railways stations to foreign tourists or worse, raided bins for scraps to eat. In the 1990s the pensioners suffered worst of all.
Along came Putin. In his first presidential term, he addressed the issues of social security, raising state pensions and announcing annual Victory Day lump sum payments for the elderly. More importantly, he restored the sense of pride. Humiliated veterans donned their military regalia and praised Putin, the defender.
My grandmother wants to believe that her life was meaningful, despite the failure of communism. The younger generation, brought up on war stories and anti-American rhetoric, never felt at ease during Gorbachev’s era of disarmament. “Gorbachev did not care for Mother Russia, he wanted to be liked by the West”, they said. As soon as Putin had increased military spending, they cheered.
I grew up in the country that sent the first person to space and produced the best tanks in the world. At the same time, we used old newspapers when there was shortage of toilet paper.
After people learned the human cost of every Soviet achievement, their lives lost its higher purpose. In the 1990-2000s people wanted to get rich, improve their standard of living, but consumerism wasn’t fulfilling.
Putin brought back the “big idea”: Russia’s role on the world stage, its military might and national pride. With the help of state media propaganda, Russians are convinced that the West has re-emerged as enemy number one. In comparison to the shiny new long-range missiles displayed on Red Square, the delayed salaries and rising consumer prices, pale in significance. Russian people endured the Leningrad blockade – they can survive a recession.
The Western media, in turn, is also guilty of hostile and biased reporting. The Kremlin picks on such pieces as “further proof” of unravelling “Western aggression”.
My generation should be reading Alexievich like our parents read Solzhenitsyn: asking questions, debating and searching for truth. Instead, resentful people watch the military parade and re-runs of the Soviet war films.
Andrey Movchan, writing for the Russian online current affairs magazine Slon, concluded his article about the controversy of the Victory Day celebrations with the following:
“One day we [Russians] will celebrate the ultimate victory. It will happen after Stalin’s remains will be removed from Red Square, cremated, and the ashes will be scattered over the Butovsky shooting range [where mass executions took place in 1930s-1950s]. When instead of the mausoleum we’ll have a monument to the victims of totalitarianism, and everywhere the statues of executioners will be replaced by the memorials to the victims. After all KGB-NKVD archives will be made public, and the mass murderers will be trialled, even if posthumously. After our country will have the independent judicial system and effective institutions of power. Then businessmen and scientists will return to Russia, investments will pour into the country; developed nations will abolish entry visas and treat us as their intelligent, strong, trustworthy friends, not hostile idiots.”