This past Saturday, I watched a parade, navigated crowds of people waving red, white, and blue flags and sporting ribbons, and finished the day watching fireworks on a canal. Is it fourth of July already? It may seem like what I just described could be any old Independence Day celebration in the U.S., but it’s May, and I’m in Russia. That aside, the holiday we celebrated here on May 9th was much, much grander and more significant to Russians than U.S. Independence Day ever is to Americans. May 9th is День Победы (Den’ Pobedi) or Victory Day here in Russia, and it celebrates the Victory in Europe over the Axis Powers in WWII. I suppose you could think of it like Memorial Day, Arbor Day, Veterans Day, and Independence Day all rolled into one, but truth be told, we simply don’t have a holiday in the U.S. that is anything like Victory Day.
Without getting on too much of a soapbox, I want to take a minute to explain why exactly Victory Day, and victory in WWII, is so important here in Russia. While I touched on the idea in my last blog post about Volgograd, I want to do the holiday more justice. The Soviet Union lost over 20 million people, both civilians and servicemen, from 1941-1945. To put that in perspective, the United States suffered about 400,000 casualties. Not a small number, but in comparison to the USSR it is literally a fraction. Additionally, during the war countless people were displaced, forcibly moved, or lost their homes in battle, such as the Battle of Stalingrad. The Siege of Leningrad alone, which lasted from September 1941-January 1944, saw the loss of over 3 million soldiers and 1 million civilians both during the siege itself and in evacuations. When the war finally ended in 1945, the USSR was a different place. Women were left without husbands, mothers without sons, sisters without brothers, and children without fathers. The trauma that reverberated across the nation as it fought on both the European and Eastern Fronts is unimaginable to those of us who come from a country that has simply never experienced anything on such a massive scale. The United States hasn’t had a war on its soil for over one hundred years and while we’ve had our share of bloody battles, they honestly just don’t compare to the way WWII played out for the Russians. That’s not to diminish what we’ve experienced in the U.S., just to put in perspective why this holiday is so important to the nation as a whole and on a personal level. It is emotional in a way that the Fourth of July is not. It is celebrated in a grandiose and all-consuming fashion completely unlike Veterans Day. It is simply put, Victory Day, and participating in the festivities, was something I will never forget.
For weeks beforehand, the whole country prepares for celebrations including parades, concerts, and events of all sorts. Especially this year, which marks the 70th anniversary of the Allies’ Victory, everyone went all out. Several of my friends and I went to a laser-light show the night before Victory Day, which chronicled the story of a soldier and then regaled us with classic Soviet tunes from the era, set to wonderful, themed projections. The morning of Victory Day itself, the whole city (and much of the country), gets up bright and early to watch the military parade on Red Square. Now, this parade is not your typical Macy’s-style affair with floats and dancers and beauty queens. This parade is a real, honest-to-goodness military demonstration at which armies from all over the world march on the square. We watched India, Serbia, and China march by (to name a few), before the Russian soldiers from all branches of the military entered the square in their dress blues. They were preceded, of course, by the heavy artillery and tanks, which drove down Leningradskiy Prospekt and settled themselves in next to the veterans and world leaders. Putin nodded approvingly from his podium while the Commander General of the Russian military drove to each of the regiments and saluted them. It was a solemn, impressive affair unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Although us “normal” people aren’t allowed on Red Square for the parade (it’s reserved for world leaders, military men, veterans, and the like), I understood completely why everyone stops what they’re doing to watch from home.
After the parade, we Americans headed into the center of Moscow, attempting to navigate the crowds and closed subway stations. We finally made it to the park Muzeon, where there were concerts, food vendors, and general merriment as the entire population of the city turned out in droves to celebrate the holiday and enjoy the beautiful weather. We spent the day wandering through the park before settling in that night for the fireworks. From where we stood near the canal, fireworks glittered in every direction. When they were over, shouts of “S prazdnikom!” (Happy holidays!) filled the air as we exhaustedly stumbled to the metro.
Victory Day, which means so much to Russians, reminded me that although we often think this way, the U.S. did not march in and magically save the day in WWII. We helped, of course, but without the Soviet Union, things would have gone very differently. Every Russian I have met so far was in some way affected by the war. My host mother’s father fought, while my friend’s grandfather did the same and my professor’s grandmother was in a concentration camp. While many people in the U.S. can say the same, including me (my grandfather served in the South Pacific in the Navy), I’m not sure we’ll ever truly understand or remember the same way. For me, Victory Day was an inspiring, moving, and joyful day of both celebration and mourning those who were lost. As the song goes, “Victory Day: happiness, but with tears in our eyes.”