I know it’s quite out of date at this point. I had planned to share some impressions and photos from Victory Day a few weeks ago but my self-imposed hiatus got in the way. I had pretty much abandoned the idea, but then a colleague of mine posted her thoughts and I said to myself, why the hell not. Otherwise, my impressions would have just remained in my head and the pictures exiled to the abyss that is my hard drive.
Basically, my impressions can be summed up as follows:
1. Security nightmare.
This picture from Chekhovskya station is indicative of the security hell that the Moscow authorities concocted on Victory Day. I understand that heavy security was necessary. There were rumors, theories, and expectations that another terrorist attack would occur on Victory Day. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help note the irony that what was done to provide security only created a more insecure situation. All of the central metro stations were closed except Chekhovskaya, which in their infinite wisdom the police decided to funnel everyone out of.
The problem with this mass amount of living meat is not that a lot of people would have been torn to shreds if someone decided to blow themselves up. The sheer mass of bodies would have absorbed whatever screws, nuts, and nails thrown from a bomber’s explosive belt. The ensuing stampede is what would have killed scores. Thankfully, that didn’t happen and everyone was rather calm considering it took about 20-30 minutes to get out of the metro. This is the one thing the volume of the Moscow metro prepares you for–patiently shuffling your feet to the pace of a human herd.
Once I emerged from the metro across from Pushkin Square I quickly realized that actually getting to Tverskaya (the street the parade went down) was impossible. Pushkin Square was closed. The police had blocked off access to Tverskaya. The closest you could get to the main drag was about a block away. I don’t know if people were along the route because I couldn’t get close enough to see. Efforts to walk down one of the parallel streets along Tverskaya proved no better.
People were milling around the outer edges of the square or positioning themselves on the balcony of the Pushkin movie theater hoping to get a view of the impending parade. Among the crowd was a Communist Party van with a large picture of Comrade Stalin. A lot had been made of whether Stalin would be attending the celebration. Stalin’s visage was dis-invited at the last minute after Yuri Luzhkov got a bunch of flack from human rights groups for allowing a veterans group to set up information booths with Stalin’s image. Civil society won out, Stalin was told to remain in the ether of history, except in limited form. I read somewhere that City Hall put up some Stalins somewhere in the city. I didn’t see them.
I did see the aforementioned KPRF van. You couldn’t miss it with its large portrait of the Generalissimo as the figurehead of a not-so-great vessel. The KPRF was intent on presenting history right, as they saw it, by reminding people that Stalin was the leader during the war. I don’t know if this van was supposed to go somewhere or just remain parked on display. All the streets were closed so I don’t think a Stalin caravan was in the works. Perhaps this was an “informational booth,” but I didn’t see any “information” being distributed. All I saw was a few elderly Stalinists standing around chatting.
The KPRF bus was the only picture of Stalin I encountered that day. This is contrasted with the fact that virtually everyone had a ribbon of St. George or the Russian tricolor pinned to their lapel. This simply proved something that I’ve been saying for a while: WWII is the foundational historical event of the post-Soviet state. It is the one historical memory that unites every Russian regardless of political persuasion. Even liberals can’t disparage it. As the numerous articles Novaya gazeta ran in the lead up to Victory Day attest, all liberals can do is note the many examples of unrecognized heroism and draw attention to the miserable living conditions of many war veterans. But this is hardly outside accepted political discourse.
The KPRF’s Stalin seemed out of place, kind of like when someone brings an unwanted guest to dinner without asking. If anything, Stalin’s image on top and the sides of a bus felt more like kitsch. The day as a whole had a kitschy feel with the flags, ribbons, period artifacts, and uniforms. It was a reminder that when it comes to historical memory the line between parody and commemoration is quite porous.
3. Parade even lesser.
As I mentioned above, getting close enough to the parade to actually see it proved impossible. At least by that time I arrived at 10:30 in the morning. It seemed that if you really wanted to get a good view you had to show up early, something my companions and I were unwilling to do. Most people seemed to understand this. Those who wanted to see the parade stayed home or stepped into one of the bars that was showing the proceedings on television. I couldn’t help note this act of watching something on TV that was a mere two blocks away. It made the parade a wholly mediated affair, making a few of us wonder if the parade was actually occurring or if the images on screen were a recording of the rehearsal a day or so before.
As one friend suggested, the parade was not the real point of the holiday anyway. Those who didn’t care much for vintage military hardware, marching soldiers, missiles, and flowery speeches were out strolling Moscow’s central back streets enjoying a rather nice day. We can all thank Mayor Luzkhkov and his weather sorcery for the clear skies (Incidentally, it rained later that evening but curiously cleared up right before the fireworks ceremony). Walking around outside the security barricade erected around Red Square was one of the most enjoyable things about the day. All of the streets were closed to traffic allowing for a rare opportunity to bask in the peacefulness of a car-less Moscow.
Those interested in seeing any of the display of military might stood idle in the shade waiting for the planes to fly overhead. The crowds shouted “Hurrah!” as the jets roared past. Planes are all they saw. Planes are all I saw. The only difference is that I’m sure many people could actually identify their make. To me their only difference was their various shapes.
4. Generation Past to Generation Next.
Walking the streets you were reminded that this was a day where militarism was central. This is obvious of course since it was to commemorate victory over the defeat of Nazi Germany. Like Victory Days of the past, veterans were all decked out in their holiday best with their chests proudly covered in an embroidered shield of gold and silver metal. The vets were quiet stunning in their obvious new uniforms of solid blue, olive green and white. Their hats pompously resting on their wrinkled heads. It was amusing to imagine how the hats must have engulfed their younger heads sixty five years younger. Again, even here I found the line between parody and commemoration fuzzy as the vets also looked like aging marionettes, living ornaments sent out to stroll the boulevards ready to strike a stiff pose for the camera. They too seemed part of a larger ensemble that added to the performative aspects of the holiday. Moscow was made into a grand play and they were its cast.
What surprised me was not the vets. It was their day and they deserved to do whatever they wanted. What struck me, however, was the number of children dressed in military regalia. Camouflage and sailor suits were a staple in children’s wear. These little cadets were reminiscent of those famous pictures of Tsarevich Aleksei in his sailor suit. Some, like this pudgy fellow to the right, was decked out Rambo style, complete with a St. George ribbon and toy AK-47. He’s getting ready for the future, undetermined war. But as it stands now tiny uniforms and plastic guns will have to do.
5. A Victorious Day
When I returned home that afternoon, I felt that I needed to see some of the parade. I quickly went to the one place I knew that video of it would exist: the internet. Sure enough the parade was there. Watching the regalia on screen proved anti-climatic. Quickly bored, I turned off the video after about a minute. The energy on the streets just couldn’t be reproduced, reminding me that the day wasn’t about the military, planes, speeches, and Red Square. Nor was it about the past, Stalin, the dead, or even history. Like most historical memory, Victory Day was about the here and the now and what was later to become. It was about the living and paying respect to those who through their sacrifice made that life possible. Lastly, Victory Day was not a nostalgia for the Soviet Union. The USSR was only a marker in the long duree of Russian civilization. Victory Day was about a past repacked and deployed toward the future. A memory fit to symbolize a mighty Russia eternally reborn.