A Grim Commemoration Day in Modern Russia
Story and photos by James Dorsey

Touring Russia on the day of its greatest holiday, a traveler finds that even a day of celebration is bleak and filled with frowns.

Russia travel

Irene and I were on our third shot of Russian Standard at the hotel bar in Moscow when the ground began to move.

We Californians looked at each other and said, "Earthquake," but the bartender shook his head and said, "Nyet, the army comes."

Outside on Tverskaya Street, thousands of absolutely silent people lined the sidewalks, shoulder to shoulder, in what could have been a science fiction movie set.

The low rumble intensified to a deafening roar as the first tanks rolled by three abreast followed over the next hour by what seemed to be the entire Russian army. No one cheered, no one applauded; it was my first look at what I eventually came to recognize as the national mindset of Russia, blind acceptance of whatever happens.

Moscow tanks

The overpowering diorama of steel and human aggression was a rehearsal for the giant military parade through Red Square on May ninth, the single most important day in Russia. On that date in 1945, Germany surrendered to the Russian army in Berlin, ending the war in Europe but not in the hearts and minds of the Russian people. Seven decades later that day still towers over everything else in the Russian psyche.

The rape of the motherland by Hitler's armies has been burned into the souls of those who remember. They like to use the term "Great Patriotic War" and impose their stories onto visitor's lives.

For one week each year, Russia is a nation officially in mourning to that memory but that same week is supposed to be a respite from daily life that for many has not recovered in three generations. It is a time to remember the glory days when outnumbered defenders turned back invading hordes. It is a time for stories to be exaggerated and for old men to be young once more.

Through the Russian Countryside

We had come to cruise the waterways of the backcountry from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, a final peek at imperial Russia before it faded into history, and it was the serendipitous fortune of those who travel often that revealed to us a country we did not know existed.

tooth marker

For several days on both sides of May ninth, life in the rural villages that hug the Volga retreats into the past. Veterans walk the streets in tattered uniforms that no longer fit, rows of medals upon their chests, while babushkas wear the shawls and aprons they hauled potatoes in during the hard years. Everyone young and old sports the blue and orange Ribbon of Saint George, an anachronistic reminder of Imperial Russian military prowess. All of rural Russia reminisces at ceremonies that cater to visitors like us, presided over by corpulent mayors us who take great pride in reminding the world how much they have suffered.

In the villages of Uglich and Yaraslovl, both former battlefields, the permanent memorials, carved in stone, were festooned with floral bouquets; some of them burned small eternal flames. At midday in the town squares, crowds gathered to recite poetry about dead heroes while rows of old ladies, widows of long dead soldiers, received flowers from pretty teenage girls in vintage war uniforms. Several hamlets seemed to have the same central icon, a crumbling concrete anti-tank barrier known as a dragons tooth. Here ancient men knelt with tears streaming to touch the names of former comrades scratched into the stone. Shell and bullet holes in homes have been left unrepaired as reminders.

village memorial

Officially the week is a celebration of their victory, a victory whose price tag was way too high, and is in fact still being paid.

The Russian government loves to quote the number 25,000,000 dead from the Great War, but not all of those casualties were from combat. Stalin's form of communism enslaved the entire country long before it was invaded, reducing the population to an agrarian society regardless of education, status, or accomplishment. His own reign of terror was at least the equal of Hitler's assault. Security forces created during war time became secret police in peace time that made people disappear in the middle of the night. The people fought not only against Germany, but also to merely stay alive under the thumb of their own government. For the average Russian, the war never really ended, it just came at them from a different source. Over time the will to live was overpowered by a cold-blooded acceptance of domination.

The week surrounding May 9 was meant to be a government sanctioned escape from everyday reality, a chance for the people to retreat into the only time in modern history when they were allowed to feel proud. It is the purge in reverse. But the façade of celebration does not hold up.

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