Victory Day is Still a Big Deal in Russia

The anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany is not something of which most Americans take note. But for Russians like Pavel Elfimov, it’s one of the biggest holidays of the year.

Russia’s experience in World War II was one of suffering and service on the battlefield. The United States was insulated from the war by two oceans. Russia, on the other hand, was besieged, bombed, invaded, and re-invaded throughout World War II until the Red Army surged into Berlin and helped bring down Hitler’s empire.

“You have Thanksgiving. We have Victory Day,” said Elfimov, 44, who was attending a nighttime rehearsal for the annual Victory Day parade in Moscow. The parade is a display of military might sweeping down the streets of the capital before heading into Red Square in front of the Kremlin.

President Vladimir Putin restored the Soviet-style tank parade in 2008 to rally citizens around the flag. Despite the hundreds of missile launchers, warplanes, and antiaircraft guns rolling through Red Square every year, the true meaning of the holiday is something personal to  them.

“In Russia there are very few families who weren’t touched by it,” said Elfimov. Both of his grandfathers served in the war; one of whom died shortly after the war ended.

Soviet losses in the war were immense. Most historians estimate that between 27 and 28 million Soviets died. The oldest generation in Russia still has painful memories of starvation during the war. “It was impossible,” said Irina Kravchenko, 60. She said that 300 of the 500 people who lived in her small town in the Ural Mountains during the war went into combat. Her grandfather never returned.

She wants to pass his memory on to her grandchildren, who were watching the parade rehearsals with her. “The memory of service was so tough. There was an inner strength,” Kravchenko said about the townspeople who returned from war. “They didn’t like to talk about their experiences.”

World War II is remembered by most Americans as an American victory and they minimize the impact of the Red Army. Russians tend to remember their own sacrifices. As the veterans die, their children and grandchildren have begun marching on Victory Day, holding their photos, separate from the military parade. Originally started as a nonpolitical commemoration, the survivor’s parade has since been embraced by the Kremlin.

Critics say that Putin has politicized the anniversary, which serves the state more than those that served it. Once, veterans gathered on the holiday to drink and remember fallen comrades. Now the focus is on the military parades. This year will feature advanced warplanes over the Kremlin as intercontinental ballistic missiles parade through Red Square.

Some who march to honor their ancestors sought to distance the military parade from the modern army. “It’s two separate stories,” said Nadezhda Sklyar, 27, whose 4-year-old son, Sebastian, was asking soldiers questions about their military equipment as he waited for them to start their rehearsal. “My grandfather served. He was gravely wounded in Leningrad. My other grandfather was a Belarusan partisan,” she said. “I grew up with this,” she said. “I hope my son has these memories, too.”

“To him, it’s interesting, these tanks,” Sklyar said of her son. “Thank God they’re not used now. I’m worried about war,” she said. However, any conflict between Russia and the West would be nuclear, so the hardware in the parade would be of little relevance, she mentioned.

Ivan Medvedev, 23, an enlisted soldier in an airborne battalion, was drinking a cup of coffee with his fiancée while waiting for the parade rehearsal to start. “Everyone in my family has served,” he said. Like him, many soldiers who are on active duty look to their families’ war histories as inspiration.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE