One of the saddest consequences of Putin's war in Ukraine is the enmity that is building between erstwhile friends and allies. On the 9th May, as the Victory Day parades that will take place in virtually every Russian city and town unfold, the false narrative which has been so assiduously propagated by unscrupulous politicians and media commentators will manifest itself in overt displays of anti-Western sentiment.
Twenty years ago today (9th May 2002) I attended the Victory Day parade in the city of Volgograd. In the Winter of 1942 / 43 the city, then known as Stalingrad, had been reduced to ashes in an encirclement battle which ended in the comprehensive defeat of an entire German Army. A great many veterans were still alive and as they marched from Victory Square down to the shores of the River Volga, local children pressed bunches of flowers into their arms. Joining hundreds of thousands of jubilant people making their way up the highest point in the city, the Mamayev Kurgan, was an incredibly moving experience. At the top, in the shadow of the awe inspiring 'Motherland' statue veterans basked in the atmosphere of joy and adulation - happy to tell their stories to curious locals.
|Red Army Veterans - Rossoschka - 9 May 2002|
Later that day I sat near the newly constructed German cemetery at Rossoshka with a couple of women who had fought with the Red Army. Whilst sipping vodka, I asked them to write down their thoughts in my notebook. Polina Ivanovna Batayeva, who had experienced the battle in the city centre wrote:
The people of Russia and England have always been friends. Thank-you to the British for their help in rebuilding our home city of Stalingrad.
Polina Fyodorovna Yatsenko (previouly Chekhlova), who had driven trucks from Tehran to the eastern bank of the Volga in the war years, wrote:
I had the great honour of receiving a gift from Her Majesty the Queen during the Great Patriotic War 1941-45. Heartfelt thanks to the British nation for their help in the struggle against fascism. We remember everything - the clothes, medicine and food. You saved us in a difficult time. We wish you health, happiness, peace and success. We bow our greying heads to her majesty, may her memory live for ever.
Over the last two decades I have attended eight Victory Day parades in as many different towns and cities, including one in Sevastopol, Ukraine. Over that period much has changed, and I fear that the biggest transformation of all will come this year when a new generation will speak for the veterans, delivering a message that many of them would have been saddened by. The two friends whom I spent time with on the Soldier's Field at Rossoshka would certainly not have recognised the narrative that Putin and his cronies have inculcated into the minds of many Russian people.
|Leningrad Siege Survivors - 9th May 2006|
Perhaps as many as 24 million lives were lost in the Soviet Union during the Second World War. Four in every five German soldiers killed in combat, died on the Eastern Front. No wonder then, that the legacy of the conflict should still be alive. The city of Leningrad (now St Petersburg) endured a 900 day siege during which tens of thousands of civilians died of hunger and cold in an episode that shames the civilised world. Victory Day in St Petersburg has a special poignancy and I will never forget the sight and sound of siege survivors marching with linked arms - singing patriotic songs, on the Nevsky Prospect. Video clip here. Such stoicism in the face of evil.
|Russia & Ukraine - Crimea - 9th May 2004|
A couple of years later I attended the Victory Day celebrations in Sevastopol, Crimea. Volgograd had offered up a day of celebration, St Petersburg was a veneration of the siege survivors but in Sevastopol the day was a purely military affair. I stood on the empty streets watching the rehearsal on the 8th May and it was quite surreal seeing large formations of sailors and marines marching under Russian and Ukrainian flags. Somehow more impressive than the actual event the following day.
There will be no blue and yellow flags on Grafskaya Wharf this year.
|Veterans - Sevastopol - 9th May 2004|
Now the veterans are fewer and less mobile. They no longer join the parade, but sit on podiums awaiting the crowds that flow into the main thoroughfares and city squares. In May 2016 I was able to experience two very different Victory Day parades in the Kursk region. The first was in the small town of Bolkhov and the second in the nearby major city of Orel. The contrast was striking.
In Bolkhov, it seems that the whole town had turned out. What seemed like the entire population paraded down the main street before congregating in front of the main Government building to pay respects to the veterans and listen to patriotic speeches from local politicians. Unlike Victory Parades I'd seen elsewhere virtually all of the young people were in uniformed groups - reminiscent of the days of the Soviet Komsomol organisation.
|Bolkhov - Parade - 9th May 2016|
|Bolkhov - Veterans - 9th May 2016|
|Orel - The Big Parade - 9th May 2016|
So, what are my main impressions? Firstly, the difference between the way in which the Russian people mark the end of the Second World War and the way we, in Britain, do so. For the Russians, it is a celebration of victory and a day to honour those who survived. For us, in the west, the annual 11th November Remembrance Day is a sombre commemoration of those who were lost. Secondly, the way that Victory Day events have changed over the years - as the veterans have faded away so pride in family members who have served has come to the fore (see below).
|Orel - Four Generations - 9th May 2016|
Finally - this year - the usurping of history to fit a narrative that will do nothing but disrespect those who fought as allies to defeat Nazi Germany in the Second World War.