Wednesday 9 November 2016

Victory Day in Russia (9th May 2016)

Over the years I have had the immense privilege of attending Victory Day celebrations in a variety of cities and towns in Russia. The memory of what Russians call the Great Patriotic War is still very strong - fanned, as it is, by a political establishment which finds it helpful to invoke memories of the huge sacrifices made during the Second World War and the exceptional men and women who secured a stunning military victory for the Soviet Union.

Victory Day Parade - Orel, Russia (2016)
Head of Victory Day Parade, Bolchov, Russia (2016)

It is tempting to compare Victory Day (9th May) with the British institution of Remembrance Day (11th November). Superficially there are similarities - both mark the end of a conflict which had a drastic impact on the countries involved (albeit the quantum of Russian losses dominates in terms of pure numbers). Victory Day in Russia is marked as a national holiday. It is a joyous occasion during which the generation that fought the Nazis are respected and celebrated. The tone is triumphalist, joyous and patriotic. Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom is equally respectful of course but the tone is sombre with a focus on those who died as exemplified through the emblematic poppy.

A veteran joined by teenagers in Bolchov

Going back a few years the veterans would march through the streets of Russian cities and towns. By the time they reached the end point they would have armfuls of flowers and they would be glowing with pride. Nowadays the flowers and the pride are still very much evident but the number of veterans is much smaller and those that do attend invariably view the parade from comfortable viewing platforms.

Victory Day in Bolchov
This year, along with a small group of friends, I was able to attend two events. Firstly in the lovely little riverside town of Bolchov and then - a couple of hours drive away - in the bustling city of Orel. Both places were occupied by the Germans from 1941 to 1943 before being liberated during the Kutuzov offensive. It was a lovely sunny day and both events were hugely impressive.

Bolchov presents itself as a small sleepy place with few people around. This was not so on Victory Day. By 10:00 in the morning the main street was thronged with local people. Surprising given the vast numbers in the parade - uniformed service men and women, costumed groups, school classes and - in a throwback to the Soviet era - young pioneers dressed in uniforms reminiscent of the All-Union Leninist Communist Youth League - popularly known as the Komsomol.

Last Minute Touches at Bolchov on Victory Day

During the second world war it was common practice for the Soviet authorities to inter fallen officers in town centre parks - the other ranks were buried in traditional cemeteries on the outskirts of town. The Officer's Cemetery in Bolchov was a focus point on Victory Day with uniformed Russian teenagers mounting an honour guard. The picture above shows a youth leader adjusting the uniform of one of these 'guards'. After the march the entire population - or so it seemed - gathered in the main square for speeches and communal singing - Katyusha being a firm favourite.

The End of the Parade - Bolchov, Russia

The afternoon parade in Orel was on an even bigger scale. We arrived to a scene of joy and celebration - there was an air of expectation and the city centre and bridges had been cleared of traffic. In the parks there were small scale exhibitions relating to the Second World War and people of all ages were dressed up in their finery and - in many instances - replica uniforms of those who fought to liberate the city in 1943.

Weapons display - Central Park, Orel, Russia
Three generations celebrate a fourth 

We were astonished by the scale of the Victory Parade in Orel - tens of thousands of local people in family groups clutching pictures of relatives who had served in the Soviet Army. For hour after hour they streamed past - spontaneously bursting into patriotic songs and acknowledging us with big smiles when they heard the English accents of myself and two others in our small group.

The Victory Parade - Orel, Russia (2016)
Waiting for the speeches - Orel, Russia (2016)

I took two short clips of the parade where the viewer can get a sense of the atmosphere. They are available here and here. The stream of people seemed never ending and it was humbling to see how proud people were of their relatives who served. A sea of vibrant faces and faded photographs - for mile after mile after mile!

Sneaking a selfie with the girlfriend - Orel, Russia

I will cover our battlefield walks in Orel and Bolchov in later editions of this blog. Meanwhile click on the link to my Victory Day - 2016 photographs on flickr if you would like to see more images of these parades.