Sunday, May 10, 2015

Victory Day Celebrations

By Stephen Wilson

Moscow Victory Day parade.

(Moscow, Russia) - I tried to forget everything related to the war. I didn't like to speak about
the war or show photos of those years. I burnt all the photos I'd sent home from the front and those I had already received through the post. I destroyed the notebooks with my poems, among them poetry about the war.

In all the following years I never took a rifle in my arms again.

Nevertheless, knowing my military past, I never once took part in later shooting competitions.

They did not understand me and I did not want to explain that I did not and couldn't shoot. I was sick of this. I even attempted to forget our girls with whom I had trained with at the sniper school and afterwards fought with and have always inspired me.

However, the war wouldn't leave me. It constantly haunted me, in my dreams , most of all I saw myself fleeing, finding myself in a prison. They were difficult dreams. They tortured me for more than thirty years.'

The following is an excerpt from the poignant and refreshingly frank memoirs of Yulia Zhukova's ' Girl with a Sniper Rifle, (Memories of a graduate of the central female sniper training school...,) which was published in 2006. The memoirs reveal a fragile and traumatised woman who felt scarred by what must be one of the most monstrous wars in World history. I also came across a more recent case where a war veteran nurse, Klavdiya Kuzminichna, who stated she remembered 'the war almost sometimes even haunts my dreams. Yes, even more so, it haunts me to tears.

I remember an event of a lad in hospital who lay in the reception for three hours shouting ..'Kill me ! Kill me ! I don't want to live and I did not take revenge.....Since then he has stood before my eyes for almost 75 years..I often see him in my dreams.'

It is clear that the war has devastated souls so much very few war veterans want to talk about their experiences. During my time in Russia I accidently met and befriended two female war veterans.

They were very fond of children and would hand me sweets to pass on to my children. They would gladly play dominoes with you but did not want to talk of the war.

The sniper who wrote her memoirs was one of an estimated 800,000 female soldiers who served at the front. Some of those women served as snipers such as the legendary Ludmilla Pavlichenko who visited Chicago and informed an American audience,' At the Front I have
already killed 309 Germans. Doesn't it seem to you, gentlemen, that for too long you have hid behind my back?'  The statement represents a sharp taunt at the Anglo-American allies who were late in opening up a second front.

War veterans are easy to spot in Moscow. They tend to be in their late eighties or nineties, dawning a uniform and have a breast full of medals. The Russians lavishly rewarded soldiers medals. It took only a few days following a feat for a recommended soldier to receive a medal, in contrast to American soldiers who waited for 6 months!

Over the past few days I have come across many war veterans. One was travelling by subway train wearing an army uniform and clutching some  flowers someone had given her. She must have been in her late 80's or maybe 90...I wondered if she was one of the snipers or a nurse..I avoided the temptation to interview her because most veterans don't want to speak about war. They are notoriously reticent. (Jim Vail joked while we were walking through the park that 'Stephen, look at you. You are like a predator looking for new victims to interview. You'll end up giving those poor war veterans a heart attack.You could be the kiss of death to them...Can't you leave them alone?'

I broke the ice with some veterans by giving a gift or some flowers. 

One war veteran I met in Lefortovsky park told us, 'I'm almost 100 years old! The secret of my long age is not only a 50-year-old son but sport!'

I came across a male veteran who was 90 years of age but walking briskly and vigorously like a 21 year old man. He told me, 'I served at the Ukrainian Front. All I'll say is that war is just horrible. What is worse, we have been living under the threat of a nuclear war which the West could start any moment. The West wants to annihilate us...Now if you excuse me I have to rush off to take part in a parade...'

The veteran, was one of the many surviving soldiers ready to enthusiastically join the victory parade.

The casualties of the Great Patriotic War are hugely horrendous. They are staggering in their immensity! An estimated 27 million people died and there were 2.75 million surviving invalids. As many as 25 million people were rendered homeless and some were still living in their ruined homes into the 1950's. Whole villages were decimated and left devoid of their young men ... It was the fate of many women to remain unmarried all their lives because there was simply no men available. 

One Russian student told me, 'If it had not been for the war our current population would have doubled'.

The 70th Day of Victory must have been one of the most magnificent celebrations in years. All over the city you pass huge billboards with black and white photos of young men and women returning from the front. On almost very lamp-post lining the street you can see
blue banners and white doves flying ringed by the black and orange ribbons. Children were wearing military caps, waving flags and some drivers were branding and hanging out red flags while hooting away.

Rehearsing Military planes in formation thundered over my house on three occasions. I noticed beautiful red, blue and white Su 33 jets as well as old bombers flying over. It was a marvelously awesome sight to behold. This time there were not just a few formations but
very many! As many as 16,000 soldiers were set to take part in the grandiose military parade on Red Square not to mention the relatives of the dead of the 'eternal regiment ' who are gathering to march with photos of dead family members.

The Day of Victory ended with a lavish firework display. A wonderful festive mood filled the streets of Moscow that day! According to the government, 526 million dollars or 28,5 billion rubles were spent on the celebration.

The absence of western politicians did not mar or spoil the occasion. 

As it should be, it was the war veterans which mattered more.

However, that old argument refuses to go away.If you have lived in Russia for a long time, you are constantly told by many people that, 'It was Russia who really won the war and not the Americans or British ... ' or you hear statements, 'The Americans keep claiming that
only they won the war... ' I retort 'Name the Americans who made such a statement.' They can never name them. I have never met a single American who has told me, 'Only Americans won the war! 'If any Americans reading this article claim otherwise then please tell us.

What I have heard are many Russians who state 'Only Russians won the war' and 'The Anglo-American contribution was nothing'.

Those are not the sentiments which President Putin made in his recent speech during the victory parade. He stated, 'The Victory was won not just by Russia, but the American and British forces who made a contribution'. Three years ago a war veteran told me, 'It is also your victory and not only ours'.

According to a recent Levada poll, 62% of Russians believe that the Soviet Union could have achieved victory without the help of the wartime allies, 52% said that they had at least one relative who died in the war and 42% regarded the Day of Victory as the most important celebration of the year.

Daniel Ogan, an American teacher who worked in Russia, told me, 'I'm deeply offended at those Russians who say our contribution did not count and only Russians won the war ... That is an insult to all the American and British troops who died fighting in France'.

Andrei, a Russian Journalist, argues that lend-lease, the allied sending of western aid to Russia was insubstantial and limited to a few jeeps.' What is the truth?  It seems that a lot of history of the Great Patriotic war is being perceived through the lens of very different belief systems...

What did some of the Russians say themselves during the war?

What historians find is that Stalin, Krushchev and Marshal Zhukov all stated they could not have won the war without lend-lease and the Anglo-American contribution. If Russians have any doubt they can walk up to any kiosk in Moscow and purchase a cheap copy of 'The Memoirs of Marshal Zhukov'. In this work, Zhukov declares, 'The defeat of fascism in Europe demanded the complete mobilisation, arming and resources of the anti-Hitler coalition..'

According to Krushchev's memoirs which were only publicised with the following excerpt in the 1990's, 'Several times I heard Stalin acknowledge Lend lease within the small circle around him. He said that if he had had to deal with Germany one to one we would not have
been able to cope because we lost so much of our industry'. Under lend lease, an estimated 43,728 aircraft were sent to Russia, vast quantities of fuel, rail, 1900 locomotives, 56.6% of Russians rails, 57.85 of aviation fuel, 200,000 studebaker army trucks, 77,900 jeeps and 151,000 light trucks and food to supply a soldier everyday of the war. One third of all Soviet vehicles came from abroad and were generally of high quality and durability.

In regard to the late opening of the second front, it is worth noting that the invasion of Italy forced the German High Command to withdraw some vitally required tank divisions from taking part in the Kursk offensive (Summer 1943).

However, when speaking about the war we often forget about the third front of Japan. When I was an army cadet, our captain once asked us, 'When did the second world war end?' None of us could answer that it ended on 2nd September 1945 with the Surrender of Japan. Most thought it ended in May 1945 with the defeat of the Germans.

A Russian English teacher, Oksana Chebotareva, told me 'My grandfather Fedor served in the war against Japan. He was an engineer and colonel in the anti-bomb disposal squad and was sent to fight the Japanese. Because of the sound of terrible explosions kept ringing his ears, he was deaf for the rest of his life.

He always went about with ear-plugs. He told us that while before the war he liked Stalin, during the war he changed his mind. That is because his comrades who were very good men were arrested and sent to prison camps during the war. He hated Stalin for this and unlike many Russians, he welcomed Krushchev's speech against Stalin'.

I encountered another view of the Great Patriotic War which is scarcely mentioned. This is a Russian mystical view of the war which believes that God chose Russians as a special people to decisively defeat the Germans. From this view, the dates of when the war against
Germany are no accident but due to fate. For instance, they state it is no coincidence  that Zhukov's Christian name was George and his patron saint was Saint George who slew the dragon. Saint George happens to be the Saint of soldiers. Another coincidence was that
the Day of Victory ended on 9th May. According to the old Russian calender, this is Saint Nicholas's day.

During this year, the end of the war coincided with the Orthodox celebration of Easter which was May the 7th. A religious folklore has sprung up with its own mystical interpretations of events and dates. There are many stories of soldiers praying to Saint Nicholas and Saint Seraphim and being rescued. This view is not entirely new as the folklorist Andrei Sinyavsky hinted at it. Sinyavsky wrote, 'The breath of Nikola's activities comes of his being a helper in need. He is celebrated as such in countless tales. Even I once heard a story of how Nikola helped a soldier during during the last world war. While crossing the Dnieper, the raft  on which a soldier was floating was blown up. The poor fellow landed in the water and could feel himself drowning:  his ammunition and heavy boots were dragging him down. He began to pray to Nikola then suddenly felt someone pulling his boots miraculously off his feet, enabling him to swim to safety. In short, call on Nikola in an emergency and he will appear straightaway and do what is needed.

He will help the poorest, the least fortunate, the dying. '

(Andrei Sinyavsky, Ivan the Fool and Russian Folk Belief,Glas, Chicago, 2007)

The Day of Victory in a sense mirrored the joy of his festival days where people gathered to celebrate 'Nikolshchina'. On this day, people gathered together, friends and enemies, and had a great time. 

On this day, you generously gave other people gifts and drinks. A saying about this day goes, 'During Nikolshchina invite friends and enemies alike: they will all be your friends..' This was the mood which first arose on 9th May 1945, when the Day of Victory first  took
place. On this day, people lost their fear and distrust of each other, and embraced each other. Strangers kissed and embraced each other.

There was so much joy there was no need for alcohol.

Our sniper at the beginning of this article managed to become reunited with her old comrades and found how much she really missed them! So this story ends with some real rediscovered  joy!

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