Saint Petersburg, normally the city of czars, has found itself draped in a distinctive red color. May 9 is Victory Day in Russia, one of the most important national holidays. Victory Day celebrates the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in 1945, and the end of what here is known as the Great Patriotic War. The Soviet Union (USSR) suffered over 22 million casualties in total. Saint Petersburg, known at that time as Leningrad, has a particularly poignant tale of horrors: The Siege of Leningrad, which lasted from September 8, 1941 to January 27, 1945, for a total of 872 days. Encircled by hostile Nazi and Finnish armies, the city was cut off from all food supply and plunged into a deadly winter; around 650,000 Leningraders perished in 1942 alone. Most who survived this period refused to speak of it, preferring to bury their grief with their loved ones.
One of the first field trips we took on our program was to the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, where approximately 500,000 people, both military and civilian, are anonymously buried. Haunting classical music softly drifts through the air, playing constantly from various speakers positioned strategically throughout the cemetery. At the entrance, an eternal flame crackles softly opposite an enormous bronze statue of a woman holding a wreath keeps watch over the dead. Around this statue of the motherland lie fresh elaborate floral arrangements, and behind her a memorial poem by Olga Berggolts is carved into a semi-circular granite wall. Nearby is a small museum commemorating the siege, where Shostakovich’s “Leningrad Symphony” plays on repeat, and a visitor can read photocopies of pages from Tatyana Savicheva’s diary, who was only 11 years old when the war came to the USSR. The diary was one of the materials used at the Nuremberg Trials.
As can be expected, Russia labors tirelessly each year to commemorate Victory Day with immense parades. Citizens also walk en masse with pictures of their relatives that fought in the war, covering great part of Nevsky Prospect, in a show of respect known as “The Immortal Regiment.” For weeks, the city administration has been assiduously decorating every corner of Saint Petersburg with enormous banners, Soviet and Russian flags, and massive replicas of different military orders. Sometimes you will catch a glimpse of soldiers practicing for the parade, dressed impeccably and waving red flags. Saint Petersburg waits with bated breath for May 9.
The Great Patriotic War is untouchable in Soviet history, and even now there are few who would dare challenge this. It is the event that saves Stalin from being branded as pure evil. However, it is worth mentioning in greater detail what happened in the Soviet Union following the end of the war. Those who were fortunate enough to have survived living in territories occupied by the Nazis found themselves to be in an unfortunate reality—suspicion would follow them around for the rest of their lives. They were unable to obtain certain levels of education and hold certain jobs. Once upon a time they had had contact with Nazi soldiers and survived: What went on? Did they collaborate? Were they traitors? There was no way to check any of this, so the official response was simply to marginalize these individuals. An even worse fate awaited those returning home from the West. Large numbers of soldiers, particularly those of higher rank, were imprisoned as it was perceived that their “tour of the West” now made them untrustworthy; they had seen a better life. Captured soldiers were even more disgraced, as they were expected to have died fighting. Did they surrender? Had they truly fought? Even those who found themselves in Nazi concentration camps could find themselves in the Soviet gulag upon return home. Heroism became shrouded in state-enforced paranoia.
The Great Patriotic War changed the face of the Soviet Union, simultaneously forcing it to its knees while bringing it the greatest glory yet. Some believe that Victory Day promotes a cult of the Great Patriotic War, enforcing blind national pride and militarism while pushing historical debates further into the shadows. While I believe it is fair for Russia to celebrate Victory Day, particularly when one considers the sacrifices of the past, one must not forget that the price of the war for Soviet people continued to be paid long after the Nazi regime had fallen.