Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Victory Day

On the last day of April, an olive-colored truck pulled up to the World War II tank memorial outside my dormitory and a team of soldiers climbed out, armed with buckets of industrial-strength paint. They proceeded to give the tank a spring makeover, repainting everything from the detail on the wheels to the entire green body and white regimental identifiers. I intermittently watched this process with amused disinterest from the balcony, returning to discover, after the painters had left, that the tank  my tank, which I have come to regard with a mix of antipathy and black fondness  had suffered a defamatory insult. Where before its long green muzzle had proudly sported six red stars, a badge, I presumed, of destroying six Nazi tanks, now there were only four. In one afternoon, my tank's valor had decreased by one third! I felt confused and betrayed, and called into question everything I thought I knew about my neighborhood tank, which has stood immovably outside my window through rain and snow, tolerant of clambering children and drunken carousing alike. Were the six original stars themselves a lie? Perhaps my tank had never earned such glory, or perhaps the opposite was true, and it had been far more victorious, deprived of stars every year at the whim or laziness of its painter.

A week later, on the eighth of May  the last school- and workday before Victory Day and in fact the actual day German forces surrendered in Europe (although it was already the ninth in Moscow)  a steady stream of schoolchildren filed noisily by my window with armfuls of red flowers. Chaperoned by teachers carrying umbrellas, just in case the heavy sky decided to relieve the muggy pressure with a massive thunderstorm, the students covered the tank with their tulips and carnations, and when there was no more room on the exposed surfaces, they stuck them in the wheel wells and down the muzzle. And the red flowers matched the painted red stars and the red banners hung behind.

I mention this anecdote because I find it strangely fitting for the vagaries of fact and memory that define the war, and the sometimes absurd quality of commemoration in Russia today, and in Kaliningrad particularly. May 9 is not a day to be taken lightly. It is impossible for me to imagine the scale and horrors of the war, but I will be the first to acknowledge that the sheer enormity of the casualties suffered by the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1945 is staggering and sobering. Estimates of Soviet war losses vary widely and are highly contested, but modern guesses put the number of military and civilian dead somewhere between 20 and 30 million, with the percentage borne disproportionately by what is today Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States, and western Russia.

If May 9 were only about remembering the dead and honoring veterans, then I would gladly carry flowers and stand in silence for those who lived and died in the war. Indeed, I have done so. But in Kaliningrad, of all places, the city's very identity is bound inextricably to the narrative of victory, which is a slightly different thing. This day means many things to many people, but I am sure that nowhere is it celebrated quite like in Russia, where on the ninth of May everything comes out in a spectacular patriotic glut of red flags, tank parades, military marches, and everywhere the greeting of "Happy Victory Day."

We had an unusually long winter, but by mid-morning on the ninth it was already well into seventy degrees and humid enough to make me sweaty from the five minute walk to Victory Square. Over the week prior, they had put up huge multi-story celebratory banners on the buildings around the square, and had slowly erected a large stand of bleachers, for VIPs to watch the festivities across from city hall in the luxurious comfort of seats and shade. We plebeians were left to join the masses crowding the square and both sides of Leninsky Prospekt. Our plans to meet at the nearby statue of Mother Russia had to be amended when we discovered that the street was already cordoned off, and it was forbidden to cross.

Instead, we claimed a spot not far from the square, behind several young children squeezed up to the cordon fence. I have never seen such crowds in this city before, even on the first few very nice days of spring when it seemed like everyone was out in the parks. Although our view of the street was good when we arrived, we got slowly pushed back by forceful latecomers, who had no compunction about worming their way straight through to the very front. Welcome to Russia. Squeezed up against everyone else's equally hot, sweaty, stinky bodies, we waited for the parade.

It started with twenty minutes of interminable marches, played by a military band whose melodies were lost in the crowd by the time we heard them. Then, divisions from every special branch of the military and police paraded around the square in full dress and weaponry, most bearing their own flags as well as the red Victory Banner  a replica of the flag raised over the Reichstag in 1945. After that, a few jeeps drove past bearing veterans, in a timely reminder that the war ended not seventy years ago, and there are still a few people left who were part of the storm of this city and have lived here since. I cannot imagine how much they must have seen it change.

The human part of the parade was then followed by a display of machinery that was clearly choreographed to grow in both size and absurdity. First, there were tanks, and the little boys in front cheered because they could finally see something on the street. Then there were tanks with rocket launchers, and then bigger tanks, and then armored vehicles with mounted red-tipped missiles, then giant trucks pulling enormous howitzers behind, and finally, in a finale of ultimate militancy, gigantic blunt-nosed vehicles with mysterious tubes on their back, presumably for transporting entire batteries of unknown missiles. The little boys cheered. I cheered in incredulous shock, first that there was something bigger than the howitzers, and then that there was something even bigger than that. And afterward, someone told me that this day is a celebration of peace.

Russian troops on Victory Square
Veterans under a banner "Happy Victory Day!"
Big guns
Bigger guns
Bigger missiles?

Extricating ourselves from the press of people afterward took another thirty sweaty minutes, and we made a large circle to avoid the square and head west to a bus stop off Prospekt Mira. If Russia has taught me one thing, it is that a bus is never too full to fit two or five more people, even if, for no explicable reason, it has no windows that open. If Russia has taught me two things, it is to never ask why such things are so.

Regardless, our final destination, to which we walked the final half mile after abandoning the bus that had become stuck in traffic on its way to a lower level of hell, was the Fifth Fort. One of the fifteen massive brick defensive fortresses in a ring around the city that were built in the late nineteenth century, the Fifth is now a museum and the site of an annual Victory Day battle reconstruction. If you're not quite sure what this entails, well, neither was I, but the answer is mostly explosions and Nazis.

Because we had left quite soon after the parade, we were able to snag a prime front-battlefield seat on the "side of the Fascists." Behind us, an increasingly intoxicated group of Russians was enjoying what they loudly proclaimed was a very good bottle of schnapps. In front of us stretched a open field, traversed by a long ragged trench, several foxholes, and quite a lot of barbed wire. On the far side, to our left, was the Red Army encampment, with a tent, a couple large field gun installments, and people milling around in dun uniforms. On our side, perhaps thirty reenactors dressed in a hodge-podge of German military uniforms pottered around a campfire and set up a few machine guns in the trench. I watched a guy in an SS uniform make a few practice shots on his friend's rifle, then pull out a cell phone from his pocket and take a call. Several Gothic-print signs pointed towards destinations like Königsberg, Pillau, and Berlin, in case you weren't able to tell which side was the Germans' from the swastikas printed on the sandbags.

At this point, all my functions of higher thought short-circuited, and I kicked into a backup mode that I have come to understand enables survival in surreal situations. At the appointed hour, an unearthly wail of air-raid sirens began, and everyone gasped as a small plane with red stars on its wings buzzed low over the field, trailed by a series of spectacular fireballs on the ground that tossed up chunks of sod and made waves of heat. Suddenly, it was pursued by a second plane, marked with the cross of the Luftwaffe, and they chased each other around for a good fifteen minutes, performing stunts and earning cheers whenever the Soviet plane got low enough to make another bombing pass against the Germans. Eventually, the German plane disappeared and the Soviet one made a victory lap, to loud applause.

Then followed a brief parley, which ended in Nazi treachery as a camouflaged German fired some sort of bazooka at the departing Soviet officer, earning a new artillery bombardment in revenge. The Red Army slowly advanced, crawling through the tall grass and receiving resounding encouragement from the huge crowd every time they made a particularly daring maneuver. It was a little like a rowdy football game, if football games involved field artillery and Nazis. Behind us, the partiers had imbibed enough schnapps to be periodically confused about what was happening, and one man kept asking, "Are those guys ours?"

The outcome of the day was of course guaranteed from the beginning, and eventually some poor soul, who must have been dying of heatstroke in his German greatcoat, waved a white flag, while some other poor soul, equally laden with his wool Soviet getup, waved the red flag in victorious excitement, and everyone cheered. In a May miracle, the corpses righted themselves and returned to life, and the crowd poured onto the field for photos with both the victors and the recently dead.

Alright men, history might not be on our side, but at least our uniforms
look more intimidating.

Victory Day in its current incarnation is a recent phenomenon, and seems to be as much about Russia today as it is about remembering 1945. Although one of the babushkas that works at my dormitory told a story about watching fireworks in the 1950s from a Kaliningrad bridge with so many other people that she was afraid it would collapse, Victory Day wasn't the sort of massive annual national spectacle in the Soviet Union as it is today. There were military parades on Red Square only on the major anniversaries, in 1965, 1975, 1985, and 1990, and intermittent local celebrations in some cities since the sixties.

The huge annual televised parade on Red Square and the enormous celebrations all across Russia, from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, really didn't start until 2005, and seem to be growing bigger every year. That year also marked the introduction of the wildly popular St. George's ribbon campaign  black and orange striped ribbons, reminiscent of the wartime Order of Glory, which are given out freely before the holiday and worn on lapels, handbags, or car antennas as a symbol of commemoration or as a stylish statement. Since the 65th anniversary of victory in 2010, the lavish scale of the celebrations, especially in Moscow, has been enormous, with the participation of tanks and other heavy military equipment being a particularly recent addition.

Reenactments and modern patriotism aside, the victory narrative itself bears further scrutiny. It invariably refers to the Great Patriotic War (Великая Отечественная война), which differs from World War II by including only the years 1941-1945, after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June, 1941. This timeline presents the Soviet Union as a victim of treacherous invasion, while leaving out the part where Stalin made a secret pact with Hitler dividing Poland between them, which not only enabled Hitler to invade Poland in 1939 without fear of a two-front war, but also allowed Stalin to annex half of Poland himself  much of which territory Poland never regained. I don't mention this in an attempt to diminish the enormity of the loss and sacrifice that the Soviet Union endured during the war, or to imply that Victory Day is an artificial holiday today. May 9 is and should be about remembrance, but the war was complicated, and remembering it must be too.

Parsing this victory narrative in Kaliningrad adds further layers of complication, in a city where Lenin's statue on Victory Square has been replaced with a triumphal column bearing St. George himself under the inscription "Dedicated to the Great Victory, 1941-1945," and where much of the Russian-speaking population has always been connected to the military. Soviet victory over East Prussia and Germany  remains perhaps the single most fundamental part of Kaliningrad's identity today, even after nearly seventy years and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. For almost the first fifty years after the war, that victory powered the destruction of all that remained of Königsberg, as well as the city's material and mental transformation into Kaliningrad. Today, it is still the lynchpin of Russian legitimacy and control in the area, even as the region has become an exclave once again and is now surrounded by NATO and the European Union. 

But the thing about victory is that it is just a point in time. Afterwards, life, no matter how different, must still go on, and Kaliningrad is surely a symbol of that. However it's celebrated, May 9 is ultimately just a single date in a city that struggles with these questions every day. 

"Happy Victory Day! / USSR Victory"
"9 May," on the city government building. Above, left to right, the flag of
Kaliningradskaya Oblast, Russia, and the Victory Banner. 

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