I have not written a blog entry in two months. First, things tend to get very busy at the end of the school year. Our time at the English school got more hectic, and our boys had a lot of preparing for exams. Then I had some problems that were thought to be neurological with my neck and jaw. It actually was a cyst that had formed at the base of one of my molars, which was complicated by an abscess. I’ll skip the details, but it was not a pleasant tooth extraction. Thus, I have wanted to write an entry on the events of May for some time but time pressure and tooth pain hindered my work.
My wife and kids watched the Mel Gibson movie “Hacksaw Ridge” just after Memorial Day (in America). What a compelling movie based on events of a “real” soldier during World War II in the Pacific! Earlier in the month, May 9, we had observed what may be the biggest holiday in Russia: Victory Day. It is holiday commemorating the surrender of the Nazis which concluded “The Great Patriotic War,” as it is called in Russia.
I was taught in my history courses in high school in America about the war from what I now see as a decidely American perspective. We defeated Japan in the Pacific and we, along with our western European allies, defeated Germany in Europe. I do not recall much being said about the USSR, other than we were on the same side against the Nazis. It was if the USSR was a bit player in that awful drama. I don’t know for sure that my education was typical, but I think it was. I am firmly convinced now that what I was taught was distorted to the point of being deceitful.
When we celebrated Memorial Day living in America I will admit to some guilt. I always thought it was important to remember our fallen soldiers. And I would spend time reflecting on those who paid the ultimate price. In America, however, it was always a holiday that at a cultural level marked the beginning of summer. We usually went to the lake, beach, or some bar-b-que. After a few words of gratitude for our freedoms and those who died for that freedom, we’d get the party started. Of course, sad to say, many in America would just get the party started right away without the words.
There is no such ambiguity to the observance of Victory Day in Russia. It is a “holiday with tears,” as they call it. All schools and most places of employment are closed. Residents of Luga gathered at 9:00 on the square assemble and then march to the “Memorial” on the outskirts of town. The procession actually started a little early and we had to catch up. I was shocked at the number of people participating in the march. It was in the thousands. The crowd went as far as I could see. It is called the “Immortal Regiment,” to emphasize that the memory of these brave persons will not die. It is a tradition to carry posters with the pictures of your family members who fought in the war. Both of my wife’s grandfathers fought so Gabriel and Roman carried posters with their pictures. Patriotic songs were played over a loud speaker mounted on a van as we walked. This same observance is carried out in cities all over Russia. Moscow had 850,000 and reports were that St. Petersburg had 750,000 participate. I don’t know the official numbers for Luga, a much smaller city of course, but it was far more than I have ever seen at a parade in America.
When we got to the Memorial there was no big fanfare. Some words were spoken in gratitude for those who fought and especially those who died. At the Memorial there are graves of the soldiers who perished fighting for Luga, then a Tomb to the Unknown Soldier, and also a space where the remains of those who were not found until much later have been placed. An Orthodox priest performs a brief memorial service at that location every year. I began reflecting on why the observance here is so different than in America.
First, the war was fought here. We (Americans) sent brave men and women to fight, but the battle was across one ocean or the other. Luga was occupied for almost three years by the Nazis while they beseighed Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Luga was awarded the status of “Hero City,” because it did hold off the Nazis for three weeks giving Leningrad a little more time to prepare. Remarkably, 1 in 10 citizens of Luga were awared medals for bravery. When I walk the streets of Luga I can see monuments on walls of buildings describing what happened there during the occupation or where the Nazis had their offices. A few weeks ago we flew to Finland for a long weekend. When we flew back my father-in-law picked us up at the airport in St. Petersburg. As we were driving back to Luga, he pointed to the exact point where the Nazis camped—and ultimately were stopped. We knew that road, that specific place was where it happened. There is something about seeing such sights on a daily bases that makes the war more “real.”
Second, almost everyone here has a relative who fought in the war. The official archives show that 27.5 million soldiers and civilians from the USSR died. Of those, 70% were ethnic Russians. So just under 20 million Russians died during that war. Most estimates indicate around 415,000 Americans died. Now, that is a lot of Americans, and no one takes their sacrifice lightly. But I, like many Americans, did not have any relatives who died in the war. I did have a couple of uncles who were in the war in the Pacific, but there is almost no one here who does not have someone who fought in the war and most Russians have some family member who died. Oral history is quite powerful.
Another factor in this region is the horror of the seige of Leningrad. It went on for around 900 days. People starved to death; many bodies would be left in the street; diseases of various kinds were rampant. President Putin, for example, had an older brother to die from diptheria as a child. His mother almost died. He had two uncles who were killed in combat, and his father was left with a permanent limp from being injured in battle in Estonia. As an aside, this made it extremely inappropriate for papers such as the Washington Post to editorialize (as if it were real news) that Putin was manipulating the situation for his own political ends in his moving Victory Day speech. The Post’s articles on Russia justify Stephen Cohen’s reference to our views of the old Soviet news reports of a bygone era, calling the Washington Post “Pravda on the Potomac.”
There is also a lot of pride here, however. While exact figures are illusive, the estimates are that 13.6 million Nazis died during the war, and that somewhere between 85-90% were killed by the Soviets. So almost 9 out of 10 German soldiers were killed by Soviets. I loved the movie, “Saving Privte Ryan.” But the truth is our image of the Americans landing at Normandy and marching straight to Berlin to end the war is, again, a severe distortion. The Allies faced 11 German divisions on that march. The Russians fought 228 German divisions from Moscow to Berlin. All this led Winston Churchill to state:
“I have left the obvious, essential fact to this point, namely, that it is the Russian Armies who have done the main work in tearing the guts out of the German army. In the air and on the oceans we could maintain our place, but there was no force in the world which could have been called into being, except after several more years, that would have been able to maul and break the German army unless it had been subjected to the terrible slaughter and manhandling that has fallen to it through the strength of the Russian Soviet Armies.”
—Winston Churchill, Speech in the House of Commons, 2 August 1944, “War Situation”
Russians know that the West tends to ignore their central role in the war, especially in educating our children. Now, more than ever, it seems vitally important to many politicians and media members to portray Russia as an evil nation. Apparently some have thought it better to redact the historical accounts in a way that would not lead anyone to appreciate the Soviet war efforts. My purpose is in no way to undermine or discount the contributions to the war by the Allies or the bravery of those who fought and died in the war. It is, however, to make what readers I have aware of the noble and brave efforts of the Russians and other member countries of the USSR. No good comes from our historical distortions. My desires are the same as those stated by President Ronald Reagan in his State of the Union address in 1984. Please go to the link below for two crucial minutes of that speech.