This must be what a sardine feels like, I think to myself, as an impossible number of people crush into a car on the Almaty metro. Although the city is broad and has only a single metro line, creating a lot of demand, the cars are running on a holiday schedule at about twenty minute intervals — which is disastrous, because a football stadium’s worth of people are trying to reach tiny Astana Square for the start of the parade.
As the subway bellows and lurches into motion, unable to do anything else, I crane my neck and look around, ticking off an imaginary scavenger’s list of Soviet tropes. This holiday, especially through a Western lens, is perhaps the most Soviet of them all. There are teenagers in camoflauge and military caps with extremely convincing toy Kalashnikovs, older men in Spetsnatz uniforms bought from the military bazaar near the bus station sneaking nips of vodka from various pocketed flasks, and even older men loudly singing and playing the accordion as best they can without the ability to move their elbows. In a stunning trick of generational wizardry rarely seen in the USA, there are even older men, bedecked with medals and with wide-brimmed officer’s hats, who command a certain respect and are the only ones granted extra breathing room as we close in on the station closest to the parade. Relics and terms from the Soviet Union which would be gauche any other day of the year — addressing one another as “Comrade” and adorning oneself with the flag of the USSR or tiny amulets featuring Lenin or Stalin — are completely acceptable.
Emerging from the subway is trickier than packing in. The code of conduct regarding queueing practices and personal space are different in this part of the world, and as the hundreds of people start a nonchalant shoving match to reach the surface it takes a lot of care not to get trampled. Babushkas with bony elbows and a sense of elderly priority make persistent use of both, until they are smugly at the head of the pack. As the bright light of the sun blinds those of us lucky enough to emerge, we are simultaneously dazzled by the reflections of tanks, machine guns, sabers, Jeeps, and cannons. Everyone knows the lyrics to a march being blasted over a distant loudspeaker, and they begin seamlessly harmonizing as they climb to street level.
This is Den’ Pobedy, Victory Day — the 73rd celebration of Germany’s surrender on May 9 (Moscow time), 1945.
It’s an impressive display, but nobody takes too long to gawk at all the machinery. Unlike some parades, the spectators are themselves the point of interest. Congregating together until they reach a critical mass, they shout “Victory!” and “Hurrah!” and “In memory of the fallen!”, and then they begin to march. I really have no idea how many people are involved — I hear varying figures between seventy and a hundred thousand people, which given Almaty’s size and the crowd’s dedication are eminently believable. On a warm, breezy May day, it’s a pretty good showing.
This is my third Den’ Pobedy, and it’s a spectacle that never ceases to impress me. My first was in the city of Kerch, on the very eastern tip of Crimea (then Ukraine). This was an excellent introduction, as Kerch is one of thirteen Hero Cities — cities specially designated by Stalin after the war which were the sites of major battles or atrocities central to the 1941-1943 grind on the eastern front. Nearly a million people died around Kerch as Germany and the USSR wrestled for months over its strategic location on both the Black Sea and Sea of Azov. Outside of town, in tiny goatherding settlements, the coastal steppe is still pockmarked from the impact of shells, and on a large hill in the center of town stands a giant obelisk — the hallmark of a Hero City — and an eternally burning flame. In Kerch, which at that time was more than 80% Russian, Den’ Pobedy is marked by an extremely ornate and particularly Russified parade, with the inclusions of some Russian flags and images of Putin that would be completely absent in other celebrations I saw. Dressing up as a Soviet soldier from the era, a move which in the US might be fairly gauche, is encouraged. Thousands and thousands of tiny orange and black ribbons, commemorating the Order of St. George which is connected with the holiday, are sold for a few cents apiece, and it is simply unacceptable not to wear one on the lapel. But I learned about the soul of Den’ Pobedy in the evening, when nearly every citizen of Kerch takes up a torch and leads a long, winding procession up the large hill in the center of town, out to the quarries which housed a bitter, morbid resistance in the winter of 1941-1942, and back into town. All the while, leaders on megaphones describe the details of the battle down to the most incredible minutiae, exhorting the young to never forget. To the elderly, for whom this march can be a difficult exertion, there is no need for reminder. Many tearfully clutch photos to their chest, knowing to within a few meters where their loved ones perished.
My second Den’ Pobedy was last year, in Tbilisi. My first outside of a Russian-majority community, it shared much more in common with the Kazakhs than with the Crimeans. This was the first time I saw what I would call the defining characteristic of Den’ Pobedy outside the white, Russian core of the USSR, which is a massive amount of portraits. Every family, without exception, has a picture — many framed, taken down from the walls or out of storage, with a hint of dust — of a family member who was in the war, mounted on a thick piece of wood or steel, to be proudly held up as a sign of how the war impacted them. In Almaty, as in Tbilisi, there are more familial portraits than flags, more embraces than salutes. The Georgians have a particularly unique and salient interpretation of the holiday. Not only was Stalin a Georgian by birth, but Georgians died in record numbers due to their proximity to major battle sites in southwestern Russia. In fact, the vast majority of those killed in the battle of Kerch and ensuing atrocities were Georgian. From quarries outside Kerch, they led a resistance marked by attrition and suffering, many dying from starvation and hypothermia. The quarries are called Adzhimushkay, which is an unmistakably Georgian name. Their history gives an intimate connection to my Crimean experience, showing the true interconnectedness of the Soviet peoples during the war. The Georgians are quick to voice that their ancestors sacrificed for them and the Soviet people as people, one family for another. Strangers ask one another where their relatives served, and if from the same regiment speculate if perhaps they knew one another.
Yet outside the urban centers, the reactions to Den’ Pobedy, the war, and the idea of a “Soviet people” are more mixed. I spent a week or so prior to the holiday in the nearby Tien Shan mountains, near Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul lake which very nearly abuts the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border. When I ask Kyrgyz and Kazakhs alike if there will be a parade, I largely get shrugs. Responses range from “I don’t know, maybe in Astana (the capital) there will be something”, to a gruff “Don’t know, don’t care”. The entire history of the Soviet Union reads completely differently in non-white, rural areas. If the benefits were greatest in urban areas, where advanced technology, health care, and subsidized education make a strong argument for communism, the drawbacks were most emphasized outside the cities, particularly in Central Asia. Environmental disasters such as the destruction of the Aral Sea watershed mark global, irreversible catastrophes whose fallout echo well into modern times. The persecution of these nomadic peoples by still-lauded (white, Russian) Soviet heroes such as Przhevalskiy remind these outsiders that while perhaps the idea of a “Soviet people” might not have to read as white and Slavic, it certainly connotes people who are willing to act that way.
In many ways, the celebration of Den’ Pobedy is a cultural phenomenon which is unlike anything we have in the United States. And the Kazakhs I talk to drive that point home. Hitchhiking around Almaty a couple of days before the holiday, the taxi driver jovially prompts me: “Which people beat Germany?”, to which I heartily reply, “The Soviet Union!”. He is not thrilled when I add “…and America!” under my breath. Later, an older woman is confused when I don’t have any signs of celebration on me, and tries to offer me one of her dead relatives for a while. I explain that I have dead relatives of my own from the war, and just neglected to bring their pictures. After scratching her head, she inquires, “Was America really in the war?”
There can be no doubt that the war’s toll on the Soviet population, landscape, and cultural memory dwarfs that of the American loss. If anything, that’s what the holiday is all about. One of the photos held aloft this year sticks with me as a testament to that. Wearing glasses much too big for his young face and a uniform that comically drips off of his body, a young Russian boy (Kazakhstan has a large Russian minority) stares into the camera. His dates read 1929-1943. It’s a reasonable guess that this fourteen-year-old boy died in the battle of Stalingrad, when anyone strong enough to hold a rifle was conscripted.
However, that doesn’t diminish America’s sacrifice, which is why I find it so puzzling to compare Den’ Pobedy to our own VE day and other veteran memorial holidays. I am particularly embarrassed when an older man, a veteran of the Russian-Afghanistan conflict, excitedly asks me how big the parade in New York is, waiting to be blown away. When I explain that (to my knowledge) there isn’t a parade, certainly nothing to compare to this, I am not sure if he is more crestfallen or confused. “What, did you all forget?”
In the same way that some of the greatest humanistic aspects of the Soviet era are lost on us in a haze of agitprop and Yakov Smirnoff bits, the parts of Den’ Pobedy that are really special seem to be conspicuously absent in our own memorials. We have an abundance of such holidays, commemorating our zillions of twentieth-century wars, but the very way in which we interpret, translate, and practice a “parade” is fundamentally different. In the US, the nation and its military are what is feted. We idly stand to the side and admire a stream of uniforms, high-powered weaponry, and every possible manifestation of the American flag. The citizens are separated from the parade, isolated in clusters of families and friends.
In Kazakhstan, at least, the situation is reversed. Many times I saw regiments of dazzling Kazakh soldiers in full military apparel completely ignored by photographers, who were instead featuring families proudly holding their family members aloft. Complete strangers stopped one another to take photos and ask about the fallen loved ones featured in the photos. It is the people, not the army, that occupy the street and march together from point A to point B. The nation is relegated to the background in favor of the people.
This point is driven home by a plaque in nearby Bishkek’s memorial park: “мы шли в бой за коммунизм”, “We went to war for Communism”. To me this seems just as well to read, “we did not go to war for Russia”. As in other parts of the old USSR, the people of Central Asia are forced to reconcile the great sacrifice of their own people for an inherently Russo-centric agenda. Here in the cities, at least, they have made their peace. By carefully constructing, bearing aloft, inquiring about, and photographing these dead loved ones, they remember much better than we do that these sacrifices were made in the name of their common good and for the people, rather than for any particular nation.