Monday, May 9, 2011

V for Victory

It is a few minutes before 2am here in Moscow, but I'm just not in the mood for bed yet. My parents left for Domodedovo airport two hours ago, and after a week of being with them all the time, it just doesn't feel right to be sitting alone in my flat right now! We had such an amazing trip and I've got a billion things to write about. First up - today's events. It was Victory Day today (День Победы), the holiday in Russia that commemorates the end of World War Two, or the Great Patriotic War as it is known here.

(If you're wondering why it is celebrated on May 9 rather than May 8, the day the Nazis surrendered, it is because they surrendered when it was already the next day in Moscow for everyone else, V-E Day is May 8 but Russia celebrates it on the 9th).

Victory Day is a HUGE DEAL here. Russia lost more than 20 million soldiers and civilians in World War Two, which is a staggering, sobering number. War was fought on their land, in their homes. Everyone has at least one family member who was killed in the war. In Canada, we honour war veterans on November 11, Remembrance Day, but our commemorations lack the fervour and passion that I witnessed today in Moscow. And I think that is because although Canadians are truly thankful for the sacrifices our soldiers have made in the past, we don't really understand war. We didn't live it, we didn't suffer along. We have been fortunate enough to always have war as a distant, far-off concept. But here, in Russia, as it must be in other places throughout the world I'm sure, war is personal. And so the commemoration of victory is something deeply meaningful for people.

My parents and I headed into Moscow and got to Red Square around 11:30am. There was a big parade there earlier that had been closed off to the public, and so Red Square itself, as well as Manezhnaya Ploshchad (Manezh Square) and the Alexandrovskiy Sad (Alexander Gardens) were still closed. Instead we milled around with the THOUSANDS of people gathered on Tverskaya and Teatralnaya Streets (several major thoroughfares were closed to traffic today - so surreal walking in the middle of the usually chaotic Tverskaya!). Everywhere we looked people were clutching long-stemmed flowers to hand to veterans. People were wearing army hats and orange and black ribbons on their lapels, and every so often a group would burst into one of Russia's many beautiful and moving Victory Day songs. Oh, and did I mention the Russian flags flying EVERYWHERE? So much patriotism and pride!

The whole city was decked out with banners, posters, signs, and ribbons. We made our way up to the Lubyanka, the grim headquarters of the former KGB (and unfortunately the place where many, many people met their deaths) and my dad did his best Jack Ryan pose, pretending to talk into his shoe/secret spy radio transistor:

You can take the Dad out of the Tom Clancy novels
but you can't take the Tom Clancy out of the Dad...

There was also a protest going on in front of the Lubyanka. Check out this guy's poster:

It says: "We didn't beat Fascism so they
can bomb again...keep your paws off
Libya!" (thanks to Iain for the translation!)
Hmm...anti-American? Anti-Western Europe?
Not sure!

We left the protestors to their own devices and headed to a small garden in Kitai Gorod where we picked up coffees and teas from Kofe House and just relaxed in the sun for a bit. The garden was packed with revelers enjoying the holiday and gorgeous weather, including these folks who were passing around vodka shots (trust me, they were not the only ones drinking today...and my parents and I probably would have been among them if Thursday night hadn't happened...more about that later...ughhh):

Around 2pm, we noticed a surge of people headed back towards Red Square so we joined up with the crowd and stood in a packed line waiting to get in. Security was INSANE pretty much everywhere we went today - metal detectors everywhere to get into certain areas of the city, and militsiya and army soldiers forming barriers. But I really didn't see any troublemakers or anything happening that might cause reason for worry. Everyone just seemed really, really happy and jubilant and proud. Eventually the militsiya let us in through the metal detectors and this giant crowd of people pushed and surged forwards, carrying my parents and I along with them - such a cool moment as we were literally swept onto Red Square!

I think that on a day like today, a picture is truly worth a thousand words, so I'll post some of my favourite shots of the day:

Giving flowers to a veteran

My mum and I in front of the General Zhukov statue (Zhukov was a major World War Two hero)

The future generation saying thank you to
our grandparents for everything they did.

The flowers at the Alexander Gardens - in the
red, blue and white of the Russian flag

The flag on the left is the Russian Navy flag - I'm
not sure about the other flag though. Anyone know?

Along the ledge leading up to the Tomb of the
Unknown Soldier

My favourite part of the day, however, and one of the most moving and poignant moments of my life, was when I approached a veteran on Red Square and asked him for a photograph. He could tell by my accent that I wasn't Russian, and he asked me where I was from. "Canada," I answered. His wrinkled face - a face that has seen so much over the years, a face with so much wisdom and bravery etched onto it - creased into a wide grin. "Canada!" he exclaimed. "That is very good! I am so happy to meet you!" I wanted to say, "Happy to meet ME? I am so, so honoured to meet YOU." Alas, my meager Russian would not suffice, so I had to settle for shaking his hand and saying with the utmost sincerity and respect and gratefulness, "C praznikom. Spasiba bolshoi. Happy Victory Day. Thank you so much." He grasped my hand and pulled me into a warm embrace, and at this point I had to keep myself from crying. What a beautiful, memorable experience for me, and one I will never forget.

We ended the day by walking up to Arbat by way of Gogolskiy Boulvar' and went out for dinner at Shashlik Mashlik (Georgian food has been our go-to almost every night this week!). We got the metro and then the bus back to Mytishi and got home just in time to make a pot of tea and watch the fireworks out my kitchen window. Then, all too soon, the cab driver arrived and my parents had to leave. Now they'll be at the airport (I hope!) and, like I mentioned at the beginning of my blog, I just don't want to go to bed. I already miss them like crazy!!!

Today was the perfect last day though. All three of us felt so honoured and privileged to be able to witness Victory Day in Moscow. Just a few days ago, the last World War One veteran died. We need to make sure that as time marches on, the sacrifices brave men and women have made for us are not forgotten. "Never again," the world keeps on saying. Well, let's MEAN IT for once!! Too many horrible, horrible things have happened in history and keep on happening. Let's make the sacrifices of the past worth it. What better way to honour our veterans than by working together and striving towards lasting peace??

I'll end my post with that thought. And one more thing.

Spasiba bolshoi. Thank you so much.


  1. What an amazing day! So glad I got to experience it.

  2. The flag on the left is the Russian navy ensign, the unidentified one on the right is the Soviet navy ensign. Typically the flag flown at the front of the ship (on a small flagpole for the purpose, and never at sea; the pole is taken down when the ship departs port) is called the Jack, and the one flown at the stern of the ship at the quarterdeck (in port; from the yard at sea) is the Ensign. In many countries (such as yours and mine) the ensign is simply the national flag. In others it is a special design for the service it represents.

    This is a great post; very moving. It looks like it was a beautiful day, too, weather-wise, and believe me you're not missing anything back home in that respect if Victoria is any standard of measure. I envy you your lengthy visit - I loved Rudssia from the first time I set foot in it. I greatly enjoy your photos and stories of it.

  3. Thank you Mark! The information about the naval flags is very interesting; I was curious! How long were you in Russia for?

  4. I was never there longer than I could stay on a Visitor's Visa, which is 30 days, and my total stay was usually a day or two short of that to allow for travel time. I'm not counting my first visit, which was with the navy and only lasted 4 days. After that I returned for month-long visits in 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2005. Our long battle with immigration ended that year and my wife was finally allowed to enter Canada, and I'm afraid I haven't been back since (although she and the children did a month-long visit in 2008, I was in Southeast Asia for that one).

    I loved the atmosphere and the people's friendliness and kindness. However, one's impression of a country while on vacation is probably influenced by the relaxation; it might be significantly different to work there, and I'd be interested in your take on the difference.

    I found your blog through BiznessLanch, and I like it a lot. You have a talent for storytelling that makes readers feel part of events.

  5. Where did all the comments go?

  6. I'm not sure. Blogger was down for about two days (wednesday night until yesterday evening) and I read online that a bunch of comments and posts could have been deleted from people's blogs! I don't know if they're going to restore them or not :(

  7. Such a nice beautifully report of the events you enjoyed! The Victory Day is one of my favourite holidays! I can never help crying on that day watching the war movies or just thinking about what has happened to people. My grandgrandfather died during the war as many other bravest people of that time. They had the idea to fight for, not even some idea, they had their families behind them unprotected and they did everything they could to let us, my parents and me live now. You know, there are lots of people nowadays here in Russia who say things like: "It must have been better to live now in the country if Nazi had won!". I'm SOOOO asamed of these people and I always want to say to them as well as to those brainless young men who pretend to be the followers of Hitler and other Nazis "HOW DARE YOU? How dare YOU who might not have even been born if your grandgrandparents had fought for your grandparents and parents not to die!" I'm just too emotional on the subject and though this country certainly lacks lots of things and I don't like many political things happening here, anyways I value the place I've been born to and I value my people who made through(hopefully) the hardest and the most terrifying time! And thanks to you Katie for understanging what some of my country-men don't value. And I literally cried at the scene of your talking to the veteran.

    1. Talking to the veteran was the most moving, emotional experience of my life. I walked away feeling so humbled and grateful for exactly what you wrote about, the sacrifices another generation made to defend their country, their loved ones, and the future. I was particularly moved by just how many people crowded the streets of Moscow to give thanks to the veterans. Here in Canada we don't really do that. Remembrance Day (Nov 11) isn't a public holiday so only the people that have work off (and want to) will go to the cenotaph for about 10 minutes around 11am to observe a moment of silence. But that's it. Maybe its because the war was so distant for us, whereas it was fought on Russian soil and so many Russians gave their lives that it is not just a lesson in a history book for you, but part of your own family past.

      I'm glad to hear that no matter what the politics are in Russia, you still value the country you were born in! That's so important. Sure, there's a lot of cynicism in Russia right now but there's so much more to your beautiful country.

    2. May be you heard about the fact that many people here divide such notions as "country" (being like an official political unit)and "Motherland" (being just the place and the people you were born to: with its nature whatever it might be, stupidity and genius, indifference and open heart of the people). And many of the people (including me) even oppose these two notions sometimes hating the "country" and loving the "Motherland". It might seem very weird to other people (American for example) to criticize your own country in any way. As far as I know, Americans are SO proud of whatever concerns their country, but may be it's just a stereotype.

      I've recently been reading your blog and I like it sooo much! You find beuty and interesting things in what we have already been used not to notice or not to value. You also often write about how we don't smile at all in public :-D Lately, I didn't even pay much attention to this fact. But when I started travelling I understood how cold we might look on the surface. For example, I was in Vienna 2 years ago and me and my friend were walking in the streets of this beautiful city and so many people were passing by, looking at us and smiling. We checked everything, thought that we might have had something wrong with our clothes or faces :-D And obly some time later I realised what was that, so funny :-D And I was surprised at these smiles though naturaly I am very smiley and bubbly, but obviously not enough for other people! I also work with foreign students which are mostly from Africa but they also talked about it multiple times how sad and grim we are especially in the public transport. I like the following quote on the topic ‎by Muhammad Ali "Russia frightens me: people in buses look like they have been taken for the electric chair execution" So true..... hahahaha! I've started noticing it myself!

    3. I think the stereotype in North America about Russians largely derives from our films! The Russians are always the "bad guys" and portrayed as very cold and stoic. For my parents' generation, they grew up during the Cold War where the Russians were seen as part of the "Evil Empire", as Ronald Reagan described the USSR, and that also contributes to a negative stereotype that just isn't true. Everyone I know who has moved to Russia or traveled there extensively has said the same thing - that Russians are some of the warmest, friendliest, most welcoming people in the world, and I wholedheartedly believe that. My students and Russian friends in Mytishi and Moscow opened their hearts and homes to me, and I will always be grateful for that. I read in a book about Russia that Russians tend to keep to themselves on the streets, its true, but in the home they are the best, most loyal friends you could ever want. Ya saglasna!! ))

      (Oh and your explanation of how Russians see country and motherland as two different, separate entities was so interesting! It seems to me that people in NA don't make that difference, and see any form of criticism of their country as being unpatriotic. Thanks for the enlightenment!)

    4. You are always welcome! :) Yeah, when my family and I were watching some US action movie where 'bad guys' were always Russians and MOSTLY the ugly ones (as if only actors with threatening looks on their faces can play Russians) we always laughed at the broken Russian those 'Russian' gangsters spoke and the funniest thing was when they call each other "Alexander" or "Mikhail" or "Vladimir" in an ordinary daily speech or while firing at good heros. No normal person calls a friend here by his/her full first names! It sounds sooo weird!

      Катя (if I may call you so), you wrote in this blog so much about how cold it was in Russia in winter and how you suffered. But as far as I know Canada is located in almost the same latitudes. Is it not that cold in your country???