09 May 2008

Victory Day number two

На братских могилах не ставят крестов,
И вдовы на них не рыдают,
К ним кто-то приносит букеты цветов,
И Вечный огонь зажигают.

Здесь раньше вставала земля на дыбы,
А нынче - гранитные плиты.
Здесь нет ни одной персональной судьбы -
Все судьбы в единую слиты.

А в Вечном огне виден вспыхнувший танк,
Горящие русские хаты,
Горящий Смоленск и горящий рейхстаг,
Горящее сердце солдата.

У братских могил нет заплаканных вдов -
Сюда ходят люди покрепче.
На братских могилах не ставят крестов,
Но разве от этого легче?..

There are no crosses on soldiers' mass graves;
And there are no sobbing widows.
There are only bouquets of flowers
And the fire of the Eternal Flame.

First they were marked by mounds of dirt,
And later by granite tablets.
Here there's no "individual fate" –
For here, all of our fates ran together.

And in the Eternal Flame are the flames of the tanks,
The burning peasant huts,
Burning Smolensk, the burning Reichstag,
And the burning hearts of the soldiers.

There are no sobbing widows at soldiers' mass graves –
We who come here are stronger than that.
There are no crosses on soldiers' mass graves –
But does that make it any easier?

Vladimir Vysotsky, 1964

(It's a song. The translation, somewhat loose, is mine.)

May 9th, День Победы/Den' Pobedy/Victory Day, is one of the most important holidays – probably the most important holiday, in the official view – of the year in Russia. I wrote about it last year as well, when I celebrated the occasion primarily by having a long, emotional conversation (well, more of a monologue, really, with me playing the role of the audience) with an elderly neighbor of Laura's.

I've spent a lot more time this year thinking and talking about World War II than I did last year. The memory of World War II was important in Vladivostok – caring about World War II is a requirement of morally correct Russian citizens, the same way, perhaps, that loving democracy or freedom of speech is a requirement of morally correct American citizens. Maybe. It's hard to find parallels, since our societies are so different. Anyway, people in Vladivostok care about World War II. The city history museum and the museum of the Pacific Fleet both have significant floor space devoted to it (like every museum in Russia, basically), and the city, like all Soviet cities, is littered with monuments – one to the naval ships that were lost, one to the civilian ships that were lost, the requisite eternal flame (every city has an eternal flame devoted to the war), etc.

But the main front wasn't there, and you can definitely tell once you've lived where the front was. Taganrog was occupied by the Nazis for a year or so, I believe; we have monuments to the teenaged partisans (which has a different meaning in Russian than in English) that participated in the Taganrog underground, plaques on buildings around town that were used as Nazi military headquarters and hospitals and such, and huge Socialist-Realist monuments in the villages around Taganrog where the front lines were. Furthermore, almost everyone seems to have a relative (or several, usually) who fought. I've heard stories from two or three people whose parents or grandparents fought at Stalingrad; unsurprising, since Stalingrad (now Volgograd) isn't that far away, but still strangely jarring, since it and the siege of Leningrad are the only WWII battles I'm really familiar with anymore (although I made a great salt-dough map of Iwo Jima in eighth grade). In short, the inherited memory of the war seems much stronger here than it was in Vladivostok. The kind of story I heard last year from the elderly neighbor turns out to be a genre in its own right; telling family stories about the war is a beloved pastime this time of year, one that's only becoming more important as the generation of veterans that Soviet schoolchildren used to present with flowers and gifts of thanks slowly disappears.

Strangely, there's no end of hand-wringing about the fact that the veterans are dying, especially among older Russians. I mean, I sort of understand it – people know the younger generations will eventually forget the war, and since the war loomed so large in their consciousness, that seems almost criminally irresponsible of them, not to mention dangerous. The trope that "we must remember, so that it never happens again," one that's probably been around as long as people have been doing horrible things to each other (so, always), is one that gets invoked a lot. How exactly Russians remembering their victory over the Nazis will prevent Nazism from returning is, I think, a question best left unasked. No point being too irreverent when you're a guest in a foreign land. But it's not like the fact that it was "the Greatest Generation" can be expected to prevent it from dying...

Anyway, in the same vein, I hear again and again how indifferent young people are to the war; but I've never actually found a young person who was indifferent. In the last few years, a new fad has emerged of tying "St. George ribbons" to your clothes, car antenna (to slightly weird effect if your car is a German, Italian or Japanese model), or purse. They're like the Russian version of those damn car-magnet-ribbon-thingies, except (so far) less annoying. They hand them out everywhere; at schools, the post office, the city government building, etc. They're meant as a symbol of remembrance, reverence and thanks. And the only students I have who don't wear them avoid doing so because they don't think it's right to wear a medal you didn't earn. (The Order of St. George was a tsarist military honor, and the ribbons are called St. George ribbons because they're the same black-and-orange striped pattern as the ribbon the Order hung on.) I don't agree with that logic, but nonetheless, their hearts are in the right place. Maybe I just have unusually upstanding students, though, and the young hooligans who refuse to give up their bus seats to veterans really do exist.

One of the most interesting things to me is that Russians often adamantly insist that the reason they care so much about the war is that it touched Russia to a much greater degree than America. That is most certainly true, especially in terms of human loss. The USSR won, but not without being almost totally crushed. But (and I can't take credit for this idea) the war's place in the Russian consciousness is also hugely influenced by the fact that the Soviet victory was seen and used by the government as the proof of the pudding – the pudding being the Revolution. Finally, it gave the Soviet people something very real to be proud of, and giving people something to be proud of (and investing time and money to make sure they are proud of it) is a good way to placate and control them. So the government did just that, and ideology eventually became habit.

I've had some interesting conversations with other Americans (by which I mean Amara) who think that the Russian obsession with the war is unhealthy. After thinking about that for a long time, I'm still not sure what I think. It certainly looks a bit silly at times, and sometimes harmfully so (witness relations between Estonia and Russia; last year, riots broke out in Tallinn and a PR volcano erupted in Moscow when the Estonians moved a statue of the "Soviet liberator" (who they justifiably call the "Soviet occupier") from central Tallinn to a cemetery on the edge of the city). However, I think it's still almost totally natural, government encouragement or no; when you're 23, it can be hard to remember that 60-odd years is not very long to get over such a tragedy, especially one that touched almost every single family in the country. I think the process of forgetting will be painful; unfortunate in some ways and helpful in others; and, in the end, totally natural. But the fact that it's a lot farther along in the U.S. than here doesn't really bother me.

Whoa, long post. I could write a lot (yeah, even more) about this. Maybe I'll get to in grad school?


TJ Root said...

Hey Bug. I don't know if it's fair to say that it touched them to a much greater degree, though I can see where the argument can be made. I think it's important to note that the American experience in the war was far different than the Russian one. That being said, and not being of any real value, it's important to note that America in many ways hasn't gotten over the war. I think the big difference is that we, in America, feel some guilt over the war (at the risk of being too political, I'll thank the left wing college types for this). This probably has a lot to do with our general American drive to ameliorate the world's ills, coupled with the fact that our government has been much less involved. Perhaps the fact that the buildings in Russia have plaques upon them serves as a very real reminder of just how close the world was to being completely dismantled and rebuilt by a genocidal maniac. We don't have that in America, and maybe that's why we are so quick to apologize for the herculean lengths to which we went to win the war. But when so much hung in the balance, the ends more than justified the means. To be honest, I've never heard any man who fought in the Pacific apologize for the atomic bomb.

War, especially once you've seen it, is hard to get over. Everyone who comes home carries with them one thing that they'll never get out of their heads. Some people, like Gramp, carry more than their fair share. But that's the way of it. And in our country anymore, being proud of your military service seems to automatically pigeonhole you as a right-wing warmonger. Our wars and our soldiers are much more politicized than the Red soldier, I think. In America, it was okay to spit on a man coming home from Vietnam (whether literally or figuratively). In retrospect we would disagree, of course, but at the time it was more common than anyone would really care to admit. I don't think Russians have ever found it acceptable to denigrate those who served their country. That probably had something to do with socialist despotism as well.

Regardless, America finds it acceptable to be out of touch with things like war. My friend was in Vegas on leave, and when he told a girl he had come from Iraq, she asked "Oh, what casino is that in?"

So, as he said later, maybe there is no love anymore for the American fighting man. But I, for one, hope that on June 6th the comics page will still show a beleaguered Snoopy, laden with rifle and helmet, paddling to shore at Normandy. For, as Winston Churchill said after the Battle of Britain, "Never was so much owed by so many, to so few."

your brother

Anonymous said...

I would be interested to know what kinds of plaques/monuments/memorials to those who served and/or died in World War II are on display in England. There is a country, too, with huge sacrifices, but we don't seem to see or hear about their remembrance ceremonies or monuments in, say, the way we are treated to views, from time to time, of the Omaha, Utah, Juno, Sword and Gold beachheads in Normandy or the vast rows of graves in the American cemeteries in France and the annual wreath-layings there. Surely the English have not forgotten; I do wonder why what they do and say about World War II remembrances don't seem to be covered in the news.

It is sad that the "Greatest Generation" of the U.S., England and Russia is dying off. leaving their stories for others to tell, remember and, eventually, lose in the mists of time. Note that I've left out the French in this case ... the phrase "cheese-eating s******er monkeys" comes to mind.

"Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men. It is the spirit of the men who follow and of the man who leads that gains that victory."
-- General George S. Patton


Anonymous said...

leslie, will hopefully be in Vlad in June/July, hope to see some sights, museums, memorials - maybe you have some suggestions. By the way I don't know of very many Americans who can look at the memorial at Pearl Harbor and not remember what it stands for. I think our country owes our soldiers more respect than they get. I wish more did. Thanks for reminding me that it wasn't just us that suffered at the hands of "mad man".