This year Marches of the Immortal Regiment held by the Russian diaspora in New York, Washington, D.C., Paris, Athens and a host of other cities around the world mean that a great many people everywhere have read reports about the phenomenon from Reuters or seen some brief video coverage on their television news.
This year was my fourth March in St. Petersburg, where my wife’s family is from, where her father got his training to serve in the Navy before he was sent off to what the Russians call The Great Patriotic War, and we know as WWII. She considers it her filial duty to carry his portrait in the March and I am the accompanying spouse. I have already written extensively about the March in previous years and I refer the reader to my first such entry in 2016.
For these reasons, in this essay I will cut generalities to a minimum and focus on personal impressions of what was different and noteworthy this year. Politics intrudes inevitably, but that will be in the concluding section.
What was different this time?
Firstly, in St Petersburg, the number of marchers reached a new plateau. Official reports put it at over one million. The last record was around 750,000. I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the official figures, because this year the procession from Staronevsky Prospekt to the Palace Square went on for at least a third longer than last year as I witnessed with my watch in hand.
This number means that one in four residents of St Petersburg took part. Meanwhile, the number of marchers in Moscow, a city with more than double the population, was reported as 700,000. The number of marchers across Russia as a whole is said to have been 10 million.
How can we explain the relative inversion of numbers between the two capitals? Weather may have been a factor. There were rain and heavy winds at times during the Moscow march. In St Petersburg, the sky was cloudless and the temperature was a pleasant 15 degrees Centigrade.
However, in practice good weather could just as easily account for a low turnout given that one in two Russian city dwellers are the owners of country houses (dachas) where this is just the time to plant seeds in the vegetable patch and to invite the family over for a barbecue followed by a session in the sauna. That could be still more likely given that this year, by official directive, Russians were encouraged to move part of their vacation time from the first two weeks in January to the period between May 1st and 10th. Indeed, my usual sources of intelligence, taxi drivers, told me that this year many of their customers and the flow of traffic they encountered was from the countryside to the city on the 8th as people returned from their dachas precisely to be able to participate in the march.
The high number of marchers in St Petersburg is especially notable because of what it tells you about the Immortal Regiment phenomenon. One has to bear in mind that the Northern Capital is probably the least supportive of the Kremlin among Russian cities. Therefore, high turnout suggests that the March is genuinely a grass-roots movement rather than some political trick manipulated from on high.
No doubt a contributing factor in distinguishing St Petersburg is that apart from Stalingrad (modern day Volgograd) it suffered the most in the Second World War, losing a very substantial part of the civilian population to the Siege. To this day, the “blokadniki” are given the same official preferment in housing and pensions as the government allots to its veterans.
Another difference with years past was the obvious presence of non-Russian ethnic groups and nationalities among the marchers. Whereas the first marches I took part in were lily white, this time there were official reports of a Kyrghizstan contingent from Central Asia parading in native dress. I did not see them, but in the masses around me I spotted a group of a dozen or more marchers from predominantly Muslim Tatarstan. The men wore traditional embroidered silk caps. All of this argues for the greater inclusiveness of the Immortal Regiment event, and for what is a tolerant variety of nationalism under its umbrella.
Also near me, I saw a fellow in a Jewish kippa. Otherwise, this year’s fashion item was WWII period soldiers’ caps, which were worn by men and women alike. However, there was nothing approaching uniformity in dress of the marchers. One little kid was wearing his Burger King crown proudly. Some few women were chicly dressed. Most people wore what they could otherwise be seen wearing on the metro weekdays or out at the dacha: fresh looking but inexpensive clothes of the masses. This was true both of those holding aloft photographs of medaled fathers and grandfathers with officer’s rank and of those holding aloft photos of their relatives who were simple enlisted men.
By age, the marchers this year did not differ greatly from years past. Perhaps more dating young couples than I noticed before, though the greatest numbers were family groups bringing together three generations. And judging by what I saw looking in the windows of restaurants after we left the march, a goodly number of these families concluded their march with a meal together. Others still surely did as we did and joined friends and family around a banquet table at home.
In the past, there had been live entertainment from little stands posted every few blocks where singers belted out WWII favorites. This time the music was nearly all “canned” marches blaring from street loudspeakers that otherwise are part of the civil defense system. This was a throwback to Soviet times. However, there were also some amateur musicians who came to spontaneously entertain us: I think of a group of six, led by two accordionists, who played their songs in the middle of our marching column.
Another throwback to the Soviet years was the sprinkling of portraits of Joseph Stalin carried by some marchers. I had seen none in the past. But it would be risky to draw any conclusions about this, just as it would be risky to draw conclusions from Vladimir Putin’s mention in a televised interview the next day that all those who fought in WWII were rightfully considered heroes by their children and grandchildren, because with cries of “For the Motherland! For Stalin!” they rose from their trenches and faced the blazing guns of the enemy. That is the historical reality which cannot be airbrushed away.
One other thing that seemed to me to be different this year occurred on the television broadcast of the formal celebrations in Moscow in the morning. Amidst the customary coverage of the military parade, there was the video feed from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the walls of the Kremlin when President Vladimir Putin laid a wreath. Two steps behind the President was a burly security officer carrying a briefcase. Obviously from his demeanor, the briefcase – with the nuclear button. That matches up nicely with the coverage of the latest Russian strategic nuclear-armed missiles that passed through Red Square with the morning parade. Given how these things are stage managed, I take it to be a not too subtle message to Washington.
* * * *
Arguably, May 9th is the most important holiday in Russia’s annual calendar. Some people rate it more highly than their own birthday. But it took the invention of the March of the Immortal Regiment to give a family dimension to the group commemorative activities.
During the forty-six years following the end of WWII when Russians lived under the Communist regime of the Soviet Union, people did not talk freely about their family histories, including what they did during the War. This was true even in the last five years when Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost’ opened the media to publication of most everything that had been kept under seven seals until then. The great fear handed down from the period of Stalin’s terror enforced prudence and secrecy at the family level.
What the March of the Immortal Regiment has unleashed is honesty among people about their family past, which now is shared with friends, neighbors and relatives. The March has exercised a cathartic effect on the nation.
A few days before 9 May, the Russia-expert, former CIA officer Paul Goble published an essay in which he asked, condescendingly, why Russia makes such a big deal out of WWII every year when most countries do not, when the rest of the world rolls its remembrance of its veterans of all wars into one day.
Yes, in Russia, May 9th ranks as the national, family and personal holy day. Why? Because of the body count. Russia lost 27 million dead in WWII. Hardly a family in the country was spared grief. Moreover, in Russia today there is genuine pride in the knowledge, little shared in the West, that the biggest contribution to the defeat of fascist Germany in WWII was made by Russia (the Soviet Union). This is a purely objective reckoning based on the numbers of German soldiers who were killed on the Eastern, not Western front. In this context, the Allied landing in Normandy, which is what most Americans know best about the war, was an appendage to what was basically a life or death struggle between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union.
The same logic explains why in Western Europe there is particular attention even today to Armistice Day, November 11, commemorating the end of their Great War. WWI cost Western Europe an entire generation of young men and had enormous impact of the civilian population lasting right up to the second world war.
However, when people like Goble pose their question about Russia’s veneration of its dead in WWII, they show their ignorance of and insensitivity to Russian mentality
The March of the Immortal Regiment has tapped into another set of Russian traditions that preceded all its wars: respect for the dead.
Perhaps the Slavic country with greatest reverence for the departed is Poland, where to this day family members will go to the cemeteries to visit gravesides and leave flowers several times a year and almost without fail on All Saints’ Day, November 1st.
In Russia, visits to cemeteries are rarer, but in the cemeteries themselves there is a great resemblance to what you find in Poland: nearly all tombstones bear an image of the departed, a photograph, often taken in their youth, set on an enamel plate.
The Immortal Regiment, a veritable sea of photographs of dead relatives who were veterans of the war or who served on the home front, or who lived and died in the Siege of Leningrad, may be understood as a cemetery on the march.
To a large extent, this is a reaffirmation of the popular Christian belief in the Resurrection of the flesh. I make reference to my Russian wife’s sincere feeling that as we carry her father’s portrait in the March, he is making one more appearance down the city’s main artery, Nevsky Prospekt. It is not for nothing that in Russian cemeteries, those who can afford it install a stone bench next to the grave so that they, together with family members and friends, can sit down, perhaps quaff a shot glass of vodka and commune with the departed.
All of which leads me back to politics. In the United States, ‘Russia experts’ like Goble are legion and shout down those who are not Putin-bashers. They do not visit Russia, often do not have a good command of the language and arrive at their pronouncements from abstract considerations of how things should be. They lack entirely Fingerspitzengefuehle. Even if they are writing their personal beliefs and not what their sponsors want them to publish, they are out of touch. And they are one more reason why our Russia policies are so misguided and unproductive if not counterproductive.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019