Russians Remember Their WWII Vets

The West’s propaganda war against Russia filters events there through a prism of cynicism and contempt, but that misses the human component of a country still remembering the deep personal scars of World War II, as Gilbert Doctorow reflects.

By Gilbert Doctorow

I will open with full disclosure: I am generally not enthusiastic about crowds or going with the flow. That is simply a question of temperament. So it took a bit of coaxing from my Russian wife to prepare me for the Immortal Regiment parade in St. Petersburg, where we otherwise were staying within the context of our bimonthly visits to the city.

She was intent on honoring her father and grandmother, both of whom were on active duty during the Great Patriotic War: he, a naval officer detached for much of the time to working with the Allies on matters of Lend Lease; she on the front lines as a radiologist in the medical service.

Russian marchers honoring family members who fought in World War II. (Photo from RT)

Russian marchers honoring family members who fought in World War II. (Photo from RT)

Like thousands and thousands of other residents of St. Petersburg and the outlying suburbs, we did what was necessary to be full-blooded participants of the May 9 march. Several days in advance, we visited our neighborhood photo shop and handed over our less-than-perfect photos of her relatives to be enlarged, placed within a standard Immortal Regiment format, laminated, and affixed to a white plastic pole.

The format contained the obligatory St. George’s ribbon, symbol of the Victory, to one side, plus the last name, first name and patronymic of each family member, their military service, rank and dates of birth and death at the bottom. As I later saw on the parade, some people inserted details of the battles and awards, if any, that their family heroes had earned. Others gave no more than the names.

Accounts of the march that have appeared in Russia media are sparing on details. See the fragment of live RT coverage at https://russian.rt.com/article/301808-bessmertnyi-polk-v-sankt-peterburge–pryamaya. I have not heard a more precise number of participants than “several hundred thousand.” What I intend to share here is a sense of the mood and composition of the crowd, as well as of the efforts of the city to provide the safety infrastructure that made it what it was: a family event.

Given the manifestly patriotic nature of Victory in Europe Day celebrations, which open in Moscow and cities across Russia with military parades, precise marching columns, displays of military hardware on the ground and in the air, I was uncertain how possibly strident the Immortal Regiment component might be.

As it turned out, the crowd was uniformly good-humored and focused on its private obligations to be met: the celebration of parents, grandparents, even great grandparents’ role in the war and reconfirmation of their status as family heroes whatever their military or civil defense rank, whether they survived or were among the countless fatalities.

Among the marchers, there were a great many family groups consisting of two and three generations. The latest demographic trends were on full display – young families with two or three children in tow. There were also young courting couples. Very few single elderly or lone marchers in general.

From the very outset, at the marshalling point, you could see friends and acquaintances waiting to meet up and march together. From conversations en route, it was plain that the parade was an occasion for people who thought they knew one another to talk about what otherwise had been kept under wraps in this country, where so much had was secret during the decades of Communism: details of their family history and innermost thoughts.

Faces on Placards

The faces on placards were unretouched. Simple, honest photos, many of them photos of peasants or laborers. Other placards showed off their more successful relatives in officers’ uniforms bedecked with medals. The whole gamut of service ranks was on display.

Some of the estimated 12 million Russians who took part in Immortal Regiment parades across the country over three days. (RT photo)

Some of the estimated 12 million Russians who took part in Immortal Regiment parades across the country over three days. (RT photo)

One curious but inescapable fact: the marchers were only white folks. Though there is a substantial population of Central Asians or Caucasus nationalities in St. Petersburg, both legal and illegal, and though many of them surely had fathers and grandfathers in the War, they did not show up. Perhaps they were uncertain about the welcome that might await them. If so, they were excessively cautious.

The starting point of the march was the Alexander Nevsky Square overlooking the Neva River and just next to the city’s most famous cemetery, where many of its great literary and artistic lions are buried. From there we proceeded two kilometers down what is called the Old Nevsky Prospekt, today a luxury shopping district for fashion clothing, until we reached the intermediate open space next to the Moscow Railway Station known as Uprising Square.

Then we thinned out a bit as we proceeded down Nevsky Prospekt proper, which is a still wider boulevard that runs a further 2.5 kilometers to meet the Neva at another point is its winding course around the city, at Palace Square. Here, in a large public space framed by the Hermitage Museum and its annexes, there would be entertainment from bandstands in the evening and the closing fireworks display close to midnight.

Along the route, there were several stands for musicians singing WWII and Victory songs to amplified music. Our march was at a slow gait with paused every minute or two to tighten ranks.  The spirit of the crowd was enlivened by shouts of “Ura” that traveled in successive waves from front to rear. Here and there, some marchers spontaneously broke into song, Katyusha being the most popular number.

The local city fathers also did their work very well to ensure both a feeling – and reality – of security for an event in the open that could otherwise pose hazards of keeping out trouble makers, not to mention terrorists for whom this great mass of humanity could be a splendid target.

Every three or four meters along the route of Nevsky Prospekt there were uniformed police, both male and female officers. Many of them trained experienced eyes either on the marchers or on those passing by on the sidewalks. A very few were busy chatting on mobile phones, while a few male and female cops flirted. In brief, it was a very human scene such as you might expect in New York or Paris.

All roads crossing Nevsky were blocked by police lines and/or vehicles. The metro stations where many entered the system on their way to the rallying point of the Alexander Nevsky Square received empty trains in order to very quickly whisk away those traveling to the Square.

In closing, I wish to point out that Russian opposition personalities and cynical intellectuals in Russia and abroad have insinuated that the Immortal Regiment marches around the country are phony, some kind of Kremlin-promoted gimmick to close ranks around President Vladimir Putin. But the efforts invested by the thousands of people I saw and the very private, family celebration that they were conducting within the anonymity of a collective action left me with no doubt this is an initiative fully owned by its participants.

Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord Ltd. His most recent book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. © Gilbert Doctorow, 2016

28 comments for “Russians Remember Their WWII Vets

  1. Zachary Smith
    May 13, 2016 at 22:05

    Good thing Mr. Doctorow was in Russia for this event. Had he been in Ukraine he might have run into some of Victoria Nuland’s nazis.

    http://www.fort-russ.com/2016/05/neo-nazi-identified-who-attacked-young.html

    And for the defenders of Obama, kindly note that Nuland still has a government job.

  2. Oleg
    May 12, 2016 at 12:40

    Thank you, Mr. Doctorow! I fully corroborate your story, I am in Moscow now and went to a similar Immortal Regiment march with the photos of my two grandfathers, one of whom was a war journalist and the other a soldier, he fought and was wounded during the battle for Stalingrad. The atmosphere, the people, everything was great. People were happy to be together and celebrate our common history. And there were several groups of people from Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states. And of course, we went there because we wanted to celebrate our history and remember our family members, there have been no official inducement whatsoever, and I hope there will be none in the future. I am very glad I went.

  3. Roman Serbyn
    May 11, 2016 at 22:04

    World War II began in 1939, with the Stalin-Hitler pact (Molotov-Ribbentrop if you prefer) and the attack of the countries between them until 1941. The is the period that the hypocritical Putin omits from the narrative and commemoration. During that time attacked and subjugated several countries in Eastern Europe. When Russia starts to commemorate the real war, it will recognize the atrocities committed by Stalinist regime not only to the conquered part of Europe but also to the Soviet citizens. Then Russia can expect to get recognition from the world. Also Russia must stop invading Ukraine.

    • Chris Chuba
      May 12, 2016 at 09:40

      Roman, first of all, I’m fine with a reasonable discussion of history and I am not a fan of groupthink or conformity of any kind.

      If you are going to hang the start of WW2 the non-Aggression pact, rather than when Hitler actually invaded Poland then why not go back to the Munich agreement which was not enforced by Britain / France?

      Stalin made an effort to reach out to Britain/France/Poland prior to the Molotov/Ribbentrop agreement (see David Glantz, ‘When Titans Clashed’ for one of many references to this) but was rebuffed by the lack of seriousness on their part. 1. the presence of junior officers and diplomats at the negotiations and 2. the lack of any agreement to allow Soviet forces to defend Polish territory in the event of an attack, understandable but dooming any possibility of a potential success. This along with the prior Munich failure caused Stalin to correctly conclude that the western powers were feckless and caused him to try a more pragmatic approach to stall for time to build up and modernize his army.

    • warfacts
      May 12, 2016 at 21:33

      A former GRU military intelligence officer writing under the name of Victor Suvarov has credibly described Stalin’s WWII intent to conquer Europe, which is well documented when the Russian state records of the era were briefly accessible to historians in the 1990s. Throughout the 1930s Stalin in his speeches to the Politburo said again and again that communism could not survive if only one country practiced it, and that building the Red Army into an invincible invasion force was necessary because the world would never willing submit to communist rule. To this end Stalin would eventually supply food and weapons to Germany for the war that England and France contrived to declare against her, in hopes that when all three powers had exhausted themselves fighting one another, his powerful intact forces would roll in and take all of Europe and Britain.

      Just four days before signing the Soviet-German non-aggression pact, at the August 19, 1939 Politburo meeting, Stalin implemented the two-year total mobilization plan prepared by Chief of the General Staff Boris Shaposhnikov . In the following 22 months, Stalin raised a total of 295 divisions organized in 16 armies, plus an additional six million men to be mobilized in the summer of 1941.

      Te dire threat of this army massing near Germany’s border that caused Hitler to violate his long-standing vow never to fight a two-front war again. Desperate necessity ordered the advance into Russia of an ill-prepared Wehrmacht barely a third the size of the invasion force assembled by Stalin. (Conventional military doctrine held that an invasion force must be at least three times the strength of its opponent.) But caught in indefensible attack formations, millions of Red Army soldiers were captured or killed in just a few months.

      And can we remember please that the issue decided at Munich was the peaceful return of Sudeten Germans to their homeland, from which they had been exiled by the Versailles treaty in clear violation of Woodrow Wilson’s promise to Europe of self-determination for all her peoples. The Czechoslovakia to which they had been assigned was created by the victors of World War I out of parts of Germany, Hungary, Austria and Romania. It had no historical existence until 1919 and was brought into being, like Poland, specifically to surround a territorially reduced Germany within a ring of hostile militarized states. 3.5 million Germans were forcibly placed under the harsh rule of the newly created nationalist Czech regime, which was dominated by ethnic Czechs, although they constituted barely a quarter of the new nation’s population. Despite initial promises to the contrary, the new Czech rulers endorsed a constitution in 1920 which specifically repudiated guarantees of equal civil rights for all ethnic groups.

    • warfacts
      May 12, 2016 at 21:35

      A former GRU military intelligence officer writing under the name of Victor Suvarov has credibly described Stalin’s WWII intent to conquer Europe, which was well documented when the Russian state records of the era were briefly accessible to historians in the 1990s. Throughout the 1930s Stalin in his speeches to the Politburo said again and again that communism could not survive if only one country practiced it, and that building the Red Army into an invincible invasion force was necessary because the world would never willing submit to communist rule. To this end Stalin would eventually supply food and weapons to Germany for the war that England and France contrived to declare against her, in hopes that when all three powers had exhausted themselves fighting one another, his powerful intact forces would roll in and take all of Europe and Britain.

      Just four days before signing the Soviet-German non-aggression pact, at the August 19, 1939 Politburo meeting, Stalin implemented the two-year total mobilization plan prepared by Chief of the General Staff Boris Shaposhnikov . In the following 22 months, Stalin raised a total of 295 divisions organized in 16 armies, plus an additional six million men to be mobilized in the summer of 1941.

      Te dire threat of this army massing near Germany’s border that caused Hitler to violate his long-standing vow never to fight a two-front war again. Desperate necessity ordered the advance into Russia of an ill-prepared Wehrmacht barely a third the size of the invasion force assembled by Stalin. (Conventional military doctrine held that an invasion force must be at least three times the strength of its opponent.) But caught in indefensible attack formations, millions of Red Army soldiers were captured or killed in just a few months.

      And can we remember the issue decided at Munich was the peaceful return of Sudeten Germans to their homeland, from which they had been exiled by the Versailles treaty in clear violation of Woodrow Wilson’s promise to Europe of self-determination for all her peoples. The Czechoslovakia to which they had been assigned was created by the victors of World War I out of parts of Germany, Hungary, Austria and Romania. It had no historical existence until 1919 and was brought into being, like Poland, specifically to surround a territorially reduced Germany within a ring of hostile militarized states. 3.5 million Germans were forcibly placed under the harsh rule of the newly created nationalist Czech regime, which was dominated by ethnic Czechs, although they constituted barely a quarter of the new nation’s population. Despite initial promises to the contrary, the new Czech rulers endorsed a constitution in 1920 which specifically repudiated guarantees of equal civil rights for all ethnic groups.

    • Chris Chuba
      May 13, 2016 at 09:24

      1. I have no problem with the Munich agreement in and of itself which gave the Sudetenland to the Germans, but why didn’t Britain and France when Hitler took the REST of Czechoslovakia? After Stalin watched this, any rational person would conclude that Britain/France were feckless and unreliable and that relying on them for a subsequent mutual defense pact would be close to a suicide pact. However, even then he tried but a subsequent lukewarm reception, as I already described, was the last straw so he decided on a non-aggression pact with Germany. Yes, he sold food and fuel to Germany, big deal, what was he supposed to do, join a trade embargo which would create hostilities?

      2. As for Stalin provoking Hitler’s invasion of Poland and then the USSR. Yikes. First it supposes that Hitler had no expansionist plans, that Stalin actually intended to invade Europe, AND that Hitler knew of Stalin’s plans. Uh, no.
      You are exaggerating Russia’s mobilization. They had a total of about 5M troops and only a portion were at the border. In fact, this is one of the reasons that Barbarossa failed because it relied on destroying the Red Army on the border and then driving into an empty Moscow in a Mercedes. The lack of Red Army concentration was a double edged sword, it allowed the Germans a quick victory but gave the Soviet Army an unintended and expensive defense in depth. The Russians did have 15M registered reserves which they hurriedly tried to mobilize during the advance but this could not possibly be considered a threat to Hitler as they were civilians registered as reserves and not mobilized to participate in an invasion.

    • Zachary Smith
      May 13, 2016 at 22:02

      Te dire threat of this army massing near Germany’s border that caused Hitler to violate his long-standing vow never to fight a two-front war again.

      Poor Little Hitler – bravely defending Western Civilization from the dastardly Commies.

      Next up: The involvement of the Tooth Fairy in the killing of the Poles, Gypsies, Jews, and Russian POWs.

    • Zachary Smith
      May 13, 2016 at 22:10

      This along with the prior Munich failure caused Stalin to correctly conclude that the western powers were feckless and caused him to try a more pragmatic approach to stall for time to build up and modernize his army.

      It’s difficult to give Stalin any credit at all. The man was a monster, pure and simple. And also a bit of an idiot regarding matters of strategy. Hitler offered a better ‘deal’, but Stalin overlooked the fact that Hitler had massive numbers of battle-tested troops on his doorstep while the Allies didn’t.

      Not that I’m defending the Allied leaders either – they were mostly incompetent too.

    • chris chuba
      May 15, 2016 at 20:22

      Zachary, I am not trying to defend Stalin’s leadership in general. He did many things that hurt the Soviet war effort.
      1. The pre-war purges eliminated good commanders and even worse, paralyzed the remaining commanders with fear causing many of them to take the easy way out and follow bad orders rather than take initiative and risk the wrath of a tribunal.
      2. Stalin kept the Red Army on a very low state of readiness because he was worried about ‘provoking’ Hitler or giving him an excuse to start a war with the Soviet Union.

      The ONLY point where I was defending Stalin’s decision making was that the non-aggression pact should not be considered a primary cause of WW2. Hindsight is 20/20 but given the circumstances of the day, Stalin had good reason to believe that going all in with an alliance with the Western powers would leave the Soviet Union carrying all of the risks and receiving non of the benefits. Poland found this out as when they were invaded, Britain and France sat on their hands. Any type of offensive on Germany’s western front would have been enormously helpful and would have caused the Germans fit.

      Hitler and the Nazi’s fired the first shots, so I would blame them rather than come up with exotic secondary causes of blame like the OP and many western pundits like to do.

    • Oleg
      May 12, 2016 at 13:23

      And you must stop offending reader’s intelligence with your ignorant (or propagandistic?) remarks. I’d suggest you some reading list but reading is probably not your strong side…

    • Oleg
      May 12, 2016 at 18:45

      I should note that the previous poster who named him/herself Oleg was not me (I posted here about Immortal Regiment march in Moscow). Thanks.

    • Tammuz
      May 13, 2016 at 13:37

      Stalin changed his surname from Djugasvili “son of a joo” (pardon the spelling, Mr. Suckerberg doesn’t tolerate free speech). The Bolsheviks were predominantly joos as well. As for Ukraine, ask Victoria Nuland (another joo).

  4. Curious
    May 11, 2016 at 19:08

    Thank you for the article Mr. Doctorow,

    I had a very interesting time in St Petersburg in the 90s. I learned a lot about the history and culture of Russia and the people were marvelous, hard working, talented and smart. It astounds me that people are so ill informed and how they can just come up with ignorant statements. The above comment about “Puten is bad” represents this ignorance. If people like you and Mr. Cohen were only given the opportunity to tell the facts in a different way people may alter their uninformed opinions. The talking heads on NBC at the Olympics in Sochi was another example of baffling ignorance. They couldn’t even tell who the writers were in the opening ceremony. Solzhenitsyn was never mentioned for example, even though his image was directly in front of them.

    Of course I don’t know Putin personally, but if one were to read his own account of family members in WW2, which is on RT (since he seldom writes about this story) maybe the last thing people would do is portray him as a Hitler want-to-be. His brother died, his father was injured for life, and his mother was on her way to a cemetery when his father was able to intervene. He has every reason in the world to dislike Nazis and Fascists.

    I’m glad you were able to report that many people were able to talk about the war, since this was often a taboo subject for many people in Russia when I was there, and was rarely mentioned in public settings.

    Many people in the US don’t understand how they are manipulated to think a certain way, and it’s not too different from Germany in the 30s. Our country belittles scholars of all stripes if it doesn’t fit the mold and the presuppositions of the power ‘elite’. If certain entities can control the message, it doesn’t matter if it makes sense or not. Thank you for throwing a bit of humanity in the mix, since it is lacking elsewhere in our media.

  5. Sojourner Truth
    May 11, 2016 at 18:01

    Meanwhile, in Ukraine, people and institutions who allegedly “share our values” are taking a VERY different approach to the history of World War II:

    http://spitfirelist.com/news/volodymyr-viatrovychs-american-sojourn-and-the-orwellian-rewrite-of-ukraines-world-war-ii-history/

  6. Paul
    May 11, 2016 at 14:30

    I have friends and relatives in St. Petersburg as well, and, based on my own conversations with them, what Gilbert Doctorow writes here is absolutely correct. In the sense, I mean, that this event is something that is very much an organic — not an artificial top-down — expression of popular sentiment. What is strange about honoring ones fallen relatives? Only someone who is detached from their own past could make of this something suspect.

    As for Doctorow himself, and those like him: naturally they are demonized by some ‘opinion leaders’. Whenever American mass media and the political class get going with one of their campaigns, ad hominem argument and demonization of those identified with wrong think is at the very heart of their playbook. We’ve seen this movie many times.

  7. Robert in New Mexico
    May 11, 2016 at 13:02

    My Russian teacher is appalled at Hollywood films. Many imply that we American conquered Nazi Germany following the Normandy landings. Some of them have no hint of Soviet “assistance”.

  8. Chris Chuba
    May 11, 2016 at 13:01

    This post prompted me to google Gilbert Doctorow and to my sorrow I see that he has been dismissed as a ‘useful stooge’ by the Neanderthals in the U.S. along with Stephan Cohen. In the U.S. our Russia experts are Russia haters and get paid to find clever ways to demonize all things Russian rather than understand them. This is why our headlines are filled with ‘U.S. surprised by Russian …’ because they have been predicting Russia’s collapse for at least a decade. The only prediction that our Russian experts have gotten correct is when Russia reacts to provocations that they suggested that we initiate.

    Regarding Putin, he is the only adult in the room in the international stage. I will miss him, and I suspect many will, when he finally leaves the world stage. Especially if he is replaced by someone who actually is what Putin is falsely accused of being, some kind of irrational, ultra-nationalist.

    • Bart
      May 11, 2016 at 14:09

      Hating on Russia is alive and well again this morning at the NYT with another screed by Masha Gessen.

    • May 12, 2016 at 21:34

      I also googled Gilbert Doctorow and came across the article about him in the Useful Stooges web site.

      In the Useful Stooges About section they don’t identify who they are, or who writes for them, or who sponsors them. They also don’t come out and explicitly state what they stand for, or their point of view; particularly they do not say from what point of view they are critiquing those whom they regard as “stooges”. And I don’t seem to be able to find such information about them by doing a google search on “useful stooges”.

      It definitely seems to me they are hiding such information, which would seem to indicate that they are shady and not above board.

      They certainly come across as right wing neocons, and very pro-Israel.

    • Chris Chuba
      May 13, 2016 at 09:08

      It isn’t just that he and others, like Stephen Cohen, are insulted on websites like this. What is even worse is that they are not interviewed on U.S. cable networks or used as foreign policy advisors. For want of a better word, they are black listed. Now before someone manages to dig up an old interview on a Fareed Zakaria show from 2yrs ago to try to prove me wrong, I’ll suggest that for every such interview there are 50 regular appearance from professionally paid Russia haters who are called ‘Russian Experts’.

    • Tammuz
      May 13, 2016 at 13:31

      The useful stooges are the ones writing for that website.

  9. elmerfudzie
    May 11, 2016 at 11:17

    There’s an overwhelming, stunning and courageous patriotism in the marrow of the Russian peoples. A more recent example of this self sacrificing courage again showed itself, when Chernobyl blew up into bits and pieces. A call to the citizenry at large was made and droves of volunteers rushed in to help pick up intensely radioactive reactor parts WITH THEIR BARE HANDS! Hail! to your love of Country and obligation to each-other! Hail to your achievements as a highly advanced scientific and technological nation, certainly not just a second world country but equal in every way to the first! Hail Russia!

  10. Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen
    May 11, 2016 at 11:15

    Just because Putin is bad doesn’t mean that the marchers aren’t sincere or that they are working for Putin – and even if they are, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t sincere. The war is a important thing in Russia.

    • Gary Hare
      May 11, 2016 at 17:44

      Putin bad??? What has he done to deserve this label? Stand up to the evil empire, their propaganda, aggression, provocations, greed, need to dominate? Enjoy the overwhelming support of his countrymen? Seek political and realistic solutions to the strife in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere? You’ve been rendered ignorant by surrendering to too much western propaganda.

    • silent adviser
      May 12, 2016 at 14:21

      Well now you can’t have your cake and eat it. You were right to scorn the previous commentor for calling Putin bad, but it strikes me as slightly hypocritical to call the United States “evil” in the very next line.

    • Tammuz
      May 13, 2016 at 13:29

      I’m from the United Snakes. EVIL is the correct term.

Comments are closed.