As Americans are told to be very scared of a new (and old) enemy – Russia – a more complex reality exists on the ground there, a proud and determined people, as Gilbert Doctorow witnessed at an Immortal Regiment march.
By Gilbert Doctorow
To understand Russia, it is worth reflecting on the tradition of the Immortal Regiment march on May 9 when hundreds of thousands of Russians pour into the streets of Moscow and other cities holding the faded photos of family members who died in achieving the victory over the Nazis in World War II.
The march is a showing of national solidarity that is unthinkable in today’s Western Europe or the United States (although those societies also have their patriotic holidays, from Bastille Day in France to July Fourth in the U.S.). In Russia, the Immortal Regiment march demonstrates a national solidarity forged by the shared and searing experience of every family’s wartime losses, a death toll that totaled about 27 million.
This year, despite poor weather, Muscovites took pride in having a still bigger turnout than last year. The media reported that it was the coldest Victory Day in Moscow ever, yet the official crowd number was given at 850,000.
In St. Petersburg, where my wife Larisa and I attended the march, the weather also was frigid. When we departed the metro station at the top of Staronevsky Prospekt at 14:30 to join the parade, we were hit by a snow shower. It quickly stopped and the remainder of the afternoon was mostly sunny, though very cold.
Yet, in St. Petersburg, too, the turnout for the parade was at a record, with official figures putting it at 750,000. Given that the old imperial capital has an overall population less than half that of Moscow, the showing was more than respectable.
Personally, I have never enjoyed large crowds. They make me claustrophobic. But it was a very good-natured assembly. It was multi-generational with a lot of toddlers carried on shoulders of parents and relatives, while their older siblings were kept in tow, subject to warnings that “you don’t want to get lost.”
If the mood of participants may have resembled the bonhomie of strollers in New York’s Central Park on a Sunday afternoon in spring, the event clearly had its specificity, which set it apart from anything I have witnessed outside of Russia.
With all the photos of long-dead family heroes held high, the procession – from Staronevsky Prospekt past Uprising Square and along Nevsky Prospekt – had the look of a vast, moving cemetery.
My wife and I carried three photos: of her rear admiral father; her radiologist grandma who fought the whole war on two fronts; and a close family friend, an architect by profession and a poet by inclination who was grievously wounded on his third day as a militia foot-soldier at the battle of Pulkovo Heights and now has no one to remember him but us.
Many of the St. Petersburg marchers went the whole way down Nevsky to Palace Square, where entertainments awaited them. Others, like us, revived traditions of celebrating Victory Day that go back to Soviet times, as we sat down to a festive dinner at the home of friends and raised our tumblers of vodka to toast a common victory over the enemies of mankind.
Reflecting on the day’s march and the outpouring of a non-belligerent national pride, I instinctively thought of the hawks and loudmouths in the United States who portray Russia as a nation of barbarians that must be countered with military force at every turn. While that extreme propaganda is extremely unfair, it is true that Russia is a nation that should not be trifled with. The quiet dignity of the Immortal Regiment march spoke to that.
Perhaps an understanding of this reality will finally penetrate the hostile rhetoric coming from Washington – and perhaps this week’s meeting between President Trump and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will start to create an opening for an international reconciliation.
Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. His forthcoming book Does the United States Have a Future? will be published on 1 September 2017.