Victory Day is celebrated every May 9th in many countries across the former Soviet space. This public holiday gives often multiple days off and celebrates the end of The Great Patriotic War (which is WWII as experienced in the USSR). Estimates vary, but about 37 million Soviet people died in the war from causes ranging from combat to starvation; very few families were left unaffected by the hardship and loss. Understandably, many in the former Soviet space take this day quite seriously; imagine Memorial Day combined with the Fourth of July in America combined to get some indication of its scope. It is celebrated by parades, concerts, fireworks, recognition of veterans (who usually dress up for the occasion) and, of course, food and drink. Many people take some extra time off around this holiday (often to combine it with Labor Day, another public holiday celebrated in early May), to “open” their dachas for the summer season.
This resource will serve to record what our students see in major Eurasian cities on this day to better understand how the holiday is celebrated in modern times.
Where did you go to experience the holiday? What did you see and what did you do there?
Morgan Henson (Khabarovsk, 2019): I left my study abroad program’s home base of Vladivostok and travelled North to the city of Khabarovsk. I arrived right as the parade was beginning, so I missed the first half, but when I eventually arrived to the city center, everything was bustling with people, food, events, music, and much more. On the boardwalk, there was an amusement park that had games and rides for all ages, old military tanks in the center that young children were playing on like a jungle gym, and everyone was decorated with the orange and black ribbons and banners that read “День Победы” (“Victory Day” in Russian).
In the parade, people were holding makeshift picket signs with old photos of Soviet soldiers on them. When asked, the locals described it as a tribute to the fallen soldiers during the war. It is called the “Immortal Regiment” Parade and provides each family an opportunity to honor the people they lost in the war. Everyone marches together in a large-scale show of gratitude for their sacrifice.
At the end of the day, there was also a салют, where fireworks were set off. In Khabarovsk, the crowd gathered on the boardwalk as barges in the middle of the lake set off fireworks for the entire city to see. Although smaller than the demonstrations in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Vladivostok, the people had pride for the fireworks and were enthusiastic all the same.
Kathryn Watt (Bishkek, 2019): I woke early on Victory Day morning and decided to go for a run to Victory Park, to check out the festivities. This park, built in commemoration of Victory Day, is located 2 miles from the London School – it’s about 40 minutes to walk, or 10 minutes by public transport. When I arrived the crowds were so big that I couldn’t get into the park, so I ran back to the London School and waited for the Immortal Regiment March that was due to start at 10am.
It was the perfect day for a parade. We (myself, another SRAS student, and the school security guard) took chairs and coffee out into the street and sat in the sunshine as the parade came by. London School was the ideal place to watch the parade, as it was right in the centre of the 6.6km route that the participants walked. First came a convoy of police cars and ambulances, blasting nostalgic Soviet music. These were followed by a regiment of soldiers carrying banners and singing at the top of their lungs – classics such as Katyusha could be heard ringing through the streets. The most amazing part of the parade was to see the crowd of locals carrying signs and banners in honour of their ancestors who fought in the war. It was completely mixed – Kyrgyz and Russian, old and young. The view ranged from Kyrgyz men in traditional hats, Russian women dressed in uniforms, and reluctant teenagers in hoodies, dragged along by their enthusiastic mothers.
Greg Tracey (St. Petersburg, 2019): I went to several places to experience the holiday. The first thing was watching the military parade held on Palace Square. I should have gone there earlier, in order to get a better spot, but as it was I gradually made my way to a decent spot near the front, on the open side of the square near the Admiralty Building. The parade included soldiers and sailors in dress uniform, military vehicles, and a military band. It was incredible to see the sheer number of people who came to watch. Many of the streets around the square were closed, and absolutely clogged with couples and families. After the parade, the police opened the square and I was able to see the viewing stand and giant “С днём победы” poster. The next thing I did was around 15:00. I went with friends to watch the Immortal Regiment March near Gostiny Dvor. This parade included trucks with survivors of the Siege of Leningrad from different districts of the city, and then anyone can fill in behind, carrying pictures of their relatives who fought and died in the Great Patriotic War (WWII). Finally, I went to see the Fireworks show in the evening. Wanting to get a good spot to watch, my friend Natasha and I went an hour early. It is a good thing we did, because thousands of people were already covering the bridge and embankments around the Neva River. We got a good spot though, and the fireworks were beautiful over the river. The Rostral columns also had their flames going at this time.
Julie Hersh (Irkutsk, 2017): This year, we had a four-day weekend for Victory Day, since it was on a Tuesday. There were concerts, rehearsals, and preliminary events starting already on Friday, and the entire city was decked out a week in advance—with banners, flags, and proclamations of victory all over the place. (I even saw a few signs that referenced the “road to Berlin.”) People in Kirov Square were handing out kolorits (колориты), orange-and-black ribbons that have come to symbolize the victory in the war. Stands in the mall were selling Soviet-Army-style hats and flags. Even the churches had Victory Day decorations.
On May 8, my group and I were lucky enough to be invited to a smaller event before the main celebrations: a memorial by the Polish community to commemorate their families’ and compatriots’ participation in the war. Echoing the main event that would take place the next day, we met at the Eternal Flame (Вечный огонь—a World War Two memorial present in most Russian cities) and walked through the main memorial, following people in traditional Polish dress. Standing in the memorial plaza, we listened to people tell the stories of their parents’ and grandparents’ experiences during the war. It was moving and solemn, not at all what I had expected of Victory Day—though a truer reminder of why the celebration actually takes place.
Jonathan Rainey (Vladivostok, 2016): The main event of the day was the parade. The streets were blocked off well in advance, and the crowds gathered early near the city square and stretching down the street. The parade commenced at 10:00 am with an introduction by one of the senior military officers in Vladivostok. It began with a presentation of the different regiments of soldiers from different branches of Russia’s armed forces, each of which yelled out the customary “Ura!” three times as they were recognized. The show got underway as the regiments marched down the street, followed by the parade of military vehicles.
Following the parade, a stage set up in the main square featured performances throughout the day of singing and dancing, remembering the war. The World War II monument in the city was also the location of plentiful activity. People gathered to lay hundreds of roses at the city’s Eternal Flame, and another location had been set up to serve Soldatskaya Kasha, or Soldier’s Cereal, to let people experience part of the common diet for soldiers during the war. This meal consisted of buckwheat cereal served with bread and black tea.
What other events were held in the area? Were there other events to choose from either inside the city or outside?
Morgan Henson (Khabarovsk, 2019): There were multiple events held around the city. There were concerts, dance competitions, fitness competitions – I almost joined one, but our group wanted to explore more so, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to – and much more. There were events for all ages, from sidewalk painting to taking photos on the beach: the city center was crowded with people and things to do.
Kathryn Watt (Bishkek, 2019): In the evening, the festivities continued with more music and concerts by famous Kyrgyz singers. The day ended with a firework display.
Greg Tracey (St. Petersburg, 2019): There were a couple of concerts, which I did not attend: one near Kazan Cathedral and one in Palace Square. I did not go to these because I had some studying to do for school and I am not very into concerts anyway.
Julie Hersh (Irkutsk, 2017): The main events all take place on 9 May itself, with a long program of parades, concerts, and fireworks starting at 9 a.m. I missed the early parade, because 9 a.m., but I joined some friends for the Immortal Regiment (Бессмертный полк), in which people march through the city carrying pictures of their relatives who fought or otherwise helped the war effort. It was a remarkable sight—thousands upon thousands of people (50,000, I heard) holding their signs bearing the photos, names, and birth and death dates of their veteran relatives.
Jonathan Rainey (Vladivostok, 2016): In the evening, I attended a show at the Mariinsky Theater featuring music that was written around the time of the war. It was a very last-minute decision to go for me, but I’m glad that I did. The ticket was extremely inexpensive, only 100 Rubles, and I had a fine seat. The music was excellent, with the orchestra and choir playing a selection of 15 songs such as “Katusha” and the first movement of Shostakovitch’s Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad.”
To cap the night off, the city shot off fireworks at 10:00 pm. I did not make it to see these, but I could hear them and see a few smaller displays in different parts of the city from my window.
Did you see any commercialization of this holiday?
Morgan Henson (Khabarovsk, 2019): There was a lot of commercialization for this holiday. In days before and after the holiday I traveled around Russia – Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, and Birobidzhan – and saw everywhere ribbons, hats, t-shirts, stickers, bags, banners, etc. that were sold for people to show their pride and support for the holiday. Much like the Fourth of July in the United States, the commercialization was all-encompassing and multiple people waited in anticipation for the holiday.
Kathryn Watt (Bishkek, 2019): I didn’t see a great deal of commercialization in Bishkek, at least not as much as for other holidays. The one thing that most locals could be seen wearing were orange and black striped ribbons, that they wore in honour of soldiers who fought in the war. These were generally sold at supermarkets, where people could pick them up at the cashiers after doing their grocery shopping. Aside from this, flower shops sold red flowers, which people carried through the parade.
Greg Tracey (St. Petersburg, 2019): I noticed in particular that Dom Knigi was selling a lot of Victory Day-themed merchandise. Additionally, there were a lot of street vendors selling hats and flags on the street. I don’t know if this was necessarily blatant “commercialization” since people might just want those things to properly celebrate the holiday. In a similar vein, I am certain that print shops in the area do a booming trade around the holiday, as everyone prints their pictures and posters for the Immortal Regiment Parade.
Julie Hersh (Irkutsk, 2017): We saw a balloon tank attraction in a mall.
Ask locals what they think of the holiday, what it means to them, and how they spend the day.
Morgan Henson (Khabarovsk, 2019): When describing this holiday to my family back in the United States I said that it was a mix of the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day all in one. However, the emotion associated with this holiday, mainly from the middle age and older generations, is unlike any I’ve seen in my travels. The gratitude for the soldiers who sacrificed their lives to fight against fascism and the scores of people that were sent to their deaths outnumbered any other nation. When speaking of the holiday with some of the dorm mothers before my travels, many of them began to cry as they thought about their childhoods, the people they lost, the family members who were severely affected, and the livelihoods that were lost during the war. Although only young girls at the time, the pain from those losses is clearly still felt.
Similarly, when I spoke about it during Labor Day the week before with locals, many of the locals had a strong, emotional reaction as well. In this instance, however, they asked me about my education, what I knew of the war, and how we are taught the history of the war in the United States. Before I could answer many of the questions, a lot of the locals began speaking about how the United States and the Western World are rewriting history and removing the magnitude of the Soviet Union’s sacrifice and the sheer number of bodies lost in the German invasion. They said that День Победы was the most necessary and the most important holiday in Russia because it made sure that no one ever forgot about the Soviet sacrifice and its vital role in the history of the world. This is why the locals go “all-out” for this holiday with barbeques, dressing up, and different tributes; there is a connection to the past that they believe must be reinvigorated, or it’ll be lost. I struggle to find a holiday to which we, as Americans, are this emotionally attached. It was an interesting and touching experience and I hope to return to Russia again for another День Победы celebration and be a part of the gratitude for a victory that shaped life as we know it today.
Kathryn Watt (Bishkek, 2019): There are two main ways that Bishkek locals spend the Victory Day holiday. The first is taking part in the parade and enjoying the city festivities. The second is to go out to the mountains and spend time relaxing with family and friends. The Kyrgyz people are great nature lovers and use every holiday as an opportunity to escape from city life!
Greg Tracey (St. Petersburg, 2019): Obviously most of the people that I saw, listened to, and talked with were attending the various events because that is where I saw them. I did talk to some people beforehand and afterward though that said they use the day to relax at home either alone or with family. The Immortal Regiment Parade seems like an extremely important event to many people because the city and its people suffered so much through the war.
Julie Hersh (Irkutsk, 2017): People were chanting “To victory!” and “For the motherland!” and singing Soviet and World War Two era songs. Many people, including extremely small children, were wearing Soviet Army uniforms.
Jonathan Rainey (Vladivostok, 2016): During the war, Vladivostok served as an important port for the delivery of Lend-Lease matériel from the United States to the USSR. After the American Liberty Ships delivered their cargo across the Pacific to the Russian Far East, the food, vehicles, and other important supplies were shipped overland via rail to reach the Soviet soldiers on the Eastern Front.
The Soviet Pacific Fleet, based in Vladivostok, also served in the war against the German Navy. Although most of the fleet remained in the Pacific on alert in case of action with Japan, several vessels were dispatched to the European theater to support.
But the surest sign of the war’s significance in the Russian mind came at the end of the parade. After the military’s presentation of regiments and vehicles of war, the people of the city followed. Each person or family walked down Vladivostok’s main thoroughfare carrying a sign bearing the picture and name of a relative who fought in the Great Patriotic War. The line of people walked past and grew longer and longer until it vanished from sight over the hill. Thousands participated in this moving display of respect.
Although it is generally a holiday of celebration, Victory Day also carries an attitude of sombre respect. Vladivostok, which is almost as far as possible from the European theater of war in Russia still played an integral role and clearly paid a costly sum in terms of human life.