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.
By Gilbert Doctorow
Source: Gilbert Doctorow