May 9. Victory Day. Soviet Victory Day. One of, if not the most important holiday in Russia and several former Soviet Republics, it commemorates the German capitulation signed in Berlin-Karlshorst in the late evening of May 8, 1945—already May 9 Moscow time.
The Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 (as the conflagration is known in Russian historiography) was the central founding myth of the Soviet Union. It established the country as a global power and Josef Stalin as its undisputed leader.
Victory Day was also observed in several countries in the former Eastern Bloc, including East Germany. Nowadays, an unofficial celebration still takes place in Treptower Park in the former East Berlin, and I went there last week with two friends to check it out.
Treptower Park is home to the largest Soviet war memorial outside of the former Soviet Union (read more about it here), and the most eclectic mixture of people gathers there every year on May 9 to celebrate the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany—without really so much as even mentioning the Western Allies.
Whereas in Russia and many former Soviet Republics Victory Day is a big thing, there’s obviously no military parade in Berlin. And while the huge military parade in Moscow every year is a huge part of the celebration, most people in Russia observe the day by bringing flowers to monuments to honor the memory of their loved ones. This is also, for the most part, the case in Treptower Park: People lay wreaths by the mass graves that surround the site and sing old Soviet songs. Little kids dressed as Soviet infantry run around, and people take pictures of the giant statue of a Soviet soldier carrying a German child standing on top of a crushed swastika.
There is, however, also another side to the celebration—one full of Russian nationalist biker gangs, conspiracy theorists handing out pro-Putin propaganda, Adidas-clad youths drinking beer and vodka at the site (a cemetery, mind you), and groups collecting money for the war effort in Eastern Ukraine. For an “anti-nationalist” party, there were a lot of flags—and the Putinist cult of Stalin also reared its ugly head. Revisionist attempts in Russia to whitewash Stalinist and Communist crimes have seen museums closed and academics banned from entering the country.
Though it is very important to consider both sides of the coin and mention the obvious political agenda of many attendees at the event, Victory Day was more than that.
My friends and I were sitting down having a beer in the late afternoon sun when a Bashkirian guy sat next to us. He was carrying a sign written in Russian with names of people, army divisions, and cities. We started talking and he told me he was there to honor the memory of his grandfather, who joined the Red Army in Ufa and fell somewhere in Ukraine—never to be found.
The conversation was basic because by now my Russian is rustier than I thought, but it was enlightening to understand the value the holiday has to many people—and to really see the difference between people like he, who said that “his grandfather was looking at him from ‘up there’” and the nationalist groups using the event as a platform for their political agenda. It goes without saying that the record of the Red Army is controversial (though many people choose to ignore it), but Victory Day was not the occasion to get into that debate.
At the concert area, a guy was handing out little Soviet flags, and old and young danced to the sound of Russian folk rock. All vendors had already run out of Baltika beer so I got a Berliner. Then I asked a guy for a cigarette and talked to him while I rolled it. He told me he was just there to celebrate the defeat of Nazi Germany, but that everything else that was going on was just a bit (or totally) out of whack with reality. I asked him for a light and told him he had hit the nail on the head: The point of Victory Day should be celebrating the defeat of Fascism, not whitewashing Stalin’s totalitarian legacy or furthering any given political agenda.
Have you ever experienced the Victory Day celebrations in Berlin? Or in Moscow?
Thanks for reading! Greetings from Berlin, Seb