Victory Day 2018

Today is my favorite Russian holiday, Victory Day. Every May 9th, Russians celebrate the end of the Second World War, or as they call it the Great Patriotic War. The day commemorates the surrender of Nazi Germany and the fighting in Europe. Commemoration of the war rose to its height in the USSR during 1960s and 1970s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, celebration of the victory, while still an important date, was less of a state sponsored affair until the mid-2000s, when President Vladimir Putin brought the military parade back to Red Square. Ever since, it has been a massive national holiday complete with major celebrations around the nation.

Last year, I had the fortune to be in Moscow for the celebration. It was truly a spectacular day. This year, I woke up and watched the entire Moscow parade from my desk in Pittsburgh while drinking my morning coffee. The parade this year was quite interesting, and Putin’s annual address gives clues to the mindset of contemporary Russia. In this post, I will comment on some of the thoughts that popped into my head as I watched the parade.

The popular image of military parades on Red Square, complete with ICBMs, is a Soviet tradition. The main military parades, though, were held on November 7, the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. There were only a handful of Victory Day parades that were accompanied by military technology, generally those around major anniversaries. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the loss of November 7th as a holiday and parade worthy occasion, the display of Russian military might has transitioned to the anniversary of its most important victory.

This year, Putin opened the parade with an address that discussed both the importance of the memory of the Second World War as well as Russia’s stance on military strength and the global balance of power. He opened his speech by saying, “I congratulate you on Victory Day, a holiday that has always been, is, and will be the most dear and scared for every family in our large country.” Although public speeches are good forums for hyperbole, Putin said this statement in earnest. During the Second World War, the Soviet Union lost roughly 27 million citizens. No family was untouched by the damages and death of the conflict. It is indeed a sacred day for the memories of Russians.

Putin’s 2018 Victory Day address.

Putin stated that it was the duty of Russians to keep remembering the war, and to never allow for the rewriting of history. He explicitly mentioned saving Europe and the world from the horrors of war, slavery, and the Holocaust. Mention of the Holocaust itself is already a radical break from the war memory of the Soviet Union, in which there was a policy of not “dividing the dead,” that is, not to highlight the suffering of any specific group during the war. A vast variety of Soviet citizens perished, and the Soviet state chose a policy of pan-Soviet remembrance versus individualism. Putin’s comments about the Holocaust and slavery, though, are a thinly veiled comment on the ongoing conflict with Ukraine. In the past few years, Ukrainian nationalists have celebrated some figures who fought for Ukrainian nationalism and independence amidst the Second World War. These persons are troubling, though, as they often collaborated with the Nazis in an attempt to realize these goals. Putin concluded his speech with a statement towards other nations. He commented on fragile global relations and stated that Russia is committed to “open dialogue on all matters of global security, ready for a constrictive equal partnership for the sake of agreement, and peace and progress on the planet.”

Russian soldiers parading on Red Square. Notice the yellow paint to guide the tanks, troops carriers, and missiles.

After Putin’s speech, the different groups of soldiers marched off of Red Square to make way for the technology. As usual, the motorized portion of the parade was led by a T-34 tank, the Red Army’s iconic vehicle of the Second World War.

T-34 tank with the Soviet flag leading ATVs with the names of the major battle fronts of WWII.

This year, though, it was followed by ATVs bearing the names of the battle fronts of the war. Many staple tanks, troop carriers, and missile systems of the Russian army then progressed across Red Square. There was a well choreographed moment in which the band started to play the popular war song Katyusha while the modern missile launchers rolled past. Katyuhsa was the nickname for the Red Army’s mobile rocket launching trucks of the Second World War.

Modern Russian rocket launchers.

Taking from Soviet tradition, though, the annual show of military might included the public parade debut of a variety of military technology including varieties of armored fighting vehicles and supersonic jets. The focus of the new equipment this year was unmanned combat vehicles such as drones or remote-control armored devices for clearing minefields.

Russian drones.

This year, the parade featured two guests of note. The most important of which was Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel. The parade commentary noted that this is the first year that Victory Day was celebrated as a national holiday in Israel. The parade covered also included a brief focus and shout out to a notorious, adoptive Russian citizen, Steven Segal.

Clearly, the Victory Day parade is not going to go anywhere under the leadership of Putin. The next few years of commemoration should prove to be interesting given Russia’s role in global politics. Next year’s parade should be fairly tame, though, in comparison to whatever will happen in 2020, the 75th anniversary of Victory Day.

Soviet Military Maps

Do you like Cold War era espionage and intrigue? How about mapping and historical geography? Are you a fan of James Bond films? Care to pretend like you are in one? Well, boy do I have the resources for you to realize these fantasies. Two Christmases ago, I was having coffee with a childhood friend, who told me that he had purchased his mother some declassified Soviet military maps for Christmas. This reminded me of an article that I had been sent by a different friend from Wired. Basically, the Soviets engaged in a large-scale map making project for the entire world. A cache of these maps had been discovered in the former Baltic republics of the Soviet Union. Enterprising locals, some of whom had a fair amount of disdain towards the Russian government, realized that they could make money selling off these former top-secret military resources.

I’m not sure how my friend came across them, but he did and purchased a few original maps as well as a few reproductions through eBay. The original maps are in wonderful quality, the reproductions not so much. We had coffee and I translated the map key for him. Fast forward to about a month ago, another good friend showed me a review of a book called The Red Atlas, authored in part by one of the subjects of the Wired article, John Davies. It’s the first book to examine the Soviet military maps in depth. I altered my friend to the book, and he in turn gave me the information for the eBay store from which he purchased his maps.

Being a bit of a mapping nerd these days, I was ecstatic to see that there was a Soviet military map for Boston, its surrounding area, and the Atlantic Ocean. At only $25, I felt compelled to buy the map. Mostly I wanted it for the map of Cape Cod, where I spend most of my time when not required to be at school or gallivanting around Russia. It only cost $5 for shipping from Latvia, and the package arrived four days after I ordered it.

I got a map from Latvia in four days. It took 2 months to receive a letter from the USA in Moscow.

Upon opening the map, I was extremely happy to see the level of detail that the Soviets had put into the map. Chatham Light House was there, as is CQX, the tiny municipal airport that can only service propeller planes. Naturally, the Hyannis Airport was on the map, as is Camp Edwards and its Otis Air Force Base.

Cape Cod as mapped by the Soviets in 1986

Luckily for me, my university library had just ordered a copy of Red Atlas, which I was happy to check out. The book itself is a Soviet history nerd’s dream. The cover states совершенно секретно (sovershenno sekretno, top secret). The majority of my archival sources were generally stamped with this, so it’s a phrase that I’m always interested to see. Indeed, as Davies and Kent note in their book, there were different maps, which had different scales, details, and levels of secrecy. Thankfully, this book includes handy keys to decipher the military maps. Using the key with my Boston map, I’m able to discern quite a lot more from the map than just how the Soviets tactically analyzed the area from which I come.

So most of my map of Boston happens to be the Atlantic Ocean. You have to know where to sail the submarine if you want to avoid the plot of “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.”

Knowing Russian, I am able to read from the map that is from the 1986 iteration of mapping, though the map itself was printed in 1993. With a quick Yandex (the Russian Google) search, I was able to decipher the acronyms of the publisher. The map says that it was published by the Military Topographic Directorate of the General Staff with the original information from the Main Directorate of Geodesy and Cartography of the Council of Ministers of the USSR. I know that the scale is 1:1,000,000. According to Red Atlas, this means that my map was a small-scale/general terrain evaluation map, which was an unclassified map. The book also gives me a better understanding of where the map was printed. My particular map was printed in December 1993 with a factory code of И (or I) for Irkutsk, a major city in Siberia.

TL;DR – Soviet military maps are cool. You can buy them online, and there’s a nifty book that explains the maps and the massive efforts it took to produce them, an undertaking that was and still is shrouded in mystery.