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.

Digital Mapping and Family History

It’s a new year and I’ve got a cool HASTAC Fellowship, so I’ve decided to add a blog component to my website to occasionally write about cool stuff related to my research, digital humanities, and mapping. I’ll be kicking this all off with a somewhat personal post. Those who have followed my personal travel blog from Russia might know of my brush with fate and how I was able to reconnect with part of my family that we hadn’t really been in contact with since my grandmother, her sisters, and her parents were evacuated by the British during the Russian Civil War. At least one member of my grandmother’s mother’s family remained in Simferopol, Crimea, and became a known Soviet poet, one who was the first to witness and write about the Holocaust. There’s actually a fantastic book written about him. I last saw his daughter in Moscow in July and again in October of 2017.

After my grandmother, her parents, and her sister came to America, my great-uncle was born. He passed away about a year ago and my father brought us some of the pictures and letters, which he had kept from his parents. It seems that my grandmother’s father’s family remained around present-day Ukraine. Some stayed in Kiev, others in Berdichev. Being a historian and the only living member of the family that speaks Russian, I was intrigued to look at the photos and letters. However, it soon became apparent that my knowledge of the history would become depressing.

One of the items that was most shocking was a photograph of the extended family. The bottom of the photo has a caption saying that Isaac was killed at the factory. The back of the photo, though, was much more troubling. It says that it was taken in Berdichev in 1923. Upon reading that, I immediately had a pit in my stomach. Berdichev was one of the major sites of the Holocaust, where the majority of the city’s Jewish population was exterminated. It is highly likely that all of those pictured perished.

A subsequent letter from 1948 between my great-grandparents and one relative from Kiev alludes to the toughness of the war. The author, Inda, notes that she had received a letter two years before, and only just found the time to write back. She states that her family was doing much better after the war, but that “it is painful to write about the others” and that “due to the officer beasts, many in the family perished.” Most in the Western world don’t understand the toll of the Second World War on the Soviet Union. 27 million Soviet citizens perished during the war, 2 million of whom were Jews in the Holocaust. It is not an exaggeration to say that every Soviet family was touched by the war and lost at least one person. While I had suspected some of this, I had never known the extent. Indeed, my own extended family suffered losses during the war.

This brings me to my connection between my personal life and my research. For the past few years, I have worked as a teaching assistant for a course on genocide and weapons of mass destruction. One year, we read Father Patrick DesBois’s The Holocaust By Bullets, which chronicles the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, primarily in the territory of the Soviet Union, beyond the major deathcamps such as Auschwitz or Treblinka. Unlike at those camps, where killing was mechanized and impersonal, the vast majority of the executions in Soviet territories was by cruder, personal means such as shootings. Berdichev was one of these sites. While using Father DesBois’s book, I found out about his interactive mapping project, as I was embarking upon my own work with German prisoner of war camps. I consider Father DesBois’s map of the Holocaust by Bullets to be one of the best interactive mapping projects I have ever come across. In addition to plotting the extermination sites, each location features information from relevant archival sources, either German or Soviet, as well as testimonies from those who remained. Anyone interested in historical GIS, digital humanities, the Holocaust, or the history of World War II should know of this resource. This mapping project quickly and easily conveys the magnitude of the exterminations. It also readily illustrates the human toll of the Second World War on the Eastern Front. More work of a similar nature should be done to visualize the economic and human destruction of the Second World War.