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Sunday, May 8, 2016

Victory Day: A Personal Reflection

May 9th, the day Nazi Germany surrendered against the Allied forces of the USSR, United States, and United Kingdom ending World War II, is today.

There is an old quote that says "World War II was won with American steel, British intelligence, and Soviet blood." The United States, with its vast wealth of raw materials and largely unharmed industrial sector, was able to mobilize its economy to sky-high levels of production and keep the military from running out of supplies. British intelligence was vital in intercepting and decoding Nazi cyphers and played a vital role in giving Allied forces the upper hand as to the Axis strategies.

And last but not least, Soviet blood. It is estimated that somewhere around 20-27 million Soviets from all corners of the vast empire died in the Second World War from a combination of war crimes, military casualties, famine, and disease. By contrast, Germany lost around 7 million people, and the United States and United Kingdom each lost less than a million in the war.

Because of the staggering number of people lost in the war, Victory Day is by far the most important state holiday in modern Russia.  The titanic struggle against Nazi Germany has been woven into Russian culture and identity as well as pride.

At 10 am Moscow time this Monday, Russia's well-known military pomp will be out in full display. Soldiers of the Russian Army will march through Red Square to world-famous military marches such as Священная война (The Sacred War) and Прощание славянки (Farewell of Slavianka) and the Russian people will pay tribute to their grandfathers who shed their blood to defend our Fatherland against the Nazi invaders. 

Some do not approve of the way Russia looks back on this chapter of its long history. There are some who deny the atrocities carried out by Stalin's government against the Ukrainian people in the years leading up to the war. Some gloss over the fact that Stalin's government cooperated with Hitler at the beginning of the war to invade Poland. The reality of Stalin's brutal and absolute rule is also somewhat overshadowed by the victory in the Second World War. 

These grievances, however valid, are often looked down upon when remembering the victory over the Nazis, and while the picture of history in the early Soviet Union is not completely rosy by any stretch, perhaps these things can be remembered and reflected upon on a day other than May 9th. There is no doubt in my mind that they must be remembered, but timing is important. 

In the United States, some are keen to point out the blatant racism plaguing the country during the Second World War when veterans of that conflict are given tribute. Again, they are right. The American military was segregated in World War II and racism was still institutionalized in American law. This is not to mention the widespread propaganda that painted the Japanese (or "Japs") as sniveling and deceitful subhumans. 

But however valid your message is, there is another part to protest, and that is the method of getting that message out. In both countries, bringing up the darker shades of history as the entire country comes together to reflect on the sacrifices of those who fought can come across as in poor taste and even disrespectful. 

Remembering these parts of history is not a bad thing-in fact it is a very good thing to keep people honest. But the timing on both sides could be a bit more different and the protest movements can be channeled into more effective methods rather than raining on the parade. There's a difference between constant apologizing and groveling for the sins of the past and looking upon them with an honest and open mind while retaining one's pride in his country and its history. 

For instance, I would not be opposed to wearing an orange and black St. George's ribbon on May 9th as a symbol of remembrance. I am fully aware of the disagreeable connotations it has with modern Russian nationalism especially in regards to the "struggle against fascists" in Ukraine, but that ribbon has been used in the Russian military since before 1917. It is a part of our history. I may not wear it at other times, but it is no sin in my eyes on May the 9th. 

And so while I do often criticize the Kremlin, today is a day for remembrance, for pride, for commemoration. I remember. I am proud. I am proud of this country I was born in and the heroic resistance of the people who I share blood with. I remember their enormous sacrifice and the many who never lived to see victory. I am humbled and moved by the photos I see of old men, their uniforms covered in medals and honors, who saw the horrors of that war first hand. And I hope Russia will continue to honor the memory of those whose struggle has become such an integral part of this country's identity and history. 

Подвиг народа будет жить в веках. 
С Днём Победы. Ура!