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May 7, 2015

The V-Day blues

Consider the following facts. My father was from a small village Bryanskoye in Western Siberia. In 1941, there were about 100 families here. When Germany attacked, all men were drafted into the army. Not one of them came back, including my grandfather Vasily Sidorkin. He perished near Leningrad, in a field hospital. My mom is from a much larger nearby town of almost a thousand families. Again, almost all men were drafted, and only four or five came back, including my maternal grandfather Grigory Zaitsev. He was incredibly lucky. However, the war eventually claimed his wife, my grandmother Elena Zhukova. During the war, she had to steal frozen grains from the state granary to feed her four children. The repeated exposure to cold gave her skeletal tuberculosis; she died at the age of 45. My father-in-law, who passed away this year, faked his papers and volunteered to the Army in 1944, at the age of 17. He was severely wounded near Konigsberg, and spent many months in hospitals. One of my uncles Nikolay Belash carried a German bullet in his pericardium for 50 years; it was too dangerous to remove.

Literally every family in Russia has stories like that. This is why the V-Day has always been such a big deal in this country. If there were anything uniting all Russians, it was the story of the Great Patriotic War, or so we though. That was a replacement for the founding myth, a patch over the schism of the civil war of 1918-1920. Or so we thought.

But there is no such a thing as solidarity over history. History is divisive, more divisive than uniting. We remember the past only to make sense of the present; there is no other point to remembering. As the present is always contentious, so becomes the past.

Every bit of history can and will be turned into a political weapon. Some people want to keep the pure and simple story of sacrifice and victory over Nazism. Others want to see a more complex picture, acknowledge terrible errors and needless losses of human life. Some want to acknowledge the persecutions of entire ethnic groups by the Soviet government, while others relegate this to another compartment. Some want to see how advancing Soviet troops raped thousands of German women in 1945, while others prefer to deny or ignore that. It turns out the Patriotic War was also a civil war in some parts of the Soviet Union, for example in Western Ukraine. Just like in Yugoslavia, that war has never been resolved, and became an important fuel for the current conflict. The Great Patriotic War is glorious if it is a blur. Once you look closely, it just becomes a Rorschach blot.

And the politics inevitably come in. If you use certain words or bring up certain fact, you may be called unpatriotic by the conservatives. If you use other words and remember other facts, you will be called Putinist by the liberals. Most people just won’t say anything to each other, which is sad. I stay away from these discussions. I just don’t want the human stories be replaced by yet another political debate. I don’t have an opinion about how we should view the war. Don't care one way or the other about the parade. It is just the day to remember the generation of my grandparents. And I will remember the family of my German friend Ulrich, most of which perished in the forced march across Europe in 1945. That is my way of doing the V-Day. I wish there were more silence.