Last week we took an overview of the Immortal Regiment procession, the major Russian display of remembrance that grew out of a Siberian grassroots initiative to be embraced by the authorities and exported via Moscow to the world.
The event is also more multicultural than we may first imagine, even in Moscow. Those drawn into military service under the banner of the Soviet Union are honoured here – not just Russians, alone.
This not only includes Slavic Russian citizens and ethnic Siberians but also those from further afield, including the Caucuses, members of former Soviet republics and some surprising attendees. “The Scots, the Chinese, the Americans, the Poles (and) the Serbs are the guests of the Moscow procession” declared Nikolai Zemtsov, co-chairman of the All-Russian public movement.
Who do we remember?
Growing from a desire to remember those who perished in the Great Patriotic War (World War II to us) defending the Motherland, it also came to embrace the memory of those who perished in other fields of engagement, or who suffered later as a result of their wounds. Those who departed after leaving their military careers behind and slipping into civilian retirement are also included.
Finally, the numerous civilian casualties who died as a result of hostile enemy action are also honoured, such as those murdered in village raids by the Nazis (during Operation Barbarossa for instance), or those imprisoned in concentration camps.
The event grows stronger year by year as millions of Russians unite in a display of unity and camaraderie, irrespective of the weather and of individual financial/social status, to march through major cities across the world. Indeed the event is a great leveller, forcing strangers together on amicable terms like no other initiate – except those instigated by the Orthodox Church– ever could.
As you may already know, there is something of a social barrier when it comes to interacting with strangers in Russian society: unknown interlopers are generally not considered “just friends you haven’t met yet” – as the old western adage goes. Instead, worth is proven over time, trust is earned and friendship is sincere. Betray those at your peril. Here, though, on parade day: witness armies of Russian strangers shoulder to shoulder, sometimes even smiling at each other.
There’s a lesson, underlined: the power of Russian patriotism and Orthodoxy too (incidentally). If you tread carelessly (or worse: deliberately) on either, then you can guarantee a swiftly incoming and very negative response in no uncertain terms.
In amongst the tan military caps, the full uniforms (field and parade), the civilian dress, the red, white and blue flags and balloons (yes, balloons!) strides a cross-section of Russian society. Varying ages, wealth, achievements, health, careers, abilities, and other dividers represented -though all temporarily ignored for the greater purpose at hand. Each has a memory and a story to tell.
A young woman and her partner headed in from outlying Belarus to Moscow, with the crowds thickening as participants filtered in closer to the city centre. She remarked on the obligation to help veterans at home: to wash their windows, even – and wondered if those obligated did in fact perform their duty – or just sat at home of social media instead. She is emphatic that no one present was forced to attend, and that it was the will of their own hearts that lead them there.
Designated individuals handed bottled water freely to passing crowds – as if in some slow-motion olympic event; open to all those who chose to simmer in the unlikely May heat. She notes the flowers handed as tributes to the seniors present and is moved by shouts of “thank you” directed their way as the public files by.
The former Leningrad
In St.Petersburg she joined the procession for the first time, although in her middle age. A duty aching to be fulfilled compelled her to it: the familial memory of the war ravaging her family. Even those who were spared the front were not safe, she recalls the trials of the Leningrad Blockade and now, how this commemorative event unites a nation tired of plodding forwards without unity or purpose. “They are tired of life without meaning,” she states; “From the pursuit of illusory success, from the race for survival.”
She notes how the occasion has been transformed from the funeral-like procession envisioned by the organisers to the celebration brought in by the crowds with their flags and balloons and spontaneous shouts of, “Hurray!”.
She hears strangers enthusiastically exchanging tales of their departed heroes and enquiring about the sombre faces paraded on the placards of others, all barriers of social formality broken down by the weight of the day’s event.
Some began singing old military songs that caught the voices of the crowd and spread downstream as others joined in. Even the words had been thoughtfully printed on sheets that were passed around so that all may participate. Girls, having exhausted their own repertoire, ran to join the songs of others so that they could sing the whole way through the day.