Victory Day and the Immortal Regiment

The 9th of May is a very important and heartfelt day in Russia. It’s called Victory day and it’s the day when the country commemorates the surrender of Nazis in 1945.

The signing of the German Instrument of Surrender actually happened in Berlin, late in the evening on 8 May 1945 (thus after midnight, already on 9 May Moscow Time). The Soviet government announced the victory early on the morning of that day: 9 May.

In the first years after the war, reconstruction had the priority over celebration and May 9th became a non-labour day only in 1965, and only in certain Soviet republics. It was only in relatively recent years that the commemoration became as important as it is today, when the Russian government used this celebration to replace the Soviet-era Revolution Day celebrated in November to mark the Bolshevik seizure of power of November 7, 1917.

In the early 2000s, the parade of tanks, soldiers and the overfly of combat airplanes was mostly a show of military strength and patriotism, meant in a way to reassure the Russian citizen that their nation, after a decade of two of crisis, was back again on the center stage of the world’s superpowers. But the personal element, the remembrance of family members and the collective sacrifice of the people during the conflict, seemed to fall by the wayside.

This all started to change in the Siberian city of Tomsk. The idea came to three friends, who wanted to keep the memory of individual veterans alive, in the year 2011. The first Immortal Regiment march with the portraits of fallen soldiers took place the following year.

The Immortal Regiment: people marching with pictures of soldiers fallen in WWII

The people who fought and died in the war have always been widely revered in the Russian culture and so the idea quickly appealed pretty much everyone across the political spectrum.

To understand this feeling, it is important to fully grasp what the war meant for the Soviet Union.

The current political tensions tend to obscure the scale of what’s being commemorated: starting in 1941, the Soviet Union bore the brunt of the Nazi war machine and played perhaps the most important role in the Allies’ defeat of Hitler. The Eisenhower Institute estimates that for every single American soldier killed fighting the Germans, 80 Soviet soldiers died doing the same.

By 1943, the Soviet Union had already lost some 5 million soldiers and two-thirds of its industrial capacity to the Nazi advance. That it was yet able to turn back the German invasion is testament to the courage of the Soviet war effort. But it came at a shocking price. An estimated 26 to 27 million Soviet citizens died during World War II, including as many as 11 million soldiers. At the same time, the Germans suffered three-quarters of their wartime losses fighting the Red Army.

The Communist ideology is long gone, but this is no reason to forget the courage of the Soviet war effort

In his memoirs, Eisenhower was appalled by the extent of the carnage:

When we flew into Russia, in 1945, I did not see a house standing between the western borders of the country and the area around Moscow. Through this overrun region, Marshal Zhukov told me, so many numbers of women, children and old men had been killed that the Russian Government would never be able to estimate the total.

The numbers are so immense that they are hard to comprehend. A more “personal” statistics always haunted me: if you were a male born in the USSR in the year 1923, you had less than a 30% chance of still being alive at the end of the war. The disproportionate number of deaths of young men rose to the point that it resulted in a drastic change in sex ratios among the population surviving the war. Out of 3.4 million male children being born in the Soviet Union in 1934, only 1.1 million survived to see 1946.

It could have been us: a young boy dressed as a WWII Soviet soldier

It is estimated that, between soldier and civilian casualties, 60 percent of Soviet households lost at least one member of their immediate family.

This explain why so many people felt a personal, direct connection with the Immortal Regiment celebration.

For the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Victory, in 2015, over 10 million people took part in the march all over the country and the numbers have never dwindled since.

The march of the Immortal Regiment in Moscow

I took the pictures you see in this post in 2018 in Moscow, when over one million people marched with the pictures of the relatives who died or participated in the war, ending this parade in the Red Square.

People from all walks of life take part in the march

As this is complex mix of remembrance, pride and patriotism, the Russian authorities have fully embraced the concept and in recent years President Putin led the march in Moscow, carrying a portrait of his father, who fought in the war.

In all major cities the local government also offers the participants free water and food, provided by a series of military camp kitchen placed at the side of the march’s itinerary in the hearth of the city.

Free water and food are offered to the people taking part in the Immortal Regiment march

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