Saturday, May 22, 2010

Victory Day

One of the biggest holidays in Kazakhstan is the 9th of May, or Victory Day. It celebrates the day when the Soviet troops marched into Berlin and defeated the Nazi troops to end World War II. Or, as they say here, the day the Soviets defeated the Fascists to end the Great Patriotic War. And this year was the 65th anniversary, so it was an even bigger deal than normal.

The TV showed a short historical segment everyday about the “Road to Berlin,” detailing the Soviet army's movements in the days leading up to the Fascist surrender. Commercials for a concert of patriotic war songs began playing in early April. Signs and billboards went up all over town in preparation for the big celebration.

My host father Oral used to be a history teacher, and he gave me several lectures about how the Soviets won the war. He conceded that the Americans helped by giving them arms and money (but they never gave enough.) And the Soviet army played the most important part in defeating the Fascists. Historically, this is probably more accurate than giving the most credit to the Americans, at least in regard to the Nazis. The Soviets definitely took the highest toll and paid the highest price in the war. And many historians argue that the battle for Stalingrad was the turning point of the war. Oral went on to point out that Kazakhstan also played an important roll in the war. Many of the factories and even government agencies (including the forerunner to the KGB) were relocated to Kazakhstan when the Nazis got too close to Moscow. And there was an all-Kazakhstani division, called Panfilov's division, that won an important battle, only to be overwhelmed by enemy forces following a huge tactical error by Moscow. Afterward, Moscow covered up their mistake for many years before finally admitting wrong. Now, there are monuments all over Kazakhstan in honor of Panfilov's brave soldiers.

The Victory Day celebration in my village began at 10am on a slightly-chilly Sunday morning. First, the local veterans walked into the town square, accompanied by their wives and bedecked in their many medals and ribbons awarded during the war. There were not many of them; in fact, people were constantly telling me, with a mixture of pride and sadness, that there are exactly 32 WWII veterans still alive in our region.

Next, there were speeches by the akim (mayor) and other important dignitaries honoring the veterans. Then people filed forward to lay baskets filled with flowers at the base of our town's Great Patriotic War monument and eternal flame (which wasn't burning in the winter, so I only realized a couple of weeks ago that we have an eternal flame.)

After the ceremony, the parade began. It was nothing like a small-town America parade, with kids riding streamer-bedecked bikes and local charity groups throwing hard candy at the spectators. The parade started with a review of the local schools. Each school sent a delegation of boys and another of girls, and they (literally) marched past the spectators in rank and file.

Earlier that week, our school had held our own Victory Day celebration, and all of the classes from 5th through 10th grades marched around the school yard. It was quite interesting to watch my 11-year-old students marching in not-quite-perfect rhythm, chanting loudly “bir, bir, bir eki oosh!” (which means “one, one, one two three.”) Each class made two passes around the field, the second time singing a military song, and they were graded each time, with certificates and ranks awarded to everybody at the end.

And so, having seen the marching earlier that week, I was not surprised to see it now, although the older students were much better at staying together as they marched. After the review, the parade began. It was a “theatrical parade,” as the announcers said, and so every group had a story to tell. The hospital filled the back of an old truck with wounded soldiers wrapped in bloody bandages, while nurses in white robes ministered to their wounds. Another group had a full-blown tank with soldiers sitting on top, heading off to war. Our school had an entire skit put together portraying families saying goodbye to their husbands, sons and fathers and they went off to war.

During the parade rehearsal a few days earlier, I had not been aware that we had planned such a complicated presentation. I'd come to the center of town with the rest of the teachers after school had let out early for the day, ready to participate and help wherever I was needed. As the teachers lined up at the staging ground, I cautiously asked my counterpart if they were going to march like the students, because I wasn't quite ready to do something they'd obviously had much more practice with. But when she said no, I impetuously joined the other teachers, looking around for handfuls of candy to throw. (It was just rehearsal, so when I didn't see any, I was unfazed.)

Then I noticed all the teachers grabbing the hands of one of the small children who were standing around. Ready to fit in, I looked around and noticed little Ruslan from my 4a class standing on the edge of the road. “Ruslan!” I called and waved him over to me. He gave me a confused look, but Ruslan often looks confused, so my confidence didn't sink as he approached, I took his hand, and we began walking.

I was soon to find out, however, that there was never going to be any candy involved in this parade, and also why Ruslan had given me such a confused look. Our group stopped walking in front of the town square, and a complicated script that had been prerecorded began blasting over the loudspeaker. First we had to gather together and cry as we said goodbye to our soldiers. I pulled Ruslan into a hug, and even though we didn't have any soldier to say goodbye to (apparently I was a single mother), we cried just as hard as the rest of them. Then we all squatted and prayed for something in Kazakh before the men jumped into a waiting lorry and the children ran behind it, waving, as it drove away. (Ruslan seemed remarkably happy to run after that truck and away from me.)

Needless to say, when the parade practice finished, I was feeling a bit confused and incredibly hopeful that nobody was watching our performance (that is to say, my lack of performance) too closely. Soon, though, my host mom told me there would be at least two more run-throughs that day but I might as well go home because, on the day of the parade, I should be watching it and enjoying my first Victory Day. I had no objections, and I did enjoy watching the parade on May 9.

Several times people have asked me if we have a similar holiday in America. I replied that we don't, and my answer got me thinking about why. You could argue that it's because America has two victory days, one over the Nazis and one over the Japanese, so logistics don't work. You could also argue that America is not a military state, like the Soviet Union was, and so had no need to manufacture military spectacles as propaganda to bolster citizens' national pride. But, I think maybe a large reason is because, difficult as the war was for Americans, we suffered nowhere near the hardships that the Soviet Union experienced. The war was on their land. Not only their soldiers, but their civilians too, died in battles such as the sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad. Millions upon millions of their people died protecting their homeland from invaders at their backdoor. The stakes for them were much higher, the battles won with more difficulty, and therefore the victory sweeter.

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