I feel nostalgic towards my birth country twice a year. Due to current and historical reasons, none of which I am going to discuss here because of both space and your sanity, I never think of myself as Russian. I left Moscow long ago, have no plans to return, and only enjoy Russian food when prepared by my mother and no more than once a year.
But today, on the 9th of May, I feel Russian. It’s not really a choice I consciously make but a feeling that overtakes me when I log into my Facebook account. Even though my friends’ list is international, on this day my newsfeed is overwhelmed with posts from those either born in Russia or now working there. And most posts are about World War II.
Every year on the 9th of May Russia marks its victory over Nazi Germany. It celebrates by putting on a military parade worthy of the Oscars, the Emmys, and the Golden Globes combined. The reasons are purely political and those have been examined to death in other, more high-brow outlets. Which is why I am not going to focus on that or any other ridiculous exhibition of might that today’s Russia employs to make its people feel good. It’s not news to me — I already know about those tricks. I’ve lived through them.
But that’s not the reason that makes me feel Russian on the 9th of May. I feel Russian because remembering that war transports me directly into my childhood. The childhood in which we didn’t learn only the historical facts of that war (heavily edited by the Communist Party, of course) but we learned to identify with it on a primal, almost visceral level. I’ve been now away from Moscow for longer than I lived there but I still get goose bumps when I see clips of Soviet war movies and hear melodies of war songs. And I am not the only one. Those religions of the world that have trouble spiritualizing their followers should research how the Soviet propaganda machine turned World War II into the reliquary for the masses.
First as a young girl and later as a teen, I spent every 9th of May in Moscow’s Gorky Park with my grandfather. He fought in the war, survived it, and went to Gorky Park every year to see his former comrades-in-arms. Regardless of the weather, on that day the grounds of the park filled up with people young and old. Old, scanning the crowds for the names and numbers of their Red Army units, and young, walking from one group of veterans to another, thanking them for their courage, and giving out flowers to everyone with a medal on their chest. It was a day of profound sadness and profound happiness—both at the same time.
This would probably be an appropriate spot to break into criticizing the role that Russia is playing in the world today and the way Putin’s been using World War II for his rhetoric on Ukraine and Crimea. But I’ll save it for another post. The post that I can write on a day when I am not thinking of my grandfather, his fellow servicemen and women, the red-carnations-full Gorky Park, and the time when everything seemed much, much simpler. My childhood.