Episode #2 – WWII and Victory Day in Russia
Now… I’ve never intended to have such a heavy topic as WWII – the Second World War for my second episode. But… there was just no way around it. At least I felt like it. Because this week we celebrated the 9th of May. It is one of the most important holidays in a Russian year. And that’s Victory Day. The victory in the Second World war. To not talk about it would be ignoring the elephant in the room. So I promise that the next episode will be fun and silly. (I solemnly swear that I’m up to no good:) But for now… ready or not, here I come.
The transcript and links are below
Which Victory is that precisely?
I think I’ll start with a quick (or as quick as I can make it) overview of what had actually happened in Russia or rather the Soviet Union as it and a lot of other republics were known back then. The thing is the World War is a long… event. And it started at different times for different countries. Here it started on the 22nd of June 1941. And my great-grandma used to tell me that it was a very fine and sunny day where she lived…
Important warning and disclaimer: This is by no means a full account and I present stuff as it was taught to us in History lessons at schools and universities. I am aware that it could be seen differently. But I can’t cover that in one podcast episode. If you want to debate something or talk about it, leave me a comment.
Beginning of the WWII in Russia
So, Officially the Second World war began on the first of September 1939 (nineteen thirty nine). Unless we are talking about China which had already been attacked by Japan at this point. But the Soviet Union signed a neutrality pact with Nazi Germany on the 23rd of August 1939. And that’s a part of history that we don’t like to think about all that much, as you might imagine. It could be seen from many different perspectives, I guess, but still… not much to be proud of. But we are taught that Soviet leaders (namely Joseph Stalin) knew that the war was coming and were preparing the country for it.
Which is funny in a morbidly sarcastic way, because on the 22nd of June 1941 Nazis launched a surprise attack at Russian borders without openly declaring war. And in the first three weeks of the invasion Soviet army lost 750 000 people and god only knows how many were injured. That number sounds enormous. And it’s almost hard to feel the horror because that’s hard to imagine. To make it slightly more tangible, that would be the population of Seattle, or Leeds, or Frankfurt completely wiped out.
And to make it more personal… my great-grandfather was among those seven hundred and fifty thousand. He was twenty or maybe even 19. And he was a private and very recently conscripted because military service is compulsory for men in Russia. He had a wife, my great-grandma, and a one year old daughter, my grandma and namesake. And he died during those first weeks. Though he is cited as missing in action, because his body had never been recovered. But the area where he was serving was heavily bombed and… Well. Fill in the gory details…
That first year was full of lost battles and retreating. From Ukraine and Belarus (which were both the part of the USSR). From southern parts of Russia, parts of central Russia. German or rather the Axis forces wanted to conquer Russia quickly. It was called Operation Barbarossa. And it looked as if it would work, except… it obviously didn’t.
When trying to invade a country, leaders most often head for the capital. But there was a lot of space between the borders and the capital in Soviet Union. And all that space was used to fight. The Nazis were stalled by Smolensk and in many-many other places. St Petersburg (which then was called Leningrad) was under siege, but it didn’t fall. And then there was the Battle of Moscow.
Battle of Moscow
Thanks to the previous efforts the battle began in October 1941, much later than Hitler wanted. Which meant that Soviet army was able to use our favourite defence mechanism against invaders – Russian winter. Remind me to tell you how Napoleon and his army met that bitch in 1812. Waterloo was probably a picnic afterwards.
Anyway, battle of Moscow lasted till January 1942 and Nazis lost. Spectacularly and strategically. It was the end of a dream of the fast victory over the USSR. It wasn’t a turning point yet, that would be too easy. But it was symbolic for the people. There’s still a saying in Russian language: “Отступать некуда – позади Москва” – There is nowhere to retreat (meaning we can’t retreat), Moscow is behind us.
My second great-grandpa, who was an officer in a rifle division (that’s light infantry in the Red army), died somewhere around there. We don’t know where… again. Because the losses in that war were such that there was no time to bury the dead properly. And of course there are other options, which are even less pleasant to consider. But the WWII was fought with tanks and heavy artillery. And no one cancelled bombs and mines for the occasion. So… another man missing in action. That one left… again… a one year old son and literally a newborn. They would grow up to be my grandfather and great-aunt.
The Siege of Leningrad
Meanwhile the Siege of Leningrad or as we know it Блокада Лениграда – the Leningrad blockade went on. It started on the 8th of September 1941 and was not lifted until the 18th of January 1944. It lasted 872 days. Listen to it again. Eight hundred seventy two days. 2 years, 4 months, 2 weeks and 5 days. It is one of the longest and most destructive sieges in history. And possibly the deadliest one. And the horror is that it wasn’t the bullets that killed most of the people. Civilian people, women and children as they like to say in chronicles. Oh no. It was hunger. Which is way more cruel.
There’s a quote from wikipedia of all places:
Historian Michael Walzer summarized that “The Siege of Leningrad killed more civilians than bombing of Hamburg, Dresden, Hirosima and Nagasaki combined.” US Military Academy at West Point evaluated that Russian casualties during the Siege of Leningrad were bigger than combined American and British casualties during the entire WW2
A fact that’s no fun at all: people who survived that siege are said to never throw away food. Like people who survived concentration camps. Though the truth is a lot of people in Soviet Union starved during WWII. And d’you know how the real trickle-down… economic (pardon the pun) effect works? My great-grandma who wasn’t even nowhere near Leningrad but had to bring up a daughter alone and support her own and her late husband’s parents, never threw away food either. My mother hates throwing away food, even stale bread. She’d rather give it to the birds, use it to create compost, anything, but throw it away. And she never went hungry. She doesn’t even diet for God’s sakes!
Then there’s me, the fourth generation. Do you know how I feel about throwing away food? Take a wild guess! You hit bingo if you said: guilty! I also inherited a habit to have considerable supplies of food at home. The durable stuff, of course. Frozen or canned. And let me tell you there’s no shortage of shops where I live, including those that are open 24 hours. There is no need for this, not really. But do you think I do that that because I like having a meal back-up plan? Partially. But there’s also this fear. Somewhere deep-deep-deep inside of me there’s a fear that one day some shit might happen and… And who knows, maybe it’s a reasonable fear to have. What’s with the current political situation and everything. But as mumbo-jumbo as it sounds that fear doesn’t always feel like my own.
But enough of that. There’s more bloody stuff happening at the same time! The was also the Siege of Sevastopol. That’s in Crimea. Yep, that place that started the whole sanctions against Russia mess. The thing is it was Russian territory. For centuries. But we don’t really have time for that or the Battle of the Caucasus. That’s mountains in the south of Russia where I went recently. But Germans hadn’t gone for the views, as you might imagine. They wanted oil. Especially the good one from Azerbaijan. Short story – didn’t make it, had to evacuate in 1944.
Battle of Stalingrad
But the main event on the Eastern front happened 4 hours away by train from where I live. (It’s nothing when it comes to Russian distances, by the way) In the city that’s now known as Volgograd, but then was called Stalingrad. And the bloodiest battle in history and the largest in the Second world war took place there.
It lasted from August 1942 till February 1943. And there was no building in that city (and that is and was a big city) left intact. Everything was in ruins. If our guide from one of the times that I have visited Volgograd is to be believed there is a single tree in the whole of the city proper that had survived that battle. One tree.
There’s a big war memorial complex there (which is a must if you consider yourself a WWII history buff). And one of the parts of it is a ruin of a mill. If you are on a tour in Volgograd and aren’t numb from all the feels by this point, seeing the walls turned into a sieve by weapons will easily chill you to the bone. So I definitely recommend going in summer.
But if that isn’t enough, consider this: the main war memorial is on the hill called Мамаев Курган. And in spring of 1943 it was so completely covered by rubble and metal from vehicles, fired missiles, tanks and… well, dead bodies… that the grass hadn’t grown there. It couldn’t spring through.
My best friend’s great-grandfather managed to survive that one. More than 1 129 000 people didn’t. That would be a little less people than now lives in the whole of Prague. (By the way, I hope you realize that those loses are only on Soviet side. The Nazi loses are counted separately).
And the biggest Nazi loss is that Soviets won that Battle. And that was the turning point of the Second world war. At least on the Eastern front.
I am also personally thankful for that outcome. Because the next one on the Nazi list was my city, which is the next big city up the river Volga. And a lot of my relatives were in it or in the towns and villages around it at this point. Saratov was bombed. A lot. But it was never invaded. So… I’m grateful.
The end of the WWII
All this led to contreattacks and liberation of the occupied Soviet territories in 1944. Soviet army followed the nazi retreat, stopping along the way to force them out of Warsaw, Budapest, Vienna and many other places. Basically they marched through Europe. And that part of the story is viewed very differently by many non-Russian or non-Soviet Union people. I can’t discuss it here. It would take ages. But just… keep that in mind.
This resulted in the Battle of Berlin – and finally – and frankly I’m exhausted just talking about all this, I can’t imagine living through it – finally on the 8th May 1945 at 23.01 hours Central European time the war in Europe was over. But in Moscow it was already the 9th of May. That is why we celebrate Victory day on the 9th.
The last portion of horrifying numbers differs depending on the source. The largest looks something like this: up to 35 million military personnel and probably 22 million civilians dead. Killed, tortured to death, lost in detention camps, slave labour factories or any combination of thereof and other options. How many were injured physically and mentally is… innumerable. The cost of having half the country in ruins is also hard to evaluate correctly.
Another fact that’s not fun at all: two countries who suffered most losses during that war are the Soviet Union and China. And I found about the second one literally days ago. So go Google it, you might be very surprised.
Out of all this horror comes
Important side note: Please, Don’t argue with us about our role in World War II
Unless you’re a WWII history buff and really know what you are talking about. Even then better inform us about the role your country or nation played in it. (Except if you’re German. Then better just… don’t. Or be super-careful about how you phrase it). Because we don’t study it at school all that much. If most people where you come from don’t know much about our history, you can safely assume most people here don’t know much about yours. And no amount of WWII films can change that apparently.
Yes, the role of the USSR in that war was not just as innocent victims and brave avengers (Or crap! Now I’ll never get this image out of my head! Gawd, I watch too many movies!) Anyway, history is never that simple, it’s written by the victors and we were the victors. But still if you do want to discuss it (and I mean really discuss, not fight about), choose your partners carefully. If you or your relatives are from a former Soviet country which had been (and I put it in air quotes) liberated by Soviet Union after the WWII and you’ve got grievances… finding a sympathetic ear in Russia might prove difficult.
I feel – and this is – I stress it – my opinion, our public consciousness nationwide is nowhere near being ready to admit that we did something wrong there. And there probably won’t be any Truth and reconciliation committees about it for a while yet. Because lately (again in my opinion) our most common form of patriotism is a lot like toxic masculinity – loud, ignorant and willing to forcibly shut up anybody who disagrees. So if it makes any difference I would like to apologize personally for the harm that Soviet Union had done to you or your people during that time. But as a nation we still need to… um… get woke on that subject.
And in the interests of preserving your emotional well-being don’t discuss this with people in Russia on or close to the Victory day. Some other time it might be better received (I suggest some time after our government screws up something big. Like Telegram messenger situation that happened mid-April and is still happening)
And in any case, please, be respectful of our pain and enormous collective trauma
You’ve just heard about all of this, but it’s not some abstract history for most of us. It’s not some Medieval times or Ancient Greece. It’s the stuff that happened to people that we know personally. There is no family in Russia that was not affected. I’m hardly exaggerating. Everybody has a relative that fought or served in some other way, was killed or injured or came back a different man or a woman. Countless people worked on the home front (including all of my great-grandmothers), countless families lost fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters in all sorts of horrific circumstances. Absolutely everybody lost relatives that are a bit more distant, like uncles, aunts and cousins. Countless children never knew their parents and grandparents. For us all that shit is not the First avenger movie, it’s not Call of duty or some other video game. It’s what happened to your grandma or grandpa.
Really, the only people who didn’t have much chance to have conversations with veterans are those who were born after the year 2000. Everybody, who came before, did. I am a Millennial and I personally knew and still know dozens of people who survived that war. So yeah, that’s a nerve that’s very easy to hit.
Which, incredible as it is, we often hit ourselves. Just by the way some of us choose to celebrate the occasion. And no, that’s not about vodka.
How do we celebrate the end of WWII?
There’s Victory parade in Red Square in Moscow. And in every big city throughout the country. In Russia parade usually means a military parade (we have a different word for the other kind of parades). So there always is our military personnel marching, military vehicles driving by, planes flying in fancy formations and all that. It’s a tradition, it started soon after the war, and we all grew up with it.
I’ve never been to one in Red Square because it’s very hard to get into on the 9th of May. But I’ve been around it in 2015. My friend and I had just arrived into town for a couple of day, we were trying to get to our accommodations. We weren’t really close to Red Square, still the number of people around was mind-blowing. We came out of the Moscow Underground which is called Metro on New Arbat station and we didn’t know it but military vehicles that were moving towards Red square were driving through that street. It was swarming with people and loud already. We didn’t see the tanks, there were too many people in front of us. But we heard them alright. It was like an engine room on Titanic or sitting on a plane engine during take-off. The planes that were flying above us were very nice though. And we saw most of the parade on the huge screens because there are several of those in that part of the town.
Also if you are ever in Moscow during that time keep in mind that a lot of streets in the city centre are blocked to ensure safety.
When veterans were younger they would march in Red Square too, from time to time. But now they are getting too old for that. So since 2011 we have a new tradition – Бессмертный полк or the Immortal regiment or the Memorial march. Tens of thousands of people all other the country (and in the last few years it spread to other countries too) make poster signs with the photos and names of their ancestors who took part in that war. And they march through the streets with those signs. There’s one in my city too. I couldn’t attend this year, but I will go next time.
Afterwards there are concerts in every city and town, people bring flowers to the WWII (which, as I said, is actually known here as the Great Patriotic war) memorials. And there are those on every city and town because this war touched everybody. Again, as I said, everybody has someone who fought, who died, who was killed, or who worked for the war effort.
A lot of people celebrate with their families. It’s pretty warm in central and southern European parts of Russia at this time. It was +26 degrees Celsius (that’s 78-79 Fahrenheit) this year at my place. So a lot of people go on picnics and make шашлык (that’s grilling meat outdoors). And in the evening at 10 pm we have fireworks.
Pro-tip: if you are ever in Moscow on the 9th of May, the best place to see the fireworks is Poklonnaya Gora/Поклонная гора. That’s one of the highest spots in Moscow and also a park and the Second World War memorial complex. But there are always firework shows in tons of other places. I liked watching it from one of the bridges across river Moskva – Большой Устьинский мост (I’ll leave the links to this and all the best places to watch it below).
There’s also an option of watching it from a tourist boat floating on the Moskva-river. But that ain’t cheap.
The Ribbon of St George
Talking about the stuff you have to pay for, recently a lot of this celebration became about buying shit with 9th of May and the ribbon of Saint George stamped on them. That ribbon is super recognized symbol of remembrance of those who thought in the WWII for people here. Though it has other less… innocent associations. There’s also some period appropriate military clothing on sale, even for children. And that annoys the hell out of me because it’s turning into a carnival.
I have nothing against carnivals. And Victory over fascism seems like a good occasion to celebrate but… But for me the Victory day is a day for remembering relatives I’ve lost, ones I’ve never met and ones who were forever changed and for grieving. Because we don’t have a separate day for that. It’s a very sad and solemn day for me, and carnival… is not what I wanna see. And it does feel like only people that don’t know the history, that don’t realize what had happened, treat it as a reason to have some fun. But this might be just me. Because the dissonance is striking. Anyway, it is what it is. And frankly we don’t have that many public celebrations and holidays that are truly important for everybody. So… we take what we can get.
Also I thought I’d create a new segment:
How do you say it in Russian?
You can guess what I’ll talk about here, right? So what phrase would you use to greet people today and wish them a happy holiday? С Днем Победы! Literally that translates With a Victory day. But of course it means Have a great Victory day. It’s just we form our phrases a bit differently than you would in English
So, С Днем Победы, people! Have a nice day and let’s not descend into madness and start another one of those wars!
Meanwhile, I will try to make the next episode as silly as I possibly could. Because it will be about Russian bears! Do they walk the streets? Maybe they even drink vodka with us? And how did we get white bears? Tune in next week to find out! Mwahahahaha
If you like my podcast, subscribe on itunes, stitcher, anchor.fm or wherever you get your podcast fix! And please, leave reviews. I know everybody says that, but that’s because it really matters! You can find me on instagram at greennily If you have questions, ideas or suggestions, you can write to me at email@example.com
Till next time! Yours, Gigi, from Russia with love.
More of wikipedia coming your way! I can find other sources for you to learn more about the stuff, of course, but what’s the point? Wiki has the basics and it’s well-structured. And if you want to know more, the Internet is at your disposal 😉
If you want something specific and in Russian, leave me a comment and I’ll try to find it for you!
- Soviet Union in World War II
- Eastern Front (World War II)
- Timeline of the Eastern Front of World War II
- Great Patriotic War (term)
- Soviet-Japanese War
- Operation Barbarossa
Battles and sieges
- Battle of the Caucasus
- Battle of Smolensk (1941)
- Battle of Smolensk (1943)
- Siege of Sevastopol (1942)
- Battle of Moscow
- Siege of Leningrad
- Battle of Stalingrad
- Jocko Podcast 109 w/ Echo Charles: “Stalingrad Memories of Hell”
- Ribbon of Saint George
About the Immortal regiment
- Бессмертный полк/The Immortal regiment
- Its official webpage
- BBC article about the Immortal regiment march
Best places to see the fireworks
Большой Устьинский мост – the bridge that is good for watching the fireworks
Воробьёвы горы – Sparrow Mountains
Москворецкая набережная – an embankment on the Moskva river
Лужнецкая набережная – an embankment on the Moskva river
Площадка около РАН – observation deck of Russian Academy of sciences
Мост «Багратион» – Bagration bridge
Крымский мост – Crimea bridge
Ресторан “Седьмое небо” – The 7th sky restaurant