A bittersweet Victory Day
Photos by Ruslan Sukhushin
Alexander (Sasha) Ulyanov went to the front during the Second World War when he was 11 years old. Actually, he didn’t so much go to the front as the front came to him. The wooden houses in the Minsk neighborhood where Ulyanov lived with his grandmother burned down in the very first hours of the German air raids in 1941. While his grandmother stayed in the city working as a hospital nurse, the boy escaped to the woods to join the partisans.
Today, 70 years later, Alexander Ulyanov has no need to flee the fascists or give shelter to civilians, but for some reason he is quite fidgety. He lives in a typical Moscow suburb, in a drab nine-story apartment block. This Victory Day, Uncle Sasha, as he is known to his neighbors, is going to a local school to speak to students about the war.
It has become something of a tradition for schools to invite veterans of World War II to speak to students on the eve of May 9. The schools treat them to food and drinks and stage a talent show. The veterans’ council in the neighborhood where Uncle Sasha lives has 20 members. Almost all of them saw action during the war, one of them is a Hero of the Soviet Union, others are veterans who worked for the war effort in the rear making ammunition, baking bread. Sasha hurries to the meeting point, a bus station, a couple of kilometers away from his home. He seems to be oblivious to his age and of the fact that his jacket is heavy with medals.
He spots another veteran weaving his way through the traffic in the middle of the road. Uncle Sasha smiles as he salutes his elder comrade.
“Would you like to sit down?” the bus station guard offers them chairs.
“We are still young. An age like 88 isn’t that old,” the older veteran replies.
The school’s minibus arrives and veterans converge from all sides.
In the schoolyard, the veterans are greeted by a line of fifth graders. The teachers invite everyone all the way up to the third floor. Along the way, one of the veterans recounts a recent experience: “I was approached on the street by about five Armenian boys. They looked at my medals and stars. And what is more, they had the right words to congratulate me. I appreciate that. Schoolchildren are also good to us, though it happens only twice a year, on Feb. 23 (formerly known as Red Army Day and now called Defender of the Fatherland Day) and May 9.
“Were you a child during the war?” a girl asks Svetlana Semyonovna, a who worked to support the war effort. “I belong to the generation of children born after the war,” a smiling, young-looking woman begins her story. “We spent most of our childhood lining up to buy kerosene or bread. Tights? We had no idea what these are. We were lucky if we could buy a piece of cloth to make a dress for the graduation ceremony.”
“Dear children, you are our future,” says Pyotr Ilyich, who was a radio operator during the war, his voice trembling with emotion. “It was a great honor for us to defend our Motherland when we were so young. We were 19 years old and we were taught how to command troops. My soldiers were old enough to be my father,” said Ilyich. “And I commanded them. We earned the victory with our blood. Many of us died because we did not have enough weapons and ammunition.”
“I took part in charges,” another veteran recalls. “I remember an incident when a German threw down his rifle and cried: “Ich bin Gall, Ich bin Gall!” (“I am French, I am French”). I took pity on him; let his own people sort it out. During that charge I was wounded in the spine.”
“I am a labor veteran, I was born in 1933. I remember seeing planes engage in a dogfight. I thought it was a military exercise, but it turned out to be a real war,” said Ivan Petrovich. “During evacuation I worked at a factory and after the war I went to school. At the time, we did not agonize about our future, we followed the well-trodden path: the pioneers (scouts), school, the Komsomol, and after graduating from the institute we were appointed to a job. We did not think about mundane things. We thought about science and about keeping up with the Americans. After graduation I was sent to work at a factory that made engines for spaceships. Apr. 12, 1961 found me at the Lenin Library where I heard that Gagarin had returned from space. And I felt so proud that he did not fly for the Seychelles or for London, but for our native country. You see, the war did not end in 1945, because after that the Cold War began. When Gagarin went into outer space the whole world saw that we were a force to be reckoned with.”
The next speaker, a Hero of the Soviet Union, recites his own verses: “’Only death and taxes are inevitable… somebody betrayed the victorious soldiers and rubbed my native Stalingrad off Russia’s map.’ I would like to add that in France they have a square and a street and a metro station named after Stalingrad. They know when the liberation from fascism started. I did not fight in order to see what we have today. We were fighting for socialism.”
The twenty minutes of conversation time run out and an excited teacher invites everyone to attend the holiday concert. There was a hero of the Soviet Union in her family. He earned the award at the age of 20 fighting for his native Dagestan. That is why the veterans’ words struck a special chord with her.
“During the war they never asked who was Tajik and who was Uzbek, all the dead were buried in a common grave. Now these people are made into terrorists. Dagestan is a forsaken place, people with real education flee from there. Give people jobs; give them an idea to work for. The peoples of our country must be unified,” the teacher said.
Victory after all
During the concert, a boy in an expensive suit reads something “about the war” from his notes with a heavy lisp. The veterans sitting in the front row are listening attentively. Routines follow one after another and even when there is a problem of some sort – the music stops or the microphone goes dead – the veterans do not mind. They do not mind singing some old war songs themselves. The show merges seamlessly into a party; the veterans are seated at large tables and are left alone. Like in wartime, they get their regular shot of vodka.
All of a sudden a group of girls starts singing the famous song “Victory Day” and all the veterans join in.