Local war commemoration in Russia persists through the invention of tradition, finds postgraduate student Vicky Davis.
Over the last decade, remembrance of World War II in Russia has become increasingly visible in a state-sponsored revival of the war cult of the Brezhnev era. On significant anniversaries, notably Victory Day, 9th May, Russians celebrate in a series of special events, the most well known of which is the massive military parade on Moscow’s Red Square. Honoured veterans don their uniforms and are showered with gifts and privileges, proof of their special status in society. Most people wear the popular symbol of memory introduced in 2005, the George ribbon, and even those staying at home cannot escape the programme of war films and music around that date. The President makes speeches and takes tea with veterans, confident that memory of the war is the one theme that cannot fail to unify the country. It seems that, in Russia, memory of the war has been re‑appropriated as a political tool, just as living witnesses are rapidly disappearing, rendering it increasingly the subject of scholarly research.
It is not surprising that on 2nd February this year President Putin and the world’s press were gathered in the Russian city of Volgograd. Formerly known as Stalingrad, the city was celebrating the seventieth anniversary of the defeat and final surrender of the enemy in 1943 after months of bitter struggle, marking the pivotal point of what Russians call the Great Patriotic War. Stalingrad was one of the first of the thirteen towns honoured as Hero-Cities of the Soviet Union for their significant role in the war.
On the day following the Stalingrad ceremonies, commemorations were also held in Novorossiisk, on the Black Sea, made a Hero-City of the Soviet Union in 1973, long after the end of the war, thanks to the involvement in its liberation of Leonid Brezhnev, the former Soviet leader. In turn, Novorossiisk was remembering the seventieth anniversary of the landings onto occupied territory by Soviet troops, who went on to hold the small beach‑head, known as ‘Malaia zemlia’, for seven months prior to the liberation of the town in September 1943. The heroes of this localised campaign are commemorated through an amalgam of memoir, monuments and ritual, rendered particularly paradoxical by the discrepancy between the relative insignificance of the actual campaign as it unfolded at the time and the importance attributed to it retrospectively thanks to Brezhnev’s inflated war memoirs.
As the war in Novorossiisk, and indeed in Russia as a whole, is on the cusp of the transition from living memory to history, my research project analyses the relationship and interaction between different forms of memorialization in the construction and propagation of present‑day inter‑generational remembrance in Novorossiisk. I had planned this year’s trip to coincide with the seventieth anniversary of the Malaia zemlia landings on the night of 3rd to 4th February, which are commemorated annually in a ceremony unique to the town, ‘Beskozyrka’. In 1968, at the beginning of the Brezhnev era, this ritual was invented to mark the 25th anniversary of the landings by a group of young people in search of romantic adventure and forming the ‘crew’ of an imaginary yacht, the ‘Shkhuna rovesnikov’ (the Schooner of fellows). (more…)