Arkadiy Babchenko

Journalist, Author of Journalism Without Middlemen project

“We Can Do It Again”. Turning Victory Day Into Its Opposite

The last time I tried to bring my daughter to see the Victory Day celebration was four years ago. It was hell.

You could only enter Red Square through metal detectors and a baggage check. The metro was cordoned off, so were all the crosswalks and the streets. Everything was cordoned off. Fenced enclosures everywhere. Files of police and interior ministry troops. The Alexander Gardens were closed for some church service.

Kitsch in an urban format. And crowds of people, of “peasants” who were happy to see all this.

You had a feeling that this was no longer your festivity, that it was not something that had been done for you, and that you were just a nuisance that had to be isolated behind lines of police and interior ministry troops.

Therefore, for the past few years, I have tried to get away from Moscow during Victory Day. It has become simply unbearable to witness it anymore.

For a few days, the whole country, — which even at other times is not exactly in full command of its faculties in terms of its psychology and morality, — turns into a psych ward. It is a disease that has no cure.

The eyes turn glassy, the speeches become nonsensical, the mind goes schizophrenic, and the mouths begin to foam: “Our granddads fought in the war,” “we can do it all over again,” “fascists,” “banderites,” “nuclear ash,” “Crimea is ours,” and “Obama is a douchebag.”

Fake Soviet army caps, fake uniforms, fake medals, kids in fake army tunics, fake bumper stickers, and fake memorial ribbons.

Why do you insist on cladding your kids in uniform? Why do you pin medals on your kids wearing military uniforms? Why do you shoot a video clip about a dead boy in a Soviet winter uniform? Why does a girl make a drawing about the war using the ashes of your cremated granddad?

Hell if I know… This is the way things are done here. “Victorymania” is a very apt definition for all this.

At the same time, no one is able to answer the question, what is it exactly that “we can do all over again.” Tell me, you ignoramus in the army cap and breeches with a replica machine gun on your shoulder: What is it that you want to do again?

The retreat to the Volga? The scorched earth tactic on your own land? The burning of villages in the Moscow area so as not to leave them to the Germans? The life in holes in the ground at minus 40 degrees? The 125-gram daily bread ration? The children working at factories without a roof for twelve hours every day? The “Law of Spikelets”? The fact that women working as techies at the Soviet bomber fleet were unable to give birth for having carried 100-kilo bombs? The penal battalions? The anti-retreat units? The million people who died during the assault on Berlin? The dispatch of wounded war veterans to the prison camp in the Valaam archipelago? The dispatch of captured war veterans directly from German concentration camps to Soviet ones? The repressions of 1947? The 27 million casualties? The 70 years of unburied remains of the dead after the Sinyavino offensive?

What is that you want to do again, idiot? Do you really think that this is what our granddads fought for?

No. He has nothing to say.

The news that Soviet forces launched the first assault on the Brest Fortress together with the German Wehrmacht; that the Polish garrison defending the fortress was destroyed by Soviet forces; that the first parade in Brest was a joint Soviet-Nazi one; that everything, including lard, was supplied under the Lend Lease programme; that there was a German Luftwaffe school near Lipetsk; that food trains were sent from the Soviet Union to Germany by inertia even after the war had already been declared; that the war started, in fact, in 1939 — all this information is simply nonexistent in our schizophrenic mindset.

Victory Day has turned into the exact opposite of its original meaning. I no longer understand what this day represents. The original message was quite understandable: That nothing like it should ever happen again; that we should remember, not forget, and bend the knee.

Yes, even if all this was rubbish, at least the words contained an anti-war message. And the armament paraded on Red Square was presented as defensive, not offensive equipment — for the defence of our borders from the wretched bourgeoisie.

2839033 05/05/2016 Military equipment is seen here on Zvenigorodskoye Motorway ahead of a nighttime practice of the military parade in Moscow marking the 71st anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War. Alexander Vilf/Sputnik

How about today?

What borders are the Grad, Uragan, and Smerch multiple-launched rocket systems paraded on Red Square defending now? What targets is the Buk missile system shooting down now? Which cities are the Gvozdika and Akatsiya self-propelled artillery units pounding now? Whose land are the Tigr armoured vehicles running on now? Which mountains did the Iskander and Tochka-U ballistic missiles work on in 2008?

“Here you can see the Uragan multiple-launched rocket systems passing the Red Square. They were used successfully in Chechnya and Georgia.” — I heard this phrase when I happened to switch my TV set on to the parade once. It was uttered by a young anchorwoman with an upbeat and happy tone.

Dear god, what an earth are you saying, little woman?! Did you ever see what these Uragans did in Chechnya? Did you see what they did to entire villages? Did you ever see a Chechen village where not a single house was left intact, with just chimneys amid flames and ashes?

An entire village of charred chimneys — just like in a war movie, only this time it was not done by Nazi occupation forces, but by your very own multiple-launched rocket systems. Did you ever see how they operate? It is a terrifying thing to witness.

Whoever for once sees this equipment in action, what it can do to villages, houses, people, and human lives, what an artillery shell can do to a human body, and what happens to the bodies of those who are burned inside this equipment, will forever lose his or her ability to admire all that clatter and rumble of steel. Their faces will petrify just by looking at it.

And then there is, of course, the stench. The stench of diesel, lubricant, and sun-burnt armour… The stench will never leave you. You cannot cleanse it from your memory.

Admiration for weapons of mass destruction, for weapons of indiscriminate effect, can only exist inside a twisted mind. It is something quite abnormal. The normal reaction would be the exact opposite: Repulsion.

The meaning that these weapons carry has changed completely. After Georgia, Crimea, and Donbass, the weapons are no longer symbols of defence. They have turned into symbols of aggression, of intrusion, and of occupation.

Grad equals Donetsk Airport. Buk equals the downed Boeing. T-72 equals Debaltsevo. Tigr equals Belbek. And Iskander equals Georgia. These connotations will stick forever. This is the reputation that these weapons will have from now on.

This parade is not a parade of equipment that saved the world from fascism. It is a parade of equipment that killed ten thousand people in a country that was once our dearest neighbour. This equipment, right now, at this very moment, is pounding industrial areas in the Ukrainian city of Avdiivka.

This is no longer a parade of defenders and liberators. This is a parade of invaders. Your tanks elicit nothing but disgust. Nothing else.

Being able to change and twist the message of such a day as the Victory Day to its very opposite, turn it around 180 degrees, is a great achievement indeed.

And then there is, of course, the trade, the Victory trade, which takes the most unimaginable forms. Like when prison camp inmates are making memorial ribbons. This is something that an individual who inhabits a normal world would not be able to wrap his or her head around.

Yet we, who inhabit a country where army caps, medals, and children’s military uniforms are being sold on the street, where vodka bottles are ordained with memorial ribbons, where absurd propaganda commercials and bizarre series are shown on television, where Victory Day concerts are given by Russian pop singers in the UAE, and where homosexual bumper stickers depict anal sex between two figures, one with a hammer and a sickle and the other with a swastika instead of a head… Well, what is there to say about prison camp inmates making memorial ribbons?

In fact, it would be correct to call the day not Victory Day, but the All-Russian Day of Victory Trade. The people like it: They gladly buy the stuff, and the entrepreneurs are happy to make money.

In Greece, which is now inundated by Russian tourists after the holiday tours to Turkey and Egypt stopped, the market value of Victory symbols has been duly noted. I saw an army cap ordaining a bottle of raki at a liquor store next to a strip club in a Greek resort.

All this to the delight of Russian patriots who had arrived to celebrate Victory Day for some reason not in Crimea, but in “Gayropa”. This was one of the best indications of what the millions of war deaths had now turned into.

Dear patriots, your Victory is now being traded by barmen in Greece, while you keep repeating how “our granddads fought in the war” and how “we can do it all over again.”

At the same time in Moscow, people were collecting food for villagers, including for war veterans in the Tver and Leningrad regions. Collected. Food. For villagers. And war veterans. In Leningrad. Happy Victory Day!

This article first appeared at the Spektr Press site.

Translated by Kerkko Paananen