Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The holidays

These past few days have been holidays around here. They mark the Soviet end of World War II--the Great Patriotic War-- which was on May 9th. (For us the end is May 7th.) Tuesday was a day off too for everyone, at least we couldn’t contact our bank and the kids didn’t go to school so we think it was a day off for everyone else.

Monday, the day of the actual celebrations, we heard music from the World War II era blaring out in the streets. It came from a truck with large speakers moving up and down the neighborhood. It echoed around these Soviet concrete apartment blocks. It didn’t last all day though.

In the evening, we watched a fireworks display from our balcony. The kids would count the seconds between the flash and the boom to figure out how far away it was. Actually, there were two displays we could see. One, about a mile away, which was bigger and brighter, of course, and came with booms that rattled windows and set off car alarms. And there was another that was much further away that ended up sounding as if there were thunder in the distance.

We didn’t spend much time out on Monday so I couldn’t get a feel for it. Downtown was supposed to have a big parade with the living veterans of the war. There was some dispute as to whether they should add the veterans of the nationalist army in the west. (These are the guys who shot in both directions.) They are not seen by some as having been on the good side in that war. I don’t know how that came out.

I read an article, can’t remember where, about whether there was such a thing as a Soviet man. That is what Stalin wanted to create, a citizen of the Soviet Union who was a product of soviet culture, a homo sovieticus as one Russian called it. The article cited some who said there was such a thing and some who said there wasn’t even as they talked a bit wistfully of those times back then. Maybe that shows there is something to it all.

I have seen some of that. One of the things you hear around here is that the Soviet Union was a nation of many nationalities, all of which were equal. When I tell them that Russians predominated in the party and in management, you can see the wheels going as they remember who their bosses were. They recognize the point. But is this an example of a sort of Soviet man or simply a matter of believing the only information they had at the time, the propaganda? Maybe it is some of both.

The article found some of the same sort of thing. They know the problems and understand the atrocities but they still linger with some—“wistfulness” is the only word I can think of-- on portions of that era. In the end though, I think it is a tough thing for anyone to completely write off whole portions of a life and say that it was meaningless at best. To dismiss Soviet ideology out of hand and to focus on Soviet atrocities alone is to require people to do this sort of thing. But it is a bit unfair.

A few years back, when I first came to the Ukraine, I went to the museum, Rodina Mat, the Motherland. It is a building topped by a large statue of a woman which serves as a war museum. It is about 300 feet high, made of titanium, a natural resource in Ukraine. The woman has a sword raised high over head in one hand and a shield in the other. It is meant to symbolize the heroic strength of the Ukrainian people. It is not liked all that well here by the people I know.

Leading up to the museum are panels that depict artistically the Great War in relief, at least some of the patriotic themes of that war. One mural in particular portrayed soldiers in the midst of battle fighting with all sorts of guns and other weaponry, if my memory serves me. It was meant, I think, to portray the action and some of the chaos of battle where soldiers fought with whatever weapon they had. It was an impressive mural, as I think about it now.

Two dimensional art, especially reliefs, can only portray so much. I think the artist was suggesting that there were many men fighting in the scene other than the ones that show but what shows is only a line of men—men fighting with rifles fighting in front of men with pistols. I thought that told the truth at the time more than they would admit. I made the comment to the person who was with me: “Look. The guys in the back have guns pointed at the backs of the ones in front. This is how it really was. They had to train guns on the soldiers in front to get them to fight at all.” I thought that a clever observation that anyone would agree with who really knew the issues.

And I saw everything else in the same terms. Everything I saw, from the guillotines used by the Nazis to kill POWs to the concentration camp artifacts there, was linked in my mind to the Soviets and to their wickedness. It was not the Nazis who were really at fault to me, bad as they were, it was the Soviets. Stalin after all decimated the upper ranks of the army leaving it without much expertise to face a well trained German army. And they were ill-equipped to boot.

We saw all of these artifacts in the lower floors of the museum. When we got up to the third floor, I think it was, we entered into a large room with a mosaic of pictures on one wall-- thousands of pictures of Ukrainians killed by the Germans. In the middle of the room was a table, a long table with empty glasses on it all around. That table was meant to be a kind of statement that the people who died were still in the memory of the living and that a place was still set for them at the table. All in all, over 8 million Ukrainians died in the Great Patriotic War.

I thought it to be an interesting room. I saw it in the same detached way though I had viewed everything else from. But when we had been there for a few minutes, I looked over at the person I was with and saw that she was in tears. That struck me. I thought it was interesting and could still make a case that the real villains were the Soviets who sent people to their deaths in wave after wave. No real concern for human life. (Lenin: “It is not who we kill that is the issue, but who we let live.” Stalin: “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths a statistic.”) And the case could be made that they were fighting for a regime that was on the same order as the Nazis. There is truth in all of this.

But to the person I was with, a person who knew all of this and had no nostalgia for the Soviet era, this was personal. She didn’t see it in ideological terms at all. For her it wasn’t about the Soviet system, the party, Stalin or Lenin. It was for her the sacrifice of her countrymen, countrymen who defended their homeland and gave up their lives doing it. There is a nobility in that even so, something I see now but didn’t see then. That they might have ended up with something at least as bad in no way diminishes what they did personally. They fought for family, for friends and for country and gave up their lives by the millions doing it. There is something noble in that and something that ought to be respected and appreciated. And they should be given their due. I see that better now.


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