The Victory Day Commentary

It’s been more than a week now since Russia celebrated the 65th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany. I caught a little bit of the parade and the fireworks on Россия 24, and it was basically what you’d expect: a bunch of happy people standing around outside, watching things proudly march by and colorfully explode overhead. It wasn’t the heads-of-state powwow Putin organized five years ago, but, as far as spectacles go, everything looked pretty nice.

Not at all unexpectedly, Victory Day’s 65th anniversary inspired an angry legion of articles about the state of Russia’s collective consciousness as it relates to the historical scar of Stalinism. What follows is some (incomplete) commentary on writers whom I found especially thought-provoking (or enraging) in their V-Day observations: (in no particular order) Anatoly Karlin, Yulia Latynina, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Julia Ioffe, and Andrey Zolotov.

Anatoly Karlin at Sublime Oblivion sat his readers down to an impromptu statistics lesson, pouring over casualties figures in that endless debate about how many died when and where. This well-intentioned escapade crescendoed with the statement, “[C]ontrary to the popular anti-Soviet mythology most Gulag inmates survived.” My personal advice to Russia bloggers out there is this: when you’ve entered into that dark pit of numbers-quarelling, and you’ve suddenly authored a phrase like “most Gulag inmates survived” — however remote your implication is that this demonstrates a mitigation of the suffering endured under Stalinism — this is the time to run for the daylight and exercise that backspace key.

It’s not that Karlin is wrong or even misguided (he’s not), but this kind of scrutiny is so hopelessly unresolvable that it’s irrelevant. One either calmly arrives at a number lower or higher than his ideological opponent, or he ignites a food fight of name-calling and math-tweaking. Either way, people will count the dead differently, and the numbers on all sides will be high enough to parody anything conceivable for most of us.

Yulia Latynina and Vladimir Kara-Murza saw Victory Day as another opportunity to make polemical wisecracks and grandstand on behalf of “pro-democracy” forces. Latynina interpreted the absence of European leaders to signal “a complete embarrassment” for the Kremlin, conveniently forgetting about Europe’s current economic crisis, Barack Obama’s domestic policy priorities, and Ukraine’s own celebrations at home. In advance of the holiday, she pursued basically the opposite path of Anatoly Karlin, dedicating her radio show, Код доступа, to a recitation of the various horrors and shortcomings of the prewar Soviet Union. In most respects, this focus on all the murder and failure that plagued the USSR in the 1930s was pretty straightforward and for that reason rather boring to read about. Yulia Leonidovna does make the less often raised and therefore somewhat more interesting point that the cult of the Great Patriotic War is actually a product of the mid-1960s and the Brezhnev Era — not the Stalin period. This is something I’ll return to below in this post.

Kara-Murza is far less entertaining in his V-Day blog post. He argues that Moscow city’s consideration of Stalin imagery for the holiday festivities was a “personal insult” to Russia’s WWII veterans. He cites a public letter from a group of elderly Red Army soldiers, chastising the authorities for sullying their honor with talk of Stalin. Never mind, of course, that this ‘Stalin booths’ initiative, like last year’s overwhelmingly stupid scandal over the “Anti-Soviet” cafe, was actually initiated by a veterans’ association. Kara-Murza describes the Russian Orthodox Church’s public statement about Stalin and the war as a “challenge to the authorities,” despite the fact that its declaration (that defeating the Nazis doesn’t justify Soviet totalitarianism) is basically an echo of what Medvedev told Izvestiia that same week.

The same kind of purposeful deception is at work in his description of the Stalin bus in Petersburg, “a conflict” Kara-Murza says the authorities realized “they could not win.” He wants his readers to believe that a wave of popular “anger” overcame a state effort to shove Stalin down the public’s throat. In fact, the establishment was always uneasy about the Stalin booths project — a bizarre plan hatched by Yuri Luzhkov for God knows what reason. Equally, the vandalizing of the Stalin bus was carried out by a pair of hooligans eager to score ‘awesome points’ with a neato video fit for YouTube. In the end, nobody but a few career protesters took to the streets, and May Day’s largest demonstrations belonged to none other than the Communists, many of whom waved little portraits of a certain murderous Georgian.

Julia Ioffe wrote an interesting article in Foreign Policy that accuses the Kremlin of having grabbed onto the legacy of the Great Patriotic War in order to promulgate that triumph as a founding mythology for the Russian Federation. This gets back to Yulia Latynina’s point that Stalin himself was not a proponent of Victory Day pageantry. May 9th was only made a work holiday in 1965, Ioffe explains. It’s a poignant observation that the USSR only gradually embraced the legend of WWII in the late Khrushchev, early Brezhnev period. The 1960s were an engine of national myth creation in the Soviet Union, and harnessing the popular enthusiasm of having literally saved the world from Adolf Hitler was a major project during the golden age of Soviet communism.

My one problem with Ms. Ioffe’s article is that she seems to treat the mythology of the Great Patriotic War as though it were the invention of Vladimir Putin. Yes, the Yeltsin administration discontinued the military parades and parted with much of the Soviet symbols and symbolism, but the legacy of liberating Europe didn’t expire with the messiness of Yeltsin’s time of troubles. Ioffe says that WWII mythology didn’t “take root until the wobbly Brezhnev era” and that it was “a true political load-bearer” only after the fall of the USSR. Yes, the war took on its role as a foundational myth only a couple of decades after the fighting ended. But why is the myth only now, after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, a “true political load-bearer”? Did the Great Patriotic War not carry significant political “loads” during the 60s, 70s, and 80s? Admittedly, the Soviet Union’s greatest triumph, what served for years as the popular justification for communism’s very existence, is a story that only sustained patriotic faith for a few decades. By the 1980s, the war was still a “load-bearer,” but it performed so dysfunctionally that it began to achieve the opposite of what the state intended.

In The Living and the Dead, Nina Tumarkin catalogs her own youth in the early 1980s, explaining how the invented combat role for Leonid Brezhnev became a joke to the last Soviet generation. What was designed as sovetskoe vospitanie (a Soviet upbringing) became a language of subversion. Consider the following excerpt:

Although Brezhnev never took part in any fighting, his book [Malaia zemlia] contains a passage about how in battle he replaced a dead machine gunner and fended off a fascist attack. “My world shrank down to the dimensions of an observation slit,” recalled Brezhnev. On a comprehensive examination in 1984, a classmate of the journalist Dmitrii Radyshevsky wrote and read aloud the following: “For Leonid Ilich, the world shrank to the dimensions of an observation slit. Leonid Ilich fended off an attack.” The class laughed; any juggling of the formulaic idiom showed off its absurdity.

An incident like this is important because it demonstrates the “wobbliness” Ioffe describes in her article, but it also indicates the myth’s penetration into Soviet society — even the leaders felt it necessary to write themselves into its narrative. A big problem, of course, was that efforts to develop and build on Soviet WWII legends produced either unpalatable references to Stalin or farcically unrealistic historical inventions (like the one above with Brezhnev).

All that aside, I think Ms. Ioffe is fundamentally correct in her analysis. What’s most significant today about WWII for Russia is that it’s become “a major neurosis.” The subject is at the core of Russians’ national consciousness, but encased in certain irresolvable ambiguities. I would stress that isn’t because Putin dusted off some discredited myth. The Soviet authorities’ application of WWII was inept and a failure, but the popular memory of victory over fascism remains alive and well today. I don’t think Ioffe would dispute this. So perhaps this isn’t a criticism so much as a difference in emphasis. I’m not sure.

Andrey Zolotov‘s “Grappling With Soviet Symbolism” was published a few days after Victory Day, but it’s very much a part of the V-Day commentary. Zolotov argues that the 2010 celebration proved to be a “softer” festival than the 2005 parade, when Russia was at “the peak of ideological efforts to rehabilitate Soviet symbols and consolidate the population of the Russian Federation [...] on the basis of the Soviet, essentially Stalinist, concept of the Great Patriotic War.” He goes on to explain how Moscow, five years ago, “tried to impose this perception on the rest of the world.” The idea now is basically that, with the tenure of Dmitri Medvedev, Russia has essentially become less aggressive.

Let me say first of all that, as the chief editor of Russia Profile, Mr. Zolotov knows far more about the publishing environment in Russia than I ever will. That said, I think his insinuation that Medvedev has ushered in an era of moderation — a quiet swipe at Russia’s geopolitical posture under Putin — is an unfortunate and common misperception in the ‘Russia watching’ community. The belief behind this observation is that Russia’s domestic goings-on dictate to what extent it will or will not be mean and assertive on the international front. Somewhere in the heart of every neocon, nestled between a copy of Wine Aficionado and a firearm, is the conviction that Russia’s rotten, undemocratic interior shapes and decides Moscow’s unhelpfulness and unfriendliness abroad. Hence, volumes are published on the Medvedevian Era of Good Feelings, simply because the man says an ill word about Josef Stalin, or because he skips another rhetorical assault on American unipolarity.

Let’s remember for a moment that Vladimir Putin, the largely absent bogeyman of Zolotov’s article, made his reputation as a bully and a spoiler following his getting fed up with the Bush administration. Putin’s February 2007 Munich speech is often cited as a watershed moment in Russia’s “embitterment,” but one has to be only marginally familiar with U.S.-Russian relations to know that this “break” came after years of bad manners, bad faith, and bad ideas from the United States of America. Did domestic affairs impact Russia’s foreign policy? Of course it did. But, as we’ve seen with the long succession of American presidents, most “overarching posture decisions” aren’t really decisions at all — the U.S., like Russia, is essentially locked into a geopolitical negotiating position, and variations in international relations are very much a give-and-take between nations.

My own feelings on Russia’s WWII past are far from settled, so let me take a moment to express my gratitude to the aforementioned writers, who made an effort to speak coherently about a subject that is, in the end, rather absurd. And what else indeed can be said about the slaughter of almost thirty million people? The debate rages on about the purpose of that sacrifice (for country? for family? for leader?), but nothing imaginable will ever satisfy our impulse to moral calculus. As for Russia’s “grappling” with its past and the founding tenets of the Russian Federation, here I also can’t help but throw my hands up. The very idea of a centralized, managed myth-production center is silly enough, but then again I can’t deny the human need for certain inspiring adornments to the social contract. Americans plant cherry trees of liberty and coordinate counterattacks on alien invaders via Morse Code, the French have a long tradition of topless, knife-toting freedom fighters, and the Chinese have discovered prosperity and learned to stamp it out of plastic for three cents a unit. It’s common to say that Russia ought to follow Germany’s example and seek contrition, but Germany is a castrated nation state, colonized and reshuffled for a generation by the external whims of the USA and USSR. For the average Russian, who resents his nation’s collapse into postcolonial poverty and weakness, I’m hardly confused by the lack of interest in mimicking Fritz.

22 Comments

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    • Thanks, Sean. An interesting read. I like how a common response is to ask what business the president has dictating the truth about history. A surprisingly American reaction, I think. Or maybe it’s just universal.

      I only wish “Берии стране не хватает!” could have been the title of the article.

  2. The last mentioned article stated a perceived difference over the past few years without getting into the reasons for the situation.

    Along with AGT, I picked up on that article not addressing how some influential Western attitudes serve to encourage a certain response among some Russians. Some other thoughts come to mind. Russia had more years under Communism than the non-Soviet Warsaw Pact states, thereby making it more difficult for Russia to shed the Communist past. The official Russian 60th anniversary of V-Day in ’05 included no emphasis on Stalin.

    Russia at large is gradually taking a more detailed/responsible approach to the Soviet past. As AGT notes, Russia after the Cold War wasn’t in the same predicament as Germany after WW II.

    The article in question made passing reference to the Russian Civil War era Whites and Vlasov army of WW II. From what I’ve seen, it would be a change of pace if the author’s venue ran detailed commentary on such matters, as has been done with articles on subjects like Bandera.

    In English language mass media and the media it influences abroad, I think it’s fair to say that one can find a trend favoring commentary that runs opposite to patriotically inclined Russian views, which are within reason.

    Concerning the English language coverage of the former USSR, the Kyiv Post regularly features Alexander Motyl and Taras Kuzio as columnists. These two contributors reflect a view that appeals to anti-Russian/Ukrainian nationalists.

    On the other hand, the non-Russian owned Moscow Times (which has had an influence on Russia Profile) doesn’t regularly feature any columnists coming from a responsibly patriotic Russian viewpoint. The Moscow Times’ running of Motyl’s and Nina Khrushcheva’s recent commentary serves to further underscore this point.

  3. For clarity sake, my last set of comments relate to AGT’s blog post. I only noticed the first set of posted comments after posting my own.

    While I’m here, I picked up on something else.

    Excerpted from AGT’s post:

    “accuses the Kremlin of having grabbed onto the legacy of the Great Patriotic War in order to promulgate that triumph as a founding mythology for the Russian Federation.”

    This brings to mind a certain selective sensitivity factor that I sense is out there. Some have said that Israel has grabbed onto the Holocaust in order to promulgate a mythology for that state. Others find such a presentation to be a bit on the crass side.

    If there’s a consistent approach, there’s no selective sensitivity. In the mentioned examples, I think that special attention should be given to avoid the potential for being viewed as offending.

    I assume there’s agreement that millions of Soviet citizens suffered during WW II, without having to make up stories about such suffering.

  4. Thanks for the shout out, AGT. I actually agree with your critique, but in a very qualified way. Let me try to expound.

    I do think numbers are important. Let me rephrase. Other people in the political debate believe they are important, hence I must consider them important. Which people? Those who claim that Stalin (or “Communism”) killed far more Russians than Hitler. The implication of these allegations, as made by neocons, Cold Warriors, Russian liberals, etc, is that Russian statehood is irrevocable tainted and as such its only hope of redemption is, in fact, to “mimic Fritz” as you put it.

    Now you do make a valid point that focusing on comparative numbers of deaths is a slippery slope to a “dark pit” in which the injustices of Stalinism are neglected or even washed away. I suspected this criticism would be made when I was writing that post. So I made sure to preface these “hard statistics” with the Levada polls asking Russians about whether they lost relatives under the Nazis or under Stalinism – to which they answered that the Nazis were far more brutal.

    This is an important result. Had today’s Russians said that more of their relatives died under Stalinism, then the views of the Russophobes would have been to a large extent validated; hence, Russia’s Victory could be freely interpreted as being entirely hollow, and its preoccupation with it, a symptom of national psychosis; their nation, a madhouse, and hence a rogue state that has to be firmly opposed.

    But with Stalinism shown to be the lesser evil (at least with respect to Russians), according to both Russians and the dark pit / hard statistics, I hoped to clarify with the Russian position of radical ambiguity towards Stalin is rational (which is not to say that it is not fraught with all kinds of moral complications), and why reconciling Stalin with Victory is so damn difficult if not impossible.

    I’m not sure if I made my points clearly here (I find it hard to do so when there are so many necessary caveats and simplifications). Sorry if that is the case and please feel free to ask for clarification on anything.

    PS. I believe Sean Guillory has been writing of the GWP being promulgated as the foundational mythology of the Russian state for several years now.

    PPS. I find your meta commentary valuable and so do many other readers, I think.

    PPPS. Sorry for the length, but you might also be interested in reading Victory At All Costs, Vadim Nikitin’s take on the GWP. A good essay, though I can’t say I like his judgmental attitude to his grandfather or the context-less sentence “it was standard Stalinist policy to try all soldiers and civilians who had been taken prisoner for treason” (yes, but 90%+ were cleared and quite a lot of Soviet POW’s did serve as Hiwis).

    • Anatoly, thanks for your comments. I take your point about this battle over figures being important because it’s the foundation of the “Stalin is worse than Hitler” school of thought, but ultimately this is a question for archivists and creative accountants. Whatever researchers dig up in the records, someone will always be there to either discount certain deaths, attributing them to incompetence or indifference, or include whole new categories of disaster, arguing that the Kremlin orchestrated every Soviet fatality under the sun. Nothing better demonstrates this debate than the fighting over the genocidal status of the Golodomor.

      But no matter how many Arch Gettys there are to spear the dragons of Black Books of Communism, I just don’t see this dispute being settled by the numbers. The disagreement is ideological, I think, and ought to be carried out on those grounds.

      Additionally, I am not at all surprised to hear that most Russians associate greater suffering with Nazi aggression than Stalinist atrocities. But I can easily anticipate the rebuttal: Russians live in ignorance about Stalinism. “What else would you expect in Putinist Russia” — etcetera. The “genocide of the kulaks” being the most extreme criticism of Stalinism, you’d have to poll kulak families exclusively to gauge the truly affected population. But if it was a genocide, I imagine most of those people are dead, and the survivors probably live in ignorance or denial — AND SO ON.

      Of course, none of this is very useful because it’s a dialectic that is shaped less by an indifferent assessment of historical facts than it is a moral revulsion to the general inhumanity of Stalinism.

      I had a look at Niktin’s post. Thanks for sharing. I think generational disconnects like the one he describes are pretty fascinating. I suppose the flip side of that sentiment is the “What we need is a good war” point of view always popping up like weeds among young men throughout history.

  5. Have you read Yurchak’s book, “Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More?” I’ll really never look at anything the same way again, I swear. I’m not an academic, and I think Sean could describe the phenomena more intelligently, but basically, it argues that the average Soviet citizens’ navigation of these spectacles, from about the mid 60′s to the mid 80′s, was far more complicated than they appeared on the surface. Ioffe’s article reminded me of this. According those interviewed in Yurchak’s book, the majority of the youth, for example, while willingly taking part in these parades and days of national celebration, did so ideologically distanced from the symbolism. Which he interprets to be even more subversive than had they stayed home altogether. Because they *were* the spectacle, the state. He does a far better job of explaining how the symbolism of the banners and flag, etc at such events took on this perverse, ironic use for the kids. And the older folks were mostly just going through the motions too. So it was always in some ways a parody of itself, Victory Day.

    Putin’s revival of it makes me wonder: Is there a genuine attempt to revive the sacredness of something whose sacredness was never so genuine to begin with? Is the kitsch factor privately acknowledged and even part of the draw? Do the kids today have the same kind of cynicism about the event as they did then? Is it simply as it always was: an excuse to get off work and party with your friends while the State flaunts its stuff? (Which is not much different than July 4, really.)

    FWIW, I think nothing exemplifies the concept of “poshlost” like Victory Day.

  6. I’m generally a fan of Yurchak, but I would have to disagree with the above comment (poemless) about Victory Day in the Soviet period having been “never so genuine to begin with” and–like Yurchak’s discussion of ideology in the late Soviet period in general–having been a spectacle of cynical performance. It seems to me that such a description could be much more accurately applied to state holidays like November 7th and May Day, where the symbolism was tied into state-promoted values like revolutionary sacrifice, the heroism of the proletariat, and the redeeming value of labor–values that had indeed become absurd by the late Soviet period for most people. Victory Day, on the other hand, commemorated events, ideals, and sacrifices that were still very much alive even in the cynical Brezhnev era, especially since most people had immediate experience with the devastation caused by the war–either through deaths in their families, or stories by veteran relatives, and usually both. On the whole, of all the Soviet efforts to whip up patriotism through the symbols and rituals of ‘sovetskoe vospitanie,’ the ones attached to the war were by far the most successful. Even Soviet weddings had the eternal flame and the tomb of the unknown soldier as the center of the ritual.

    So, while provocative and absolutely compelling, Yurchak’s argument is a bit problematic, especially in the context of discussions about the GPW. His subjects–largely the hip, young Leningrad intelligentsia–are hardly representative of Soviet attitudes as a whole (this criticism has been made about his book in general). Yet I would wager that it would be difficult to find even a Leningrad hipster who would be willing to call the Soviet victory in the war, and even the various statist commemorations attached, ‘poshlye.’

  7. “It’s common to say that Russia ought to follow Germany’s example and seek contrition…”

    The point here is strengthened by recalling that the Russian government’s submission to the West in the 1990s contained a good deal of this. Its just that in Russia’s case in 1992, unlike Germany 1946, the US decided let Russia die and pursue global military dominance rather than invest serious resources in trying to make free market democratic reform work there.

    Russians have correctly concluded that there is no sense trying to appease the US any further, hence the friction in US-Russian relations.

    • I don’t think the phrase “let Russia die” is either accurate or captures anti-American sentiment in Russia today. If anything, Russians resent being treated like a defeated power, and complain that American meddling in Russian domestic affairs in the 1990s produced reckless “shock therapy” privitization and instability.

      Obviously, this is a very complicated subject (how the U.S. handled the fall of Soviet Communism), but I do think we should be careful about how we describe the turbulent 90s and the origins of today’s post-Soviet U.S.-Russian tensions.

      • At the time, the Russian government went along with such advice on their domestic front. On that matter, the Russian resentment became pronounced as the situation there worsened.

        In the area of foreign policy, the way NATO expansion was treated led to an understandable backlash. Recall when Yeltsin’s government inquired about Russia joining NATO. This was answered with astonished bemusement. Shorlty thereafter, the NATO membership requests of others were taken seriously. The first wave of NATO expansion included provocative commentary from some influential folks in the West. Such thinking included these beliefs:

        - Russia lost the Cold War

        - Russia is an inherent threat

        - A strong NATO serves as a protector against that threat.

        In addition, the wars in former Yugoslavia and Chechnya served as convenient talking points for Russia unfriendly types.

      • “I don’t think the phrase “let Russia die” is either accurate or captures anti-American sentiment in Russia today.”

        By early 1994, Eberstadt was noting sharply increased Russian death rates for people in their thirties, to say nothing of older age groups, in the New York Times. Nothing about the US approach to Russian reform changed. Nor was the US pursuit of global military dominance restrained to shift even miniscule resources to supporting Russian free market democratic reform.

        We wanted the military dominance more, and in the process persuaded Russians that their survival, to say nothing of prosperity, was entirely up to them.

  8. I remembered it as all of these spectacle holidays in general, but it may very well have been only about November 7th and May Day… Though I’m sceptical the difference would be so incredibly remarkable… But what do I know?

    And I obviously did not call the Soviet victory in WWII “poshlost.” It’s the modern day spectacle devoted to it that I’m referring to. And I’m sorry – but it is in the truest aesthetic sense of the word.

    • What about the modern-day spectacle do you think is so tacky or vulgar, exactly? To piggyback on V’s comment, even today the least nationalistic, most anti-government factions of Russian politics (I’m thinking of the liberals, of course) still treat the war as something sacrosanct. (They just don’t want Stalin celebrated.)

      In addition to the “Victory Day vs. communist holidays” distinction, I’d also draw a line between what people believed and what the state hoped to mobilize as a result of those beliefs (in the Soviet case, a measure of patriotic allegiance to the regime). The citizens of the USSR stood by and watched the country fall apart, but that was by no means a result of their having lost faith in the vechnaia slava of Victory Day.

      The parade itself, I think, is massively popular. And why wouldn’t it be? Pretty uniforms, impressive machinery, awesome aerial stunts, and loud fireworks. Who but an ardent pacifist couldn’t marvel at something like that?

      • Hm. I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said, or think it in any way contradicts what I’ve said (and remember – I was asking questions about the present, not making any assertions about it…)

        As for the “poshlost” factor – it means something different than garden variety vulgarity. It suggests a kind of tacky, fabricated, kitchy, over-produced earnestness, so that whatever genuine authenticity there is is drowned out by the loudness of the statement being made. With the addition of kitsch. As Kundera said, “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.”

        None of this means people don’t like it or it isn’t a good time.

      • For sure.

        Russia isn’t alone with having a holiday based on a certain historical premise.

        “Liberals” can be broad in scope. Some United Russia folks besides Medvedev have been strident in their criticism of Stalin.

        At another thread, someone expressed the view that it’s not only KPRF members having a relatively soft view of Stalin. Conversely, the kind of “liberals” preferred by The Moscow Times op-ed aren’t alone in being noticeably critical of Stalin.

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  12. AGT, belated thanks for your erudite comments above. With respect to poemless’s point about poshlost’, I think it is embodied by the port-a-potties you can see here – http://www.scrapsofmoscow.org/2008/05/celebrating-victory-day-and.html – although this year the same bank of port-a-potties did not have the offending Georgievskaya Lenta graphic. I would also point you to Artemy Lebedev’s blog (tema.livejournal.com) where the archives contain some fairly articulate (and some less articulate) posts by a conscientious objector to the Russian cult of WWII.

    In any event, I watched this year’s parade live on TV and enjoyed it. It’s a good excuse for a party, although I wonder what will become of the guys who received special training to drive the T-34s in the parade – will they be kept around for annual appearances or will their unique skills be allowed to erode?

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