Today (or yesterday now, because of the time difference), Russia, Ukraine, and other countries in Eastern Europe celebrated Victory Day. День Победы.
This year marks 70 years since the defeat of Hitler.
I know there has been a lot of controversy surrounding this Victory Day, especially with Putin's moves into Ukraine. And I know that no victory is clean. Especially in war. History is messy.
But for a moment, I just want to talk about what I gained from spending two Victory Days in Eastern Ukraine.
Before living in Eastern Ukraine, I always thought more about the battles fought on the Western Front--the Battle of the Bulge, Normandy, etc. I studied the battles where Americans fought and died, and I gained respect for what the Allies accomplished.
But we always forget about the Soviets.
It's easy to forget--or dismiss--what they did during WWII. There are a lot of reasons for that. One, war is messy and the Soviets certainly weren't angels. Also, we had that entire thing called the Cold War which happened right after WWII, and that made US-USSR relations very shaky. There are a lot of reasons to forget.
But we shouldn't.
Over 20 million Soviet citizens and soldiers died during WWII.
The number is staggering. Absolutely staggering.
And honestly--they bore the brunt of the Nazi war machine. I don't think it is even possible for us, as American citizens, to imagine the destruction that happened to the Soviet Union because of WWII. The Battle of Kursk. The Battle of Stalingrad. The 872-day Siege of Leningrad. The loss of human life . . . it is absolutely heartbreaking.
Without the Soviets, the Allies would not have won the war.
I saw the effects of WWII on the streets of Ukraine. I lived in apartments which had been built during that time. I talked with people whose grandmothers had been protected by German soldiers. I saw places where the Nazis had massacred thousands of Jews. I talked with babushki who had been little girls during the time of the war, and with grandfathers whose chests were covered with war medals. I watched a grown woman from St. Petersburg cry as she talked about how you never throw bread away--ever. It is too precious.
These people remember. It is a part of their national narrative.
My first Victory Day in Ukraine, I had little to no idea what was going on. I barely knew Russian, but I did know that there was a parade happening outside our window and the loudspeakers from the center of town blasted old Soviet music and war propaganda. I felt like I had stepped back in time to 1945.
My second Victory Day, I understood more. I talked to people about their stories. And I listened.
I also had an interesting experience the day after Victory Day. I went to a cultural event (a theatrical performance) which had a lot of sketches about WWII. My favorite sketch was towards the end, where they acted out the moment the war ends and the soldiers return home.
It was very moving--it was completely silent, except for old 1940s music playing in the background. The actors showed the moment the soldiers arrived home--it's a party. They all run to find their loved ones and they find them . . . except for one girl. She runs and runs and runs to find someone--anyone--familiar. She can't. They're all dead. She's the only one left. So she sits on the ground in shock and hurt . . . and then a little girl comes and gives her a shawl, and then leaves as quietly as she came. And I don't know what changes in the woman, but something comes alive again, and she stands up, puts herself together, and dances off the stage--alone.
There was something so beautifully crushing in that scene--the realization that nothing is the way it has been or that you had ever dreamed or planned. And it was important for me to realize that this happened to so many people in the Soviet Union. They were left with nothing and no one. It is a grief that I cannot even begin to comprehend. But this woman--to me, she epitomizes the strength of the human spirit. She represents despair, but more than that, she represents resilience.
And ultimately, that is what makes us victorious. We refuse to give up. We keep fighting. And we remember that there is good in this world. And it's worth fighting for.
Ukraine gave me a lot of things.
But one thing I am eternally grateful for is that lesson of resilience.
I learned it from the rynok ladies. I heard it from the stories I heard from babushki. I saw it in the eyes of the people on the streets.
Like I said before, history is messy. And who knows what the future holds for that broken, beautiful part of the world.
But today, I remember.
I remember the Donbass. I remember Kiev. I remember Leningrad. I remember Kharkov and Stalingrad and Moscow. I remember the lives spared and lost. I remember peace and conflict, revenge and forgiveness.
And I remember that victory always comes with a price.