Wednesday was Victory Day (День Победы, Den’ Pobedy), a public holiday across the former Soviet Union commemorating the end of the Great Patriotic War (aka World War II. Notably, the dates for the Great Patriotic War are always given as 1941-1945, which correspond to the Soviet conflict against the Fascists. All the inconvenient “stuff” prior to 1941, like the Molotov-Ribbentropp pact, is left out of the history). Celebrated on 9 May, the day the Germans surrendered to the Soviets, Victory Day is used to honor living and deceased veterans. Those surviving don their old uniforms and, chests heavy with medals and honors, and are escorted by their children and families to the war memorial; everyone else gives gathers to give the veterans flowers and thank them for their service.
This is my first time celebrating Victory Day, and it is an incredible throwback to Soviet times. As one friend remarked: “Oh, so this is what is was like.” The morning began with a flower-laying ceremony at the Eternal Flame in front of the local war memorial. Banners in Russian and Kazakh unabashedly displayed the hammer and sickle. Several veterans waved the Communist flag. Good old Uncle Joe Stalin even made an appearance – in portrait form. In the evening there was an orchestral concert of Soviet marches and hymns in Astana Square in front of what was the former Communist Party HQ (now the Kazakh-British Technical University). Clips of Soviet war films were projected onto a giant screen behind the stage. People of all ages were there singing along to their favorite old tunes. Even I knew some of the words.
Two things struck me as odd about this event. In the first place, it was not only very Soviet, but also very Russian. Although Kazakhs served in the Red Army, and Kazakhstan itself was integral to the war effort as the home of relocated industries and the breadbasket of the USSR while Ukraine was overrun, the majority of the veterans Isaw were ethnically Russian. Furthermore, the days events were by and large (although not exclusively) conducted in the Russian language, which is unusual these
days for major public celebrations. In the second place, I was surprised that there is not more animosity, or at least ambivalence, among the population of veterans in Kazakhstan towards the USSR. It is my understanding that Soviet POWs returning from Axis camps were after the war sent to the corrective labor camp in Kazakhstan (part of the famous Gulag system) for fear that they had succumbed, in effect, to Stockholm Syndrome. This is how many of the non-Kazakh veterans – although admittedly probably not that many of those still surviving – ended up here to begin with.
These things aside, however, I very much enjoyed and respect the celebration. We have analogous holidays in the USA, but not nearly to the same extent. The politics of various wars aside, we could do more to honor those who have served and their memories. Moreover, the purpose of the holiday has expanded to recognize not only veterans, but also the elderly in general. As one young Kazakh guy told me, Victory Day is “a day for our grandfathers.” The cult[ure] of youth in the US being what it is, I appreciated that a day is set aside in the public calendar for Kazakhstanis – as well as people across the former Soviet space – to recognize the various contributions of their forebearers.