It’s been a busy weekend for the Russian community in London. 9th of May 2015 – V-Day in Russia – marked the day when 70 years ago the Nazi forces capitulated to the Soviet army. The end of the war that for USSR took away up to 27 million lives and left many more millions of veteran grandparents remains very much a personal celebration for nearly every family in Russia. While Moscow held a lavish anniversary V-Day display that prompted heated political discussions in media regarding its military showmanship, the London community embraced a more down to earth commemoration which looked as much into the future and international peace as it remembered the sacrifices of war.
Wreath laying at the Imperial War Museum’s “Sorrowful” Soviet War Memorial has been taking place since the monument’s unveiling in 1999. A regular 9th of May commemorative service gives the embassies of the former Soviet republics, various societies and individuals an opportunity to pay tribute to the end of one of the most atrocious wars in human history, as well as to remember a fateful moment for their own families and thank the surviving veterans who join the occasion every year. Specific to London’s commemorations is the faithful presence of the WWII Arctic Convoys’ veterans, the British seamen who delivered essential supplies via the northern Russian cities of Arkhangelsk and Murmansk, to the Nazi-occupied Soviet Union – in particular Leningrad throughout its 900-day blockade. As part of the long-standing UK-Russian friendship, members of the convoys have been coming to grace the memorial service every year with the now familiar procession of standard flags that add official festivity to the event.
Amidst the media clashes and mutual efforts to dismantle each other’s historical claims and political ambitions, 9th May in London is a relatively small but refreshing occasion where international officials and both ex-Soviet and British veterans are united in a common cause to celebrate peace, and acknowledge mutual sacrifice in bringing it about. In the words of the speaker Lord Alan West, it was the Soviet Red Army that “ripped the guts of out of the German war machine” – a victory that entailed catastrophic losses not only for Russia, but also countries like Belarus and Ukraine with, respectively, 25% and 16.5% losses to their pre-war populations. The Ukrainian Embassy, however, was not present this year to pay tribute to the countries’ common past in defeating Nazism: perhaps for obvious reasons. An important point made during the speeches was the distinction of this event from veneration of military heroism and war per se – as “nobody dislikes war more than those who took part in it” – a sentiment reiterated both by a white pacifist wreath laid by the Friendship Society and the Russian Embassy School’s performance of the song “Do the Russians want war?”. Each was left to make up their own mind.
Russian V-Day in the media has made people especially touchy in the divisive and complex climate of the purging of the Soviet past and its political connotations in Russian nation-building today. Yet for everyone involved it remains above all a personal story. One of those at the “Sorrowful” memorial this weekend mentioned that for him, as someone living abroad, coming here was the only way of paying tribute to his grandfather, burned alive in a tank in WWII, as British V-day celebrations increasingly promote the role of the US forces in defeating Nazism. For people whose personal and very real history and war tragedies are still alive, events like this are a consolation and an act of justice to thank those still alive for ending that war and to enable lavish celebrations. Dancing to live music and a reception followed the official ceremony, with year-long anticipated exchanges between the British and Russian veterans, who at their now venerable age didn’t shy away from joining the dance floor.
Following this now traditional official ceremony, Sunday saw the addition of another 70th anniversary event at Kensington Town Hall. Tucked away behind Kensington High Street the Town Hall hosted an expansive free commemorative programme by an international volunteer project Da!70Solidarnost (Yes!70Solidarity) and the London Znanie (Knowledge) school with an exhibition of artworks, including local artists Philip Firsov and Jacob Sutton, archive photography, installations and a four-hour long concert programme that moved beyond a fixation on the event to an international initiative for peace: Past.Present.Future. Visiting ex-Soviet veterans, also present at the Saturday commemorative service, joined the event once again and guests were invited to follow the 40s-50s dress code. Many did indeed yield to the temptation, arriving in fancy dress and DIY Red Army uniforms as well as national costumes.
The first part of the programme, clearly focusing on the Past component, began with a prayer in Hebrew, Ukrainian, Georgian and English (among others languages) a refreshing break with linguistic clichés for Russian-themed events. Such (perhaps) little known talents as the opera-trained Daniel Hawkins and Leonid Surtaev surprised audiences with meaningful and bold performances of well-known Soviet war songs, typically over-performed by some celebrity voices in Russia, but so revitalised in these versions they brought tears, visibly, to the veterans’ eyes. The second part of the programme sped consciously ahead to the future and to children, whose eerily mature readings of war poems (Rozhdestvenskii’s “Requiem”) left hope for future generations. Musical collectives from Georgia, Armenia and Ukraine, among others, caused great cheer in the audience with their fiery and compelling tunes, as supporters couldn’t resist bringing Georgian and Armenian flags and chanting to the Ukrainian 60s hit “Chervona Ruta”. Meanwhile the British input was from the London Russian Choir, performing in impeccable Russian but unable actually to speak a word of it, who were perhaps too overwhelmed by the audience’s delight at the discovery.
Finally, for those fearing that V-Day celebrations are becoming increasingly detached from the original event and the genuine atrocities of war, a series of installations and art objects was set up in the basement of the Town Hall. One of these was a particularly apt reminder of the truth behind the fanfares – a quiet booth and a TV screen with silently alternating images of real war, the war that is happening today in Ukraine and Syria. The project’s name – Past.Present.Future. – therefore went beyond an over-nostalgic fixation on the past these celebrations are sometimes accused of in Russia, and offered an aesthetic and thoughtful international catharsis.