How was your Soviet Victory Day?
Many of the regular features of May 9th passed as usual this year. The elderly celebrated by laying flowers at the hulking Victory Monument in Victory Park, the young celebrated by drinking themselves into a state of unconsciousness and the middle-aged celebrated by doing both.
The enduring image of the event to me was not the thousands thronging around the Socialist Realist statuary or the artillery-like fireworks at the end but the sight of two boys in their early teens half-dragging and half-carrying their comatose father along Vienibas Gatve, an image straight out of Gorky.
The neighbours had their annual celebratory punch-up, too, after talk of ‘Russian Latvia’ from vodka-loosened lips caused offence. The good news is that by Sunday afternoon, all the pugilists had made up and were comparing bandages around the barbecue and agreeing to get on with each other for another year.
Yet Victory Day 2009 was also different. In the run-up to the European and Riga mayoral elections, the pro-Russian parties were out in force, turning what is supposed to be a day of remembrance into a quasi-political rally. Flags of the crypto-Communist PCTVL and more moderate Saskanas Centrs parties were left alongside the thousands of red carnations and the number of Russian tricolors on display was significantly up on previous years.
One couldn’t help feeling that the day has become more of a Russian national day than a remembrance of a particular historical event – a kind of St Patrick’s Day of the endless steppe. Russian success in the world ice hockey championship certainly helped, too.
The near-hysteria of the hordes of people processing past my window really had to be seen to be believed. Punching the air and chanting “Ross-i-ja!” in just the same way rednecks intone “U-S-A!” I found myself in two minds. On the one hand it’s understandable that they are proud of their identity and history as Russians.
I never forgot that I was actually standing in a country called Latvia – but I got the distinct impression that, high on the pictures beamed live from Moscow on the big screen, quite a few of them had forgotten, or at least no longer cared.
I suddenly felt a great deal of sympathy for the Latvians who like to point out that Russia is a big place with lots of space available, whereas Latvia is tiny, so if you really want to live in Russia, why not just f**k off there, eh?
Having previously dismissed talk of the ethnic Russian population being an “enemy within” as Latvian nationalist paranoia, it now seemed pretty clear where the loyalties of thousands of “Latvians” really lie. Not in Latvia.
As well as the general drunkenness and occasional casual violence there was the totally unreformed attitude to the joys of communist rule to consider, too.
In one way it was merely silly – formidable matrons declaiming from the stage in that ridiculous barnstorming style of the old newsreels.
In another it was sinister. Red Army veterans were happily parading in their uniforms and medals, but their one-time opponents in the Latvian Legion had been banned from wearing theirs on March 16 – a ban with which they complied.
Call the day a celebration of Russianess and it would be less provocative than calling it ‘Victory Day’. To Latvians it wasn’t a victory at all, just the reassertion of the tyranny before last.
All of which leads us to the startling proposed law in the Russian Duma concerning disagreement with the official line on what happened during World War II, which attempts to extend its jurisdiction over the Baltic states.
The only thing to defend in the proposals is that by these criteria, Stalin himself would have to be put on trial as a Nazi collaborator. After all, the dates recorded on the Victory Monument are ‘1941-1945’.
Let’s not forget (and Soviet sympathisers somehow always manage to) that for two years before Operation Barbarossa, Stalin and Hitler were cosied up under the duvet together, swapping bits of Eastern Europe.
Celebrating your finest hour is all very well, but only has any value if you are big enough to remember your darkest one as well.