As I was heading to Lynn, Massachusetts to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War with my eighty-seven-year-old grandmother, I pictured the moment she would pin her medals projecting the stern faces of Brezhnev and Stalin to the olive-colored military top that she ritualistically wears once a year for the occasion. I anticipated the foods she has been preparing for weeks, the smell of borscht and the bite of her famous eggplant stew, the black bread, mildly salted pickles, and sour cabbage. I recalled our fleeting moments together, from Riga to Kyrgyzstan to Georgetown and Lynn, and felt guilty about my rare visits. The last thing on my mind on that flight to Boston was the war in Ukraine, and what it might mean for the commemoration of this event in contemporary Russia.
The moment I entered my grandmother’s cozy flat to the sound of Russian TV blaring in the living room, however, there was no escaping the politics of the event. Even remote Lynn, a tiny suburb of Boston—or rather the Russian-Jewish community that my grandmother is part of there—turned into an unexpected microcosm of tensions surrounding the meaning of the Victory Day, a commemoration of WWII veterans now fused into the Russian conflict with Ukraine.
The morning of May 9, we get ready for the celebration at the Russian community center, ironically referred to as kindergarten (detskiy sad)—the only social haven in this small town for elderly Russians from all over the former Soviet Union living out their lives in a foreign country. Grandma puts on her military outfit and her dozen medals, a matching olive military cap and a grey tie. She looks like a tiny war hero, with unruly curls of hair popping out of the small cap. Before heading out, we attach the orange- and black-striped commemorative ribbons—a long-standing military symbol in Russia, most closely associated with the victory over fascism. Still under the spell from watching the grandiose Moscow commemoration parade on TV that morning, I was proud to be next to my living grandmother and to celebrate her and all those who have lived and fought for peace.
We enter a crowded room in the community center and jostle our way into the second row. One of the key organizers of the entertainment program, Nadia, a soft-spoken singer in her sixties, originally from Ukraine, comes up to my grandma and whispers something into her ear. I imagine it’s a congratulatory remark, but my grandma suddenly looks hurt and withdrawn. It turns out that Nadia asked grandma to take off the ribbon. “We are not wearing national symbols here,” she added. “People have different stance on Ukraine, and we don’t want to provoke anyone by wearing a ribbon that is now associated with Russian occupation.” My grandmother is dismayed. “We have worn these ribbons for as long as I remember it. It’s a historic commemoration—what does it have to do with Ukraine?” she asks, not expecting an answer, but pain and disappointment are visible on her face.
I stay quiet, but my aunt keeps flaming the tensions: “How disrespectful! Who do they think they are! Ukraine has failed itself!” In reality, of course, I am aware that the ribbons, actively promoted and distributed by the Russian state and worn in exaggerated sizes by all the Russian TV personalities, are associated with pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine and with Russia’s occupation of Crimea in the minds of many regime critics and Ukrainians. Symbols matter, and as in any conflict, can quickly transform from beacons of peace to manifestations of aggression. Historic memory of the victory against fascism is overshadowed by the ongoing conflict and the information wars and polarized opinions that have come with it.
The entertainment program at the community center kicks in, with the hosts announcing the names of veterans in a morbid voice as their faded photos flash across a TV screen. The real, wrinkled, dignified faces of these heroes are hiding in the corners of the large dark room. As I listen to the announcements, which sound like eulogies, I keep thinking about the story of my grandmother.
Having lost her family in a Belarusian ghetto, she was saved by a local family and survived the war in harsh conditions, dividing her time between hiding in an attic and babysitting newborns at the age of thirteen. Immediately after the war officially ended she was taken in by the Soviet army in destroyed Belarus. In the army, she was endowed with the responsibility of transporting sensitive documents to Soviet soldiers still stationed in Germany and targeted by snipers. Dressed in a German uniform, grandma dutifully delivered letters, and was never stopped or questioned by the German police. She was called the “daughter of the army unit” (doch polka) and was embraced by soldiers, who treated her as their own daughter. She recalls these times with a smile, but would quickly cut you off if you try to call her a hero. “I am not a hero, stop it Marisha,” she would say sternly, as if she were back in the army, following secret commands.
My memories are suddenly interrupted by lyrical war songs about disappeared soldiers and broken families, sung along together, some in the audience quietly mumbling words to themselves, others singing more enthusiastically. We are led by a chorus of older Russian ladies with heavy makeup and festive dresses (though not festive enough, according to my grandmother who expects everyone to wear white sparkly blouses for important holidays). I don’t know the words but I try to sing along while gripping my grandmother’s hand in a futile attempt to somehow take away her pains of the past and her disappointments with today’s celebration.
The event feels forced and dispirited. The organizers are unable to disconnect the celebration of heroes sitting right in from of them from what they perceive as an act of Russia’s aggression, and are almost lamenting rather than celebrating a bitter but unforgettable victory.
The ceremony is finally winding down with a little dance. Grandma and I take over the dance floor to the tune of a cheerful war song for a few minutes of celebration. As we are walking out of the room, Nadia approaches my grandmother, hugs her and pleads: “We are still friends aren’t we? You do understand that I am from Ukraine and to us the ribbon is a symbol of something else. . . .” My grandmother shakes her head, still unwilling to reconcile the two realities. I stand by her side, quietly holding her, but somehow unable to say a word.
When we step into the apartment and take off the ribbons, Russian TV is still showing footage of the magnificent parade—undoubtedly a powerful PR stunt on Putin’s part, but also a genuinely moving and unifying event. I then read the news on Ukraine and its defiance of Russian symbols. I turn off the TV and sit next to my grandmother. Both lost in our own thoughts, we hold each other in silence. Before leaving, I try to express gratitude for her strong spirit and contribution to victory, in part as a way to make up for having kept quiet, but she is too busy neatly stuffing my bag with all the Russian leftovers.
Maria Repnikova is a scholar of Chinese and Russian media politics. She is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Annenberg School, University of Pennsylvania.