As I was heading to Lynn, Massachusetts to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War with my 87-year old grandmother, I was picturing the moment she would put on her medals that project the stern faces of Brezhnev and Stalin on her olive colored military top that she ritualistically wears only once a year for the occasion. I was anticipating the foods she has been preparing for weeks, the smell of borsch and the bite of her famous eggplant stew, the black bread, crispy mildly salted pickles and the sour cabbage. I was remembering moments of our fleeting togetherness, from Riga to Kyrgyzstan to Georgetown and Lynn, while feeling guilty about my rare visits. The last thing that was on my mind on that flight to Boston was the politics surrounding the commemoration of this event in contemporary Russia.
The moment I enter my grandmother’s cozy flat to the sound of Russian TV blasting in the living room, however, there is suddenly no escape from politics. Lynn, or rather the Russian-Jewish community there that my grandma is part of, turned into an unexpected microcosm of tensions surrounding the meaning of the Victory Day—a commemoration of WWII veterans fused into the Russian conflict with Ukraine—all taking place on American soil to the tunes of competing propaganda from Russian TV and Fox news. Russian Victory Day celebration even in remote Lynn—a tiny suburb of Boston—got hopelessly politicized.
The morning of May 9th, we get ready for the celebration at the Russian community center, “Care” (zabota)--the only social haven for elderly Russians from all over the former Soviet Union living out their lives in a foreign country. Grandma puts on her predictable military outfit with a dozen medals, an olive military cap and a grey tie. She looks like a tiny heroic warrior, with unruly curly hair popping out of the small cap. Before heading out, we attach the orange and black striped commemoration 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, a temporary peace, alas, as the conflict in neighboring Ukraine is nowhere near the finish line.
We enter a crowded room of the community center and fight to sit together on black plastic chairs in the second row. One of the key organizers of the entertainment program, Inna, a soft-spoken singer in her 60s, 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 Inna 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 clearly notable 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 aggrandized size 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 carriers of peace to manifestations of aggression. Historic memory of the victory against fascism is overshadowed by the ongoing conflict with neighboring Ukraine, raddled by information wars and polarized opinions.
The entertainment program at the community center kicks in, as the hosts start announcing the names of veterans in a morbid voice, with their photos like fading ghosts projected on a large TV screen. The real, wrinkled, dignified faces of these heroes are hiding in the corners of a large dark room. As I listen to the announcements that sound like eulogies, I keep thinking about the story of my grandmother.
Immediately after the war has officially ended she was taken in by the Soviet army in destroyed Belarus. Having lost her family in a Belarusian ghetto, she was saved by a local family and survived the war in harsh conditions, spending time between hiding in an attic and babysitting newborns at the age of 13. In the army, she was endowed with a 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, 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 was 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 make-up 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 ancient 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 an unforgettable victory.
The celebration 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 victorious happiness. As we are walking out of the room, Inna 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. Moments later I am filled with doubt about my acquiescence. Should I have said something in an attempt to stand up for my grandmother’s honor? Should I have tried to draw some boundaries between the 70th anniversary and the ongoing conflict? Why do I always choose to observe and not to act, I keep thinking to myself.
When we step into the apartment and take off the ribbons, the Russian TV is still showing footage of the magnificent parade—undoubtedly a powerful PR stint played by Putin, 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 without saying a word. Before leaving, I try to express gratitude for her strong spirit and contribution to victory, in part as a way to make up for my earlier indecisiveness, but she is too busy neatly stuffing my bag with all the Russian left overs.