Tuesday, May 14, 2013

An Overwhelming Connection to the Past

Veterans Parade on Victory Day- День Победы
As Americans, we learn the history of World War II, appreciate the sacrifice our soldiers made to securing our freedom, and feel pride in our country’s contribution to the war efforts. This  connection to WWII though reaches an entirely different emotional level for Russia. Known as the Great Patriotic War to Russians, the significance of this WWII hits very close to home for Russians. An estimated 25 millions Russians died during the war, at least one million of these deaths occurred in St. Petersburg during the Leningrad Siege. Every elderly person in the city knows someone who died during the war. Because of this, living with my host grandmother has made me feel especially more connected to WWII in general. After living in this city where I am reminded almost everyday of the sacrifices the people of St. Petersburg made to ensure their own freedom, I can’t help but have a more emotional connection to the history and sacrifices of WWII. 

Peterhoff and the fountains
And this is why День Победы, Victory Day March 9th the day WWII came to an end for Russia, is the most important day in Russia. I was lucky enough to celebrate this victory with the rest of Russia. The celebrations started off at 10:00am in Palace Square where thousands of people gathered to watch a military parade complete with tanks. Unfortunately, my friends and I did not find a spot to watch so we decided to travel to a the suburb of St. Pete, Peterhoff, to see the lovely summer palace of the Tsars. This place is incredible and a must if you ever travel to St. Petersburg. The palace is actually known as “The Russian Versailles” due to its similarity to the French Palace. The highlight of the palace is, hands down, the boulevard of cascading waterfalls. I can’t even describe the opulence of rows upon rows of gold encrusted statues sprouting water, so I included a picture. And to top it off, we witnessed mid day fireworks over the palace and waterfalls in honor of Victory Day. Seeing this palace in all it’s glory now is a perfect symbol of this Victory - the Nazis destroyed the palace and fountains during WWII. Now the palace is simply glistening, a far cry from only several decades ago. 

After Peterhoff, we traveled back to the city in time to see the grand spectacle of the day- The Veterans Parade along Nevsky Prospect. This parade truly touched my heart. Men and women who served on the front and suffered through the most horrific of times during the Leningrad Blockade walked along the prospect waving to spectators and proudly bearing their medals. Thousands of people watched and many even ran out onto the streets to give these veterans flowers. What a beautiful display of appreciate for those who suffered to provide Russia freedom from Fascist oppression. I will never forget the expressions on the veterans face after receiving the flowers and I will also never forget the pure atmosphere of the event- the gratitude, the pride, and the patriotism. Fortunately, the day ended on a perfect note. As the sun slowly began to fade, we watched fireworks cast off into the twilight sky over the Neva River and St. Peter and Paul Church. Interestingly, Russian fireworks making a booming sound before and after the fireworks light up the sky. The patriotism was simply resonating throughout the city. As we walked along Nevsky Prospect on our way home in the pouring rain, the energy was electric. Everyone chanted Россия! Россия! (Russia! Russia!) and waved the national flag. 

Fortress Oreshek
On the day following Victory Day, my friends and I traveled to the “off the beaten track” to a destination known as Fortress Oreshek. This fortress sits on an island located at the meeting point between the Neva River and Lake Lagoda. We couldn’t have picked a better day to tour this destination. During WWII, the Nazi forces were able to completely surround the city of St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) except for this tiny island fortress. The fortress was one of the most significant locations on the Path to Life. During the winter, many Leningraders were able to evacuate the city and supplies were transported to Leningrad via this island. If Hitler would have successfully taken this island, Leningrad would have been entirely surrounded by enemy forces, resulting in the deaths of thousands if not a million further civilians. Exploring this significant location the day following Victory Day was truly memorable. Not only was the stark beauty of the island fortress haunting, but the red flowers strewn across the monuments on the island also presented a reminder of the lives lost defending the city. I will never forget this special last weekend in St. Petersburg. It is hard to imagine how damaging the war was in Europe especially. WWII was a civilian war, and the effects of this warfare could certainly be still seen in St. Petersburg today. This semester, I attempted to better understand the significance of this time period in Russia (or should I say the Soviet Union’s) history and the Russian people’s feelings toward the leader at the time Stalin. This weekend allowed me a glimpse of Russian’s perceptions regarding sacrifice and the war. 

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