St. Petersburg Diary

On an emotional roller coaster

Print edition : June 03, 2022

It is May 9, the day Russia celebrates Victory Day, commemorating the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War. “The Great Patriotic War”, as it was referred to in the Soviet Union and then Russia. The “sacred war”, as a popular national song goes, left scars on every family.

The city I was born in, Leningrad at that time, has many memories of the war. Its streets, including the one I live on, have preserved the memories of heavy shelling by Hitler’s army. The ugly Soviet-era building I see from my window, squeezed between elegant 19th century architecture forming the historical street front the city is famous for, is there for a reason. It filled the crater left by a Nazi bomb. I have found a 1943 photograph of that very spot in the archives, with my building standing intact.

Images of buildings destroyed, burned out as a result of a missile hit, haunt me wherever I walk through the city streets. For many people in this city, it is difficult to continue living normally when Ukrainian cities, as beautiful and historical as ours, are being bombed. Living in St. Petersburg, the city that survived 872 days of Nazi siege, is like being on a constant emotional roller coaster ride.

It is May 9, and I am at the Victory Day celebrations on the city’s main street, Nevsky Avenue. From 7 in the morning, fighter jet engines could be heard. The V-day parade is always a good military show-off, despite not everyone supporting it. Victory Day is a day of remembrance and reverence. It is a day “With tears in our eyes”, as Lev Leshchenko sang in the song from the 1970s that has become one of the most recognised symbols of this day. This year, the tears burn sharp, as a real war takes the lives of people just 1,500 kilometres away.

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It is 10 in the morning and the parade kicks off at Palace Square, in front of the Hermitage. Every summer, this place is filled with tourists from all over the world. St. Petersburg is famous for its “White Nights”, the northern midsummer phenomena that covers the city in an all-night glow.

Thousands of residents have poured into Nevsky Avenue for a glimpse of Russia’s advanced weaponry, including the latest Bastion coastal missile systems, S-400 Triumphs, and Grads. Surprisingly, the air show is cancelled.

I walk alongside people who proudly march, carrying pictures of their grandparents who fought in the Second World War, many of them believing that Russian soldiers at the moment are saving their motherland from the Nazis, like they did 77 years ago.

There are many who support the Russian government, despite wondering what Russia’s actual goal is in Ukraine. Others have joined the celebrations to publicly show their disagreement with the war—they are quickly identified and taken by the police into vans parked alongside.Many people have boycotted the celebrations for the first time in their lives, believing Russians have no right to celebrate victory over a nation that fought shoulder to shoulder with them against Hitler’s Germany.

This morning, I got a message from a friend, who said she had no wish to see the “bombs” that are razing Ukrainian cities or listen to people “hooked” by propaganda. Asked if she cared about Ukraine’s Donetsk breakaway region, which has been shelled by the Ukrainian army, killing adults and children, she has no clear response. “I was just living my peaceful life, building a career, traveling. I am not into politics,” she said.

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A young man, not older than 18, catches my eye. I approach him, and he says he is a refugee from Mariupol, the port city in southern Ukraine, now under Russian control after suffering a two-month siege. Denis, along with his mother and grandmother, spent two weeks in a basement, before being evacuated.“I was nine when we celebrated Victory Day in Mariupol. Then the new Ukrainian government banned public celebrations after 2014. I don’t understand why, if Ukrainians fought WWII alongside Russians, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, and Tajiks. Politics is exploiting history and people,” he says emotionally. He wants to go back to Mariupol and help clean up the city of its dead bodies and debris.

I meet Elina, in her 40s, whose Jewish grandparents were doctors and fought in the Second World War in Smolensk. “The world has turned around. Now Ukrainian fighters are wearing Nazi symbols and teaching children as young as three to ‘slaughter Russians’ and make the Sieg Heil salute. So yes, as painful as it is, we are fighting a war again, and we are fighting against those we fought before,” she says.

Leningrad did not lose hope during those872 days of siege, even when it claimed the lives of tens of thousands. The city today, “the cradle of three revolutions”, is still not losing hope. Even when public dissent is being shut down. Its walls have memories of poets and musicians, dancers and actors, scientists and dissidents whose courage and humanity have lit a flame of hope over these grim moments in the nation’s history.