At the end of April, these stickers started to appear on public transport across the city.
Then a couple of brand new trolley buses appeared on the streets.
This minibus too…
All of the advertising in the city centre was replaced with images of war veterans, accompanied by their names and a paragraph about them, every poster showcasing a different person or couple.
Other posters and banners appeared too.
Red, white and blue flags were put on every other lamppost.
The main memorial in the centre of the city was cleaned, and the trees near it were chopped back.
The wood on the benches in the city centre was replaced, although not all of the old wood was taken away!
Even the lines on the roads were repainted.
For the week leading up to 9th May the events of Victory Day were the main topic of conversation, with speculation on what exactly would happen on the big day, including whether Putin would visit. Everyone had a different idea about what time things would happen, and nobody really seemed to know exactly how the day would pan out. One thing was clear though: it would be a day that would go down in the history of the city.
On the morning of 9th May, I left my flat early. Or at least I thought I had. When I got to my bus stop there were about 50-60 people there, with more arriving all the time, and every bus going past was so full of people it just drove by. I walked back two stops, to find the same at both of those. In the end I got the bus in the opposite direction, travelling for more than 10 stops before finding a stop with few enough people to try to get into the centre from. There was more traffic than I’ve ever seen going into the city, and almost nothing going in the opposite direction. The 20-minute journey took me nearly an hour.
When I finally made it, I found a party atmosphere. There was a buzz of excitement, and the 9th May balloons were everywhere.
People were standing anywhere they thought they would get a view.
Even a downpour of rain didn’t deter them.
At 10:15, we heard an announcement, and the first parade started. It was led by drummers, and consisted of cadets from the many military academies in the city.
Then came the part of the parade everyone had been waiting for: the veterans. They came from all over Crimea, and perhaps even from further afield. Each group was led by a banner stating the unit, ship or submarine they were from.
As they went past, people were chanting ‘Спасибо, Спасибо’ (Thank you, thank you).
Children waited with flowers to hand them to the veterans as they passed.
The veterans had huge smiles on their faces, and were grateful every time someone gave them flowers.
Those who were absent were also represented in the parade.
The emotion was palpable, and the veterans were clearly touched by the appreciation shown to them.
There were flags everywhere.
The red star and hammer and sickle is the Soviet era naval ensign, which has been superseded by a St. Andrew’s Cross (a blue cross on a white background, the opposite colours to the Scottish flag), but which is still a very popular symbol here. The black, blue and red flag represents the Donetsk People’s Republic, an area of Ukraine which is holding a referendum as I write this. The 9th May flag shows the black and orange ribbon of St. George and the highest medal awarded to Soviet soldiers for valour in the Second World War. The ribbon was being worn by well over half of the people I saw during the day. It’s all over the city, tied to cars, bags, and even prams.
After the parade finished, the streets in the city centre were still closed for a while. People were looking at old vehicles from the Second World War and posing for pictures with those who owned them.
There were bands in a couple of places, with people dancing to the music. This one was next to a war memorial made from an old tank.
I went to the fairground with my friends, where we went on the ferris wheel…
…visited the defences from the First Defence of Sevastopol during the Crimean War…
…and walked around the park, where people were having picnics.
Around the city there were many other things to see too.
After that I had a break for a couple of hours, during which President Vladimir Putin arrived in Sevastopol. This was the most controversial part of the day for the outside world, as reported by (for example) The New York Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian and The Washington Post.
I saw part of his speech on Russia 24 television, which had dedicated the majority of their coverage to Victory Day celebrations across the Russian-speaking world, with the only other news covered being the situation in Ukraine, mostly in Mariupol. You can read a full transcript of the speech Putin made in Sevastopol, or watch a video showing parts of the day, including the speech.
He was also on the main stage in the centre of Sevastopol a little later, although I can’t find any links to the speech he made then, and people were chanting ‘Спасибо, Спасибо’ (Thank you, thank you) again. Many people in the crowd were crying, and I know from someone in the crowd that at one point Putin had to stop speaking because he was so choked up.
The next big event was an air show, with the highlight being a joint display by the Russian Knights (the large blue planes) and the Swifts (the smaller red planes with blue stars on the bottom), two aerobatic teams from the Russian Air Force. There were also other military planes in a flypast, and examples of planes refuelling in mid-air. This article has a video showing the view of Sevastopol from the planes of the Russian Knights. What I didn’t realise was that it would be divided into two sections, so I was surprised later when the planes started displaying again. These photos are all from the first display.
In the bay, 10 warships were lined up. Before Putin’s speech, he travelled past them on a launcher for the crews to salute. I took this photo later in the day:
The day ended with a huge fireworks display. The ships in the bay were lit up, and the crowds were huge. To give you an indication of how much of a celebration Victory Day is here, the man in the picture below choose the beginning of the fireworks to propose to his girlfriend, and she accepted.
The next day, a feeling of celebration was still very much in the air. This huge tall ship, Kruzenshtern, apparently one of the biggest sailing ships still in operation, was visiting Sevastopol for a couple of days. I didn’t go on her because the queues were hours long, but I spent a while taking photos and absorbing the atmosphere.
Why is Victory Day so important?
Victory Day marks the capitulation of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War. Over 20 million Soviets died during the Great Patriotic War, as it is known to Russians. My friend told me that this equates to about 13 people every minute, throughout the whole war. Everybody here is related to people who died, on a scale which it is difficult to comprehend as an outsider.
That means that for the Russian-speaking world:
Victory Day is Russia’s most important secular holiday and a key element of the country’s national identity, honoring the armed forces and the millions who died in World War II.
Taken from: The NY Daily News
I first became aware of its importance late last year, when my students started telling me about it. They were surprised that we don’t celebrate it in the UK. I was told that there would be a parade of veterans and a fireworks display. After the Crimean referendum in March, the anticipation started to increase, with people telling me that this year’s Victory Day celebrations would be bigger than ever because they would be allowed to show off more of the military.
It’s 230 years since Catherine the Great ordered Grigory Potemkin to build a fort here and name it Sevastopol. 2014 also marks 70 years since the city was taken back from the Nazis after the Crimean Offensive on 9th May 1944.
7th May 1944 was the assault on Sapun-Gora, the final line of defence outside the city itself. There was a reenactment there last weekend which I also went to.
The Nazi takeover of the city in 1941-1942 and its subsequent recapturing by Soviet forces is one of the defining events in the history of Sevastopol. During the Siege of Sevastopol over 95% of the city was destroyed. Those who died are commemorated in a monument which dominates the main square.
This is where Putin laid his wreath on Victory Day this year.
Victory Day 2014 was never just going to be a celebration of the veterans in Sevastopol. It was always going to be a time of celebrating freedom and appreciating the sacrifice of those who fought and died for it. I feel the Western media has missed this side of it, as exemplified by this sentence from the BBC report on Victory Day in various cities:
Victory Day is supposed to be about remembering the sacrifices of World War Two, but today in Sevastopol it became a party.
That’s not to say that I didn’t feel conflicted at various points during the day. It’s hard not to be caught up in the atmosphere when everyone around you is cheering and excited, but it didn’t stop me feeling slightly uncomfortable during the display of military hardware, not knowing whether this was a normal part of Victory Day here, or whether it was a show of force for the outside world because of current events. However I felt, attending Victory Day in Sevastopol was a fascinating insight into a different culture, and one which I’m glad I was able to experience.
Some final thoughts
I’ve grown up in a country and a culture where I have been conditioned to mistrust Russians, through the messages that have been fed to me by popular culture. During the reenactment at Sapun-Gora I thought ‘I’m watching both of our groups of enemies’ and it felt strange, then had to remind myself that the Soviets were our allies at that point. I am here, I can speak to locals, I can get an idea about what they think and feel, and even then it’s taken a long time to change my filters. After nine months in Sevastopol, I still occasionally catch myself questioning people’s motives, the people I am surrounded by and who I know are just people, like me and you. A lot of the outside world seems to tar everyone with the same brush, the brush they were taught to use by growing up in cultures like mine, where Russians are automatically the bad guys.
What is happening now worries me a lot. The events in Crimea, the actions of Putin, the lack of dialogue and understanding between all sides, the division between families and friends, the rhetoric. It’s impossible to know what will happen over the next few days, weeks and months. Whatever it is, I sincerely hope that the events marked by Victory Day are never repeated, and that in the 21st century we can find other ways to resolve our differences than through violence.