Victory Day in Irkutsk

Victory Day in Irkutsk
Holiday Celebrated every May 9th
Festivities around the city generally free

Victory Day (День победы), celebrated on May 9 across Russia, is arguably the most important Russian holiday, other than New Year’s. There are massive celebrations across the country dedicated to Russia’s win in World War Two, or the Great Patriotic War (Великая отечественная война), as it is known in Russia. Seeing the celebrations in person is quite an experience.

This year, we had a four-day weekend for Victory Day, since it was on a Tuesday. There were concerts, rehearsals, and preliminary events starting already on Friday, and the entire city was decked out a week in advance—with banners, flags, and proclamations of victory all over the place. (I even saw a few signs that referenced the “road to Berlin.”) People in Kirov Square were handing out kolorits (колориты), orange-and-black ribbons that have come to symbolize the victory in the war. Stands in the mall were selling Soviet-Army-style hats and flags. Even the churches had Victory Day decorations.

On May 8, my group and I were lucky enough to be invited to a smaller event before the main celebrations: a memorial by the Polish community to commemorate their families’ and compatriots’ participation in the war. Echoing the main event that would take place the next day, we met at the Eternal Flame (Вечный огонь—a World War Two memorial present in most Russian cities) and walked through the main memorial, following people in traditional Polish dress. Standing in the memorial plaza, we listened to people tell the stories of their parents’ and grandparents’ experiences during the war. It was moving and solemn, not at all what I had expected of Victory Day—though a truer reminder of why the celebration actually takes place.

Victory Day in Irkutsk

The day before the ceremony, at a memorial near the Eternal Flame.

Victory Day in Irkutsk

A World War Two memorial.

The main events all take place on 9 May itself, with a long program of parades, concerts, and fireworks starting at 9 a.m. I missed the early parade, because 9 a.m., but I joined some friends for the Immortal Regiment (Бессмертный полк), in which people march through the city carrying pictures of their relatives who fought or otherwise helped the war effort. It was a remarkable sight—thousands upon thousands of people (50,000, I heard) holding their signs bearing the photos, names, and birth and death dates of their veteran relatives.

Victory Day

Sorry for the weird angle. I was trying to capture the extent of the parade.

People were chanting “To victory!” and “For the motherland!” and singing Soviet and World War Two era songs. Many people, including extremely small children, were wearing Soviet Army uniforms. We walked all the way down a main Irkutsk thoroughfare to the main square, where everyone disbanded for ice cream, concerts, and other celebrations.

Victory Day

The parade, against the backdrop of the Irkutsk monastery.

After that we avoided most of the major celebrations—we’d gotten our fill of crowds during the parade—and enjoyed the rest of our day off in the sun. But the entire city was part of the celebration; cars decorated in Russian and Soviet colors (and sometimes as tanks!) drove around honking horns; there was an air of celebration and patriotism everywhere. It was a truly Russian experience, and a great way to begin to wind down my semester here.

Victory Day

We even saw a balloon tank!

Julie Hersh

Julie is currently studying Russian as a Second Language in Irkutsk (and before that, Bishkek) with SRAS’s Home and Abroad Scholarship program, with the goal of someday having some sort of Russia/Eurasia-related career. She recently got her master’s degree from the University of Glasgow and the University of Tartu, where she studied women’s dissent in Soviet Russia. She also has a bachelor’s degree in literature from Yale. Some of her favorite Russian authors are Sorokin, Shishkin, Il’f and Petrov, and Akhmatova. In her spare time Julie cautiously practices martial arts, reads feminist websites, and taste-tests instant coffee for her blog.

Julie is attending Home and Abroad
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