by the Geneva Observer
the Geneva Observer, our editor and commentator, writes about his trip to Russia
I woke up this morning in Yaroslavl and stared out of the window. It was snowing on the 9th of May. The snow and cold surprised the German military some 76 years ago. This visitor seems to not have learned the lessons of history and left his long underwear at home!
Throughout the week I saw bus drivers, elderly matrons, young couples, soldiers in uniform discretely wearing their St. George’s ribbon. I read earlier this morning the Ukraine has banned the wearing of the ribbon, threatening persons to be thrown to the ground, handcuffed and arrested.
What is the hidden threat that those discrete orange and black striped ribbons represent? What unites the drivers of Ladas, Volgas with those of BMWs and Mercedes or the Orthodox priest in his long black robes and the Muslim vendor from Tadjikistan selling dried fruits and nuts?
Nothing, but a tiny discrete ribbon.
I felt a growing sense of surprise, seeing more and more people around me as I approached the city center. So many could have just as easily stayed home. The wind pierced us all, making us hug the sides of buildings to have a little shelter. A military kitchen was serving traditional buckwheat porridge. The sweet odor filled the air each time the lid was taken off to serve another portion.
Some 15,000 people came out with photos of their missing family and friends from the war here in Yaroslavl. Despite the snow flurries and steady wind, perfect to show the flags and banners in, people walked ten to twelve abreast, many in quiet dignity, others singing patriotic songs of the past. We advanced toward the source of the marchers, so as to be a bit warmer. Still, the parade filed past us for more than three quarters of an hour, old men, women, mothers, fathers, toddlers and babies in their strollers. They were not going to accept the white snowflakes as a sign of defeat. Their smiling faces left me with a quiet sense of serenity and optimism, a far cry from a funeral march.
The city had sent 500,000 to the front, only 300,000 returned. 200,000 left their lives on the battlefields from Stalingrad to Berlin, not necessarily to support Stalin, Bolsheviks or Communist ideology, but to preserve Russia as a people, its language, culture and heritage which were under threat as “Untermenschen”, to be eliminated (Hitler had ordered his troops not to accept any white flags at Leningrad, there was no place for Slavic people in the Third Reich).
I find it difficult to convey the emotions I felt, seeing so many witnesses to untold suffering. Despite the piercing wind and cold they were there of their own free will, they wanted to be there, to bear witness. The tears rolled silently down my cheeks. I have never witnessed such a solidarity amongst so many people from all walks of life.
In the bus back home, I said “spacibo” to a lady carrying a photo of one of her fallen relatives. Very surprised but with a big smile, she congratulated us on the holiday.