World News

A River of Pictures of the Dead From Russia’s Sacred War

Posted May 10, 2018 4:07 p.m. EDT

MOSCOW — In a schoolyard in Moscow shaded by birch trees, a group of children held in their hands portraits of their ancestors who died in World War II. They were waiting to join one of this year’s Immortal Regiment marches — held across the country to honor the war dead.

“The idea is that we walk with pictures of our relatives,” said Pavel Mramornov, 11, holding a portrait of his great-great-grandfather, who died in 1944. “We carry our relatives in our hearts.”

The students’ relatives were among the 27 million Soviet soldiers and citizens estimated to have died in the war, which touched nearly every family in the country and which is still treated as a sacred era in Russia’s history.

While celebrating the end of the war has long been an important holiday in Russia, the way the country remembers Victory Day has taken a few twists.

In recent years, the marches of the Immortal Regiment have snowballed in popularity in Russia, as a way of restoring family history to commemorations of the war, a realm that had come to be dominated by government-run observances like a military procession on Red Square.

In this year’s Immortal Regiment events, 10 million Russians marched while carrying images of their war dead in parades across the country, including a million in a single parade in Moscow, according to a police estimate.

When most veterans were still alive, Victory Day, which celebrates the end of the conflict in Europe, was widely loved as a time for family visits. Russians stopped by the homes of their grandfathers and grandmothers, to drink tea or have lunch, and let the wartime generation know they were appreciated.

But as the number of living veterans dwindled in the new millennium, President Vladimir Putin reinvented Victory Day as the country’s most important political holiday, replacing the Soviet-era Revolution Day that had been celebrated in November to mark the Bolshevik seizure of power. The pageantry of a grand Red Square parade shifted to May 9, Victory Day in Russia.

The rumbling parade of tanks and stomping soldiers underpinned an ideology of military strength and patriotism. But the personal element, of thanking family members, seemed to fall by the wayside.

The practice of marching with portraits of dead family members started as a grass-roots movement in the Siberian city of Tomsk. Three friends who wanted to restore the familial tradition of the holiday and keep the memory of individual veterans alive came up with the idea in 2011; the first march with the portraits was the following year.

With those who fought and died in the war so widely revered, it was a movement that quickly appealed to Russians across the political spectrum.

Respect for the sacrifices of World War II “is probably the only social glue to form a single society” in Russia, said Ivan I. Kurilla, a professor at the European University of St. Petersburg.

By 2015, the Immortal Regiment marches were drawing about 5 million people to the street, city squares and schoolyards — and the Kremlin took notice.

The movement has since been largely co-opted by the government, with the Kremlin recasting the World War II victory as a cornerstone of its argument that Russia deserves to be a world power. Putin led the march in Moscow on Wednesday, for example, carrying a portrait of his father who fought in the war.

The marchers in Moscow, gripping their portraits and walking slowly, sang “Katyusha,” or the Little Katya, a wartime song about a truck-mounted rocket launcher that was instrumental in victory.

The crowd of a million people became a river of pictures of the dead, a stark reminder of the cost of World War II for Russia, flowing down Tverskaya Street, one of the capital’s main roads, and through Red Square.

Aleksandr I. Verigin, 62, who carried a picture of his father, said the official backing for the Immortal Regiment parade didn’t bother him. “How can you separate yourself from your country?” he said. “The war touched everybody.”

But Sergei V. Lapenkov, 49, a journalist and one of the movement’s three founders, said he disagreed with the government’s involvement. The idea had been to encourage “family memory” of the war, he said. Lapenkov emphasized that both the men in the army, and the women who held families together during the war and then supported afterward amputees and those traumatized by combat, deserved recognition.

The movement was to be an “inoculation” against the state imposing a version of history on the nation. “Every government tries to rewrite history, but family histories cannot be rewritten,” Lapenkov said. He recalled seeing his own grandfather, who lost both legs in the war, put on his prosthetics in the morning, and said this personal experience shaped his view of war. At the marches now, “this side of war is not described to children,” he said.

As they gained official support, the Immortal Regiment marches have tended to include symbols unrelated to family history, like Soviet flags and portraits of Stalin. To boost numbers of people walking with pictures during at least one march last year in Kazan, a city east of Moscow, organizers handed out images of veterans to those who showed up without a family portrait.

But given the searing memories of loss and suffering in so many families, the opportunity to honor a relative has remained popular, even among people discouraged by the official pomp. The Immortal Regiment marches have grown in size every year.

Pavel’s father, Aleksandr I. Mramornov, said he appreciated the march but wished Russians would also remember the victims of political repression. “This action is helping families remember,” he said. “But why do we choose which victims to remember?”

At the schoolyard march, Pavel carried the portrait of his great-great-grandfather, Andrei A. Fofanov, a stern-looking man in a military cap who might have faded from family memory but for the annual ceremony.

Fofanov was a schoolteacher before the war. He died at 40. The family does not know how.

“I don’t know a lot about him,” Pavel said. “He was a very educated person. He worked at a school. He died in the war. He is in my heart.”