The military pomp and circumstance in Moscow's Red Square on 9 May of this year marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. It was a monumental paying-of-respects by the Russian military and elite to the role it played in bringing about the downfall of the Nazi regime in Berlin.
However, it was first and foremost a moving, heartfelt remembrance of the millions of ordinary Russian lives that were lost during the "Great Patriotic War," as the war of the Eastern Front was and is known in this part of the world. The front, consisting of many flanks, extended 1400 miles, from the Arctic Circle all the way to Crimea on the Black Sea.
Simultaneously, ceremonies and parades of every size took place around the world in honor of V-E day, from Paris to Washington, London, Berlin, Warsaw, Gdansk, Vilnius, Dachau, Prague, Kiev, Mongolia, Sevastopol, Astana in Kazakhstan, even to South Korea. (There was even a small contingent of Russians who crossed the Brooklyn Bridge in New York.) But it was the Russians who bore the lion's share of personal loss (30 million of the 70 million lives lost in the war). Military parades were held in 26 Russian cities, ceremonies held in 150, from Moscow to Vladivostok and back to Kaliningrad, the country’s westernmost city.
Photographs © 2015-2019 by Nina Ai-Artyan
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Currently, a new cold war is bearing down on all parties, mostly as the result of NATO aggression in Eastern Europe and the coup in Ukraine, economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States, as well as US support for radical elements in Syria. As a response to the west's attempts to undermine Russia's ties to Syria, Iran, and China and the other BRICS nations, President Putin made ample use of the occasion to display the Motherland's impressive arsenal of jets, bombers, tanks, helicopters, intercontinental missiles and troops in full regalia and regimentation.
But it was everyday Russians' share of the celebration, the 'Immortal Regiment' march, in which the most dignified displays of loyalty were offered to deceased loved ones, and that shone most brightly. Bearing enlarged photographs as placards, red flags and banners, between a quarter- and a half-million Muscovites took to the streets to honor their fallen ancestors, marched along the main boulevard that leads past St. Basil's Cathedral and the Kremlin in Red Square. As an astonishing show of solidarity with the people—astonishing, that is, to western politicians and members of the press—President Putin himself walked along with the throngs, carrying a picture of his own late veteran father.
Notably, leaders of the West, including President Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande snubbed the event. The last American president to honor the event with his presence was President Bush in 2005. The US military marched alongside the Russians as late as 2010.
The first 'Immortal Regiment' (Bessmertny Polk) march having originally taken place in the Siberian city of Tomsk in 2012—and then having spread to 120 cities in 2013, from Kazakhstan to Kiev—and finally spread globally to even U.S. and Canadian cities.
“The Immortal Regiment brings together people whose grandparents fought from 1941 to 1945. Thus, we are honoring the memory of heroes who earned this hard-won victory,” the event’s organizer Nikolai Zemtsov said.
To make clear the profound difference in the scope of devastation experienced between East and West: both the Americans and the British lost roughly 420,000 and 450,000 of their citizens, respectively; in the Soviet Union, 27 million lives were lost (not counting 4 million soldiers who still remain unaccounted for). Out of all the countries that participated in the war, 1 out every 3 deaths was Russian. Over 60-percent of Russian nuclear families were directly affected by the cataclysmic event. Though, of course, in the end, all were.
Photographer Nina Ai-Artyan, a resident of Moscow, was there, moving with her camera through the crowds of marchers throughout the day, capturing the most important aspects of the poignant commemoration—beyond any notions of official heroism or history: the faces, feelings and expressions of love of the Russian people themselves.
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"You know, everything now is so politicized here and people are divided strictly into supporters and opponents of Putin," Ai-Artyan writes, "so even the Immortal Regiment march wasn't perceived correctly by Putin's opponents. But I was there. I walked through the crowds and saw that people were absolutely sincere and it was their will. The only real opportunity to understand anything is to go and watch. Because every event can be presented arbitrarily."
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Nina Ai-Artyan is a photographer from Moscow. She graduated from Moscow State Textile Academy as an artist/designer and, for the 2 to 3 years that followed, worked in her field of training. In 2003, the camera became her primary mode of expression, photography her passion and, since then, she has only been able to concentrate on these. You can see more of her work at: www.nin-a.com/
All Photographs Copyright © 2015-2019 by Nina Ai-Artyan
Main text Copyright ©2019 by James Williamson