“Vasily Zaytsev killed 5 Germans today. How many have you killed?” – propaganda poster propelling the legend of WWII’s greatest sniper – from the film Enemy at the Gates (2001)
Sevastopol is a city steeped in military history; its streets and squares are filled to the brim with plaques, statues, and memorials commemorating the blood spilt by heroes who fought for the city in this war or the other. Literally every nook and cranny immortalizes the bravery of this soldier or that admiral, this ship or that brigade. Sevastopol has been contested, battered, razed, and held under siege in every war to reach these parts since its founding as a strategic naval base and home port for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Thus, there was only one place I could spend May 9th, Victory Day in the Great Patriotic War (known as WWII in the West.)
I caught an early morning bus to Sevas (I’ve been here long enough to adopt local slang and shorthand) in order to be there in time for the 10am parade that was the highlight of the day’s festivities. I scoped out a good spot at the tail end of the parade route across the street from McDonald’s where I ate a hash brown for breakfast, but more about that later. I loat my “Jack Nicholson at a Lakers game” front row spot when schoolchildren bumped their way to the front. Armed with handmade thank-you notes and flowers, they were instructed by their commanding officers, I mean teachers, to present gifts to the parading veterans. It took twenty minutes for the parade to reach us and this didn’t sit well with the antsy gradeschoolers. I amused myself by observing the annoyed police officer who was forced to corral the circus and by practicing my Russian with the kids once they realized I was a foreigner.
The parade was a sight to behold – USSR flags, Stalin posters, singing veterans, drunk veterans, drunk singing veterans, veterans in jeeps, military bands playing war songs and etc. It is hard to describe the sights, sounds, and emotions of the spectacle as it is definitely something that must be experienced firsthand to be truly appreciated. As an outsider, I was left with one lasting impression – the genuine outcry of emotion expressed by the parade participants and watchers alike. The emotions were real, seemingly too real for an event that after all took place sixty-six years ago. Twenty million Soviet soldiers and civilians gave their lives defending the motherland from the onrushing Fascist blitzkrieg. Everyone here has a grandfather that lost a leg or did not return from the war. This is why on the 9th veterans wear their Soviet uniforms and display their medals with pride; why babushkas who can barely walk march stoutly with Stalin posters in hand; why people in the crowd wave the red hammer-and-sickle flag; and why patriotic songs are sung with elated joy. Sure, there is an element of myth on display accentuated by decades of propaganda – two days earlier, over drinks in the name of “international friendship,” a couple of my friends regaled me with tales of the Russian spirit that chased away Napoleon and Hitler. But, it would be too easy to dismiss this as mere nostalgia. No, the emotions I witnessed in Sevastopol were real, more real than the emotions at any July 4th or Memorial Day celebration that I had attended back home. String me up for treason. The day was rich in visual imagery; I posted what my camera captured on the day on my Facebook, but the pics below are the top picks of the bunch.
The parade was just as much about staking claims about the future as it was about honoring sacrifices of the past. Khrushchev gifted Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR during the ’50s. The change from being a Russian oblast to a Ukrainian one didn’t matter much during the days of the Soviet Union, but it matters now. There is no need for me to bore you with history lessons that you can readily read on Wikipedia, but suffice to say, the locals have been reluctant to embrace the geopolitical changes of recent times. The Black Sea fleet remains in Sevastopol, on a recently extended lease agreement that was the subject of much political debate between Ukraine and Russia. Public sentiment in Crimea and especially Sevastopol remains firmly orientated towards Russia. Youth groups and city residents were allowed to march in the parade and they expressed their views unmistakably through slogans such as “our future lies with Russia” and chants such as “Sevastopol, Krim, Rossiya.” Political parties also marched in the parade. Silna Ukraina’s passage (Strong Ukraine) was met with a “privyet gosti” (hello, guests) from a witty parade watcher. The crowd chuckled.
“I’m on a boat. I’m on a boat. Take a good hard look at the mothaf–kin’ boat.” – I’m on a Boat (2009), The Lonely Island feat. T-Pain
Afterwards, I accompanied several friends including a couple of Fulbrighters from Odessa on a boat tour of the Sevastopol harbor. Well, actually, we just took the ferry to the other end of the bay and back. The real boat fun was to be found stationery in port. Several military ships were freshly painted and open for civilan tours for the occassion. The ships were in peak condition to the untrained eye. In reality, they’re Soviet antiques with very little military value. The Fleet’s presence in Sevastopol is symbolic and political, a glaring reminder to Ukraine and Europe to keep their hands honest in the next gas war. Regardless, it is not often that one is afforded the libery to tour a Russian military ship. I took full advantage of the opportunity to bring to life my suave secret agent personality. My charm was too much for one sailor from the adjacent boat who shot me a brazen wink. It’s nice to be noticed, but I shoot straight.
I counterbalanced the communist nostalgia that was the order of the day with a dose of good old-fashioned American franchise capitalism – breakfast, lunch, dinner, and takeaway from McDonald’s. Uneasy stomach, the unwavering mark of excess at its finest. I had initially vowed to avoid the sinful ex-pat temptation of the Golden Arches until July 4th, but I’ve made a couple of infringements while traveling to other cities. Odessa, Kiev, and Sevastopol are bigger, more cosmopolitan, more vibrant, and consequently much more expensive than Simferopol. The 30 UAH ($4.25) meal deal at McDonald’s just can’t be passed up when everything else costs twice as much as I’m used to paying. The $5 Subway footlong was just a good piece of business when I lived in DC, much more so than it ever was in the reasonably affordable surroundings of Fort Wayne, Indiana. The McDonald’s in Simferopol is being remodeled for the summer tourist season, so it has not been too hard to avoid the inkling for crispy golden fries and a delicious beef patty snuck between a sesame seed bun. Unfortunately, the work seems to be way behind schedule. I’ve lost hope of being in attendance for the grand re-opening of the Simfer Mickey D’s. Rumors have it that it will be a two-story McDonald’s, bigger than any in Crimea. Maybe even bigger than any in Ukraine…or Europe! Yikes! But, alas, I will miss out. I bought some burgers for Steve who missed out on the parade due to commitments to clearing a work backlog, exasperated by weeklong bout with illness. Steve did his best impression of a heroin junkie by frying a cold hamburger on my stove and almost setting the apartment on fire. Luckily the smoke cleared before my landlord came to collect rent. Ex-pats will go to desperate lengths to fill a homesick craving. I just hope the marketing division for McDonald’s subscribes to my blog. Vin Diesel/Bruce Willis would make a great ad pitchman.