Black-and-white documentary veterans portraits project «War Habits» about military parades in Minsk (Belarus) by photographer Alexander Kladov

World War II Veterans Portraits and Military Parades in Minsk

Cracked monument of USSR pioneer standing near secondary school
Old veteran showing personal 1941-1945 army notebook in his hands
Survivors of World War II are standing in fire smoke on the street of village burned down by Nazi Germany army
Citizens of Minsk city standing on main avenue of Minsk ready to marsh on Victory Day parade
Black-white photo of a man on the street watching four military helicopters fly low over city during Victory Day celebration in Minsk
Close-up portrait of old veteran holding war time photo in his hand
Soldiers train on the parade ground before the military procession
Black-white portrait of WW II veteran with medals standing in the center of Minsk city with newspaper in hand
Self-propelled artillery vehicles standing in line during celebration of Victory Day in Minsk city, Belarus
Black-white street portrait of an old veteran watching military parade with armored vehicles in the center of Minsk city, Belarus © Alexander Kladov
Boy and girl on the street watching five military planes flying over Minsk city
Close-up black-white portrait of stylish woman in a straw hat and black sunglasses watches the military parade of victory in Minsk
Veteran's hand showing his cracked childhood photos in memory album
Strict rows of soldiers lined up on the avenue on the Independence Day of the Republic of Belarus
Officer in uniform standing on rocket launcher vehicle ready to move on military parade
Elderly veteran woman is watching military parade in Minsk under a glowing sun covering her head with a newspaper
Company of soldiers preparing for the military parade, helmets lie on the lawn on Indepedance Day celebration in Minsk
A lonely old soldier of Great Patriotic War sits in a chair under a floor lamp in warm clothes in his apartment
Black-and-white street photograph of tank driver protruding from the hatch of armed vehicle
Soldiers of Belarusian army are standing in rows on stairs overlooking decorated Minsk city during celebration of Independence Day
General of the Belarusian army in the car welcomes soldiers and participants of the victory procession, black-and-white film street photo
Children participants of the festive military procession resting on the grass during the victory parade
Black-and-white photo portrait of old Great Patriotic War survivor standing in his room behind the table with lamp and phone in Minsk, Belarus
Portrait of the Great Patriotic War veteran in unifrm with medals standing still in his room with hand-made picture of Lenin on wall
Portrait of Bearusian army general in uniform with medals and old photograph on the table taken on blac-and-white film
Captivating photo of old survivor of World War Two with disfigured face reflecting in the mirror in his home in center of Minsk city
Captivating portrait of old prisoner of the concentration camp Auschwitz stands with a glass of tea in his hand in modest apartment in Minsk
Security man in black sunglasses and people watching tracked military vehicles passing by during celebration of Independance Day in the capital of Belarus
Street photograph of townspeople and veterans of the Great Patriotic War marching along the main avenue of Minsk during the victory parade © Alexander Kladov
Panoramic black-white street photo of young soldiers carrying flowers along the main boulevard on parade in Minsk, Belarus
Long exposure street photograph of soldiers marching along the avenue during Independance Day military parade in Minsk
Portrait of elderly woman veteran of the Great Patriotic War standing in the underground passage taken on medium format camera and black-and-white film
Mother feeds tired mechanic-driver of the tank on the grass, the children climbing onto the self-propelled artillery gun after the victory march black and white photo
Documentary portrait of veteran of WW II with flowers in hand standed in Minsk park taken on black-and-white film and medium format camera
People watching armed vehicles leaving the city after the parade, civil tractors and public services are ready to clean the streets
Broken World War Two monuments of USSR army soldiers in the park on the ground
Reportage photo of old married couple dancing in the hall at veterans party in Minsk
black-and-white photograph of Stalin and bouquets of flowers lie near the eternal flame in memory of victory over Nazi Germany
Death note of old wife to his husband with telephone numbers of funeral service and friends

Veterans Portraits of WW II and Military Parades in Minsk

The Great Patriotic War ended with the victory of the USSR. 30 million Soviet citizens were killed and maimed. Once again, Russian land was flooded with seas of soldier blood. Every third citizen of Belarus has fallen prey to the Second World War. Its bloodthirsty fire burnt down almost all towns and villages. For more than 70 years it has been the pivot around which the Belarusian nation is formed: annually an obscene amount of money is blown off on multicolored city decorations and entertaining military shows, parades and festivities. The memory of the victims of World War II should be sacred and untouchable.
The people are looking forward to the appearance of straight soldier columns and military equipment in the squares. Heavy tank tracks plow up the surface of main streets and wide avenues of Minsk city. Everyone wants to try soldier’s porridge and see the fireworks. Solemn events in every city are attended by tens of thousands of people. When the opulent celebrations are over, more frail veterans and survivors of The Great Patriotic War pass away. Each following Victory Day parade for them is a milestone that must be reached to meet their few friends and feel solidarity for one more and probably the last time.

Ветераны Советской армии и члены Коммунистической Партии с красными флагами, георгиевскими ленточами и портретами Ленина и Сталина возлагают цветы Вечному огню во время празднования Дня победы
Soviet Army veterans and members of the Communist Party with red flags, St. George ribbons and portraits of Lenin and Stalin lay flowers on the Eternal Flame during the celebration of Victory Day

It has been going on for years, and there will be no veterans left to join the parade and receive commemorative medals one day. Would it mean the end of parades then? Will the government keep spending millions on the armed show without the real heroes? What is more important: showing off and «playing tin soldiers» or really helping the officers in need? Shiny monuments and bright flags or pensions and cash benefits that the victims of fascism and militarism can happily live on, not survive? Many countries earlier involved in military conflicts had long abandoned holding annual armed processions. But some post-Soviet states are still rattling with modern combat tanks, armored vehicles and polished troopers’ boots are marching in response to their own question: «What if the war breaks tomorrow?»

Documentary Veterans Portraits of World War II

I have been developing my personal documentary photography project «War Habits» since 2009. This black-and-white series of veterans portraits is deep and multilayered to me – a visual tale of patriots and survivors of battles and their lives in today’s Belarusian society. This photographic story is also my attempt to address, whether directly or indirectly, some issues of concern and to portray my attitude towards WW II through my contemporaries and explore how the government and young formation take care about former combatants.
One can run into the characters of my photographs during military parades and celebrations of Victory Day or Independence Day in Minsk. Many soldiers are almost disabled already, so I visited them at home to take a photo and have a talk. To me Belarusian veterans represent the living history and the touch-stone of society problems.

Belarusian veterans portraits of WW 2 sitting in their flats in Minsk, documentary black-and-white photo project
Portraits of WW II Belarusian veterans from documentary photographic project «War Habits» © Alexander Kladov

Several veterans portraits from the «War Habits» series were published in the book of modern Belarusian photographers «BY NOW» sponsored by Goether-Institut in Minsk. The book came out thanks to an idea of Andrei Lenkevich and was curated by Matthias Harder, a world renowned chief curator at the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin. The collection of modern photographers «BY NOW» was the result of great work of both the authors, sponsors and curators. In 2010 these documentary project of veterans portraits won the gold medal of the International Photographic Salon in Sevastopol. Though up to now, it hasn’t been finished yet – still evolving and featuring new heroes, circumstances and stories.

Victory Day Celebration Metamorphoses

Recently, with the main holiday of the country, strange metamorphoses occur. Victory in the war was won under the red banner, which is a symbol of communist ideology. In 2005, citizens were given «St. George ribbons» used as elements of military decorations in the Tsarist army. In 1942, a guards ribbon appeared in the Workers ‘and Peasants’ Red Army, which became part of the uniform of Soviet sailors. Also, the guards tape was an integral element of the Order of Glory and the Medal «For the victory over Germany in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945». Until the forties, the St. George ribbon was used exclusively by the White Guard movements and was a symbol of the counter-revolution. St. George had nothing to do with the military victories of the Communists in principle. The USSR was an atheistic state, there were no «saints» in it.

Festive procession of citizens and war veterans with balloons, flags and banners in Minsk in honor of Victory Day

People kindly reacted to the distribution of orange-brown ribbons – they knitted bows from them, attached to bags, hats and used as laces on boots. Girls braided ribbons in braids and attached military symbols to the loin of the lower extremities. Bottles with liquor tied with ribbons appeared in stores. There was a devaluation of state symbols. All that remains now is to distribute to all the Golden Stars of the Heroes of the USSR. Then there will be a country of solid heroes. Drinking alcohol on Victory Day goes beyond all acceptable limits. In the evening, a crowd of citizens goes to watch fireworks. Whole rivers of urine begin to flow from all yards (drinking beer makes itself felt). Broken glass, syringes and bags of dubious substances lie after the festivities in three layers. In 2013, in Chelyabinsk, a drunken scorcher brought down the death of an 84-year-old WWII veteran. It happened on the evening of May 9. This is not an isolated case. Veterans are killed, crippled and robbed «descendants of the winners». The criminals are interested in Soviet awards, which are in high demand on the black market.
In 2009, after a robbery, a veteran Hero of the Soviet Union Gennady Yakhnov lost all well-deserved awards. The country has tens of thousands of war veterans who do not have their own housing. Obtaining apartments is associated with overcoming insurmountable administrative and corruption barriers. Many veterans experience heart attacks and strokes from the heartlessness of officials. The apotheosis of the housing problem was the letter of Anton Caravanz to American President Barack Obama. A former front-line soldier asked a potential adversary for an apartment and permission to enter the United States. This significant event happened on the eve of the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Victory. On May 9, 2015, Indian and Chinese soldiers with «St. George Ribbons» marched across Red Square. On the Independence Day of Belarus on July 3, 2018, military personnel of the People’s Liberation Army of China took part in the military procession. What was missing was a portrait of Mao Zedong and war elephants. History has been rewritten once again; the Chinese have been organically inscribed in Soviet offensive operations. At the same time, many Russian WW II veterans were simply not allowed to the podium for «security reasons».

The Great Patriotic War Through the Eyes of Youth and New Generation

There is another «fashion trend» – on the day of the Great Victory you can see people in the stands who have an external resemblance to veterans. They wear medals and smile dazzlingly. It looks like these people are about 60 years old. One Chelyabinsk journalist in 2015 asked the «young veteran» how old she was. She replied that 62. A simple arithmetic calculation shows that this woman cannot have anything to do with Victory. The Internet is full of pictures of people in uniform who proudly classify themselves as front-line soldiers. There was even the concept of «mummers». From what «military academies» these clowns came from, no one can say.

Young children watch the Victory Parade in Minsk, a photo from the documentary series «Military Habits» about veterans of the Great Patriotic War
Young children watch the passage of military equipment during the parade rehearsal © Alexander Kladov

Now a little about memorials and monuments. Most often goes to the Eternal Flame. Next to him, homeless people like to bask, and young people use the flame for cooking. In 2016 in Rzhev, young people danced without pants at the Eternal Flame. Bryansk girls performed an erotic dance on the background of the T-34 tank. In Novorossiysk, the monument «Small land« fell a «victim» to immodest dances. In 2013, in the city of Kstovo, Nizhny Novgorod Region, two unidentified men set fire to wreaths laid at the monument to the «Fallen Warriors». Cases showing the true attitude of the «descendants of the victors» to war can be enumerated endlessly.
Modern youth do not know the start and end dates of World War II. Teenagers cannot name at least a dozen names of Soviet commanders. No one heard anything about the Battle of Rzhev. On the expanses of the former Soviet Union lie many thousands of unburied Soviet soldiers. It would be wrong to say that the new generation is totally ignorant of WW 2. Perhaps, the youth knows less about it than their forefathers or doesn’t entirely understand its roots. To draw conclusions from a historical event, one should perceive not only plain figures, but rather its root causes and the impact on the country and the world. I am not asking what message my documentary photo project about veterans and military parades can bring to the new generation. Most likely, it will be interesting and comprehensible to the extent that I will be able to find answers to my questions myself.

Maybe the state should find out and bury the fallen heroes instead of organizing parades? Provide housing and decent social protection for surviving veterans who should not be homeless in the country they defended? Something is wrong with the Victory Day, with the country and all of us.