Veterans Portraits of World War 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.

Veterans of the Soviet Army 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 Victory Day celebrations

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 © Photo by Alexander Kladov

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 in Minsk, Belarus

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 World War 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

Residents of Minsk City are preparing to go on a festive procession along the avenue in honor of the celebration of Victory Day on May 9 © Alexander Kladov

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

What about war memorials and monuments and Eternal Flame. Often 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.

Small children playing on a tank after the military parade dedicated to the Independence Day of the Republic of Belarus

Parents watch children playing on a tank after the military parade on the Independence Day of Belarus © Alexander Kladov

To draw a 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.