For the 41 veterans who of the Soviet Union’s “Great Patriotic War” who live in Washington state, World War II is more than just a history lesson.
Exactly 68 years later, the tears of happiness still roll down veterans’ cheeks when they remember the end of the Great Patriotic War on May 9th, 1945. Fascism had been defeated and the Soviet flag was placed upon the Reichstag.
“I remember I received a phone call at around 5:30 a.m. and the voice on the other side told me ‘Victory! The war is over,’” said Nadezhda Savitskaya, 89, an honored veteran of WWII. “I was guarding the police station from bandits at the time and I had grenades and a rifle in my office. All I remember is grabbing the rifle, running outside, and fire the entire magazine into the air. People got afraid, it was early morning and they thought they were being attacked but I just kept crying and screaming ‘Victory!’”
Victory Day over Nazi Germany is celebrated every year on May 9th in former USSR countries to preserve the memory of unbearable suffering and great courage of the Soviet people. Over 20 million had lost their lives for their country and for their families.
And 68 years later, many of the survivors are still alive to tell the tale of the Soviet experience in World War II.
Washington has 41 Soviet veterans who fought at the front, 13 survivors of the Leningrad blockade and 10 veterans of labor who worked in the rear during the years of war.
They came together on Thursday to celebrate Victory Day with the Association of Veterans of the War and Labor from Eastern Europe in Washington at the Super China Buffet in Shoreline.
Veterans were greeted with red carnations, traditional flowers associated with that day, and live accordions playing familiar melodies from those years. Local Russian dancers and singers were on hand to congratulate veterans for their victory. Guests included the General Consul of the Russian Federation and regular sponsors of the association such as the Jewish Family Services organization.
Association member Boris Grinshtat and Nadezhda Savitskaya have been married for over 67 years but you can still feel the warmth between them. Both born in 1924, so they were just 17 when Hitler’s army had set foot on Soviet soil.
Savitskaya lived just outside of Minsk, Belarus and was coming to the city on June 21, 1941 to see the opening of an artificial lake when war was suddenly declared on June 22. She didn’t make it back home to her family. She was evacuated from the area and ended up the leader of a police station in and area of Ukraine freed from the Nazis.
“My family never knew where I was for all these years since I left for Minsk,” she said. “Only once the war was over I was able to send the letter and let them know I was still alive.”
Her husband Grinshtat had just finished ninth grade when it all started. The Germans were getting closer and together with his family he had to evacuate to Saratovskaya Oblast. He was drafted and trained for six month in 1942. After graduating, he was sent to the 62nd army under General Chukov near Stalingrad, whose troops were weakening. In April of 1943, his left arm was severely injured in a battle and almost got amputated, but the doctors were able to save it. Going back to the front after this was impossible. Among the painful memories of the war, there is one that changed his character.
“When the Nazis were pulling back they burned everything behind them,” he remembers. “When we had freed Verkhnyaya Kuban’, Russia my company had found a dugout and there were about 18 Russians together with little kids, hungry and cold. They heard Russian speech and with tears in their eyes started screaming ‘Russians! It’s Russians!’ We fed and took care of them. Since then, I made a promise to myself to take care of helpless children.”
The couple moved to U.S. in 1994 when their grandson needed surgery that could only be done there. Their first destination was Philadelphia but they moved to Seattle in 1997.
When asked how they feel about American perspective on who won the war, the soft smile faded from Boris’ face. Their own grandson once came from school after a history lesson and said that Americans had defeated Fascism.
“Objectively, I would say that the Soviet Union had won the war with the help from U.S. and Great Britain,” he said.
“It’s incorrect and not serious to say that U.S. had won. They were not the ones who suffered millions of losses, they were not the ones walking and crawling through the dirt to Berlin fighting off the Nazi scum. U.S. and Britain helped a lot by sending food, planes, and steel to make the weaponry and we are very grateful. But the second front was opened almost too late. Stalin kept writing letters to President Roosevelt and Churchill asking for help. We lost millions waiting.”
It is hard to imagine how these real-life heroes kept their spirits alive through the dark years of war.
“Patriotism!” Buzya Shapovalova, 88 said, with over 30 medals and awards hanging on her chest. “For Motherland! For Stalin! We were raised with great sense of patriotism and were defending our land with all our hearts.”
Buzya had volunteered to join the forces. In 1942, she went after her sister to be trained as a signaler. She was part of the 18th army of the first Ukraine front. Buzya marched with her army all the way from Russia to Germany where she had celebrated the first Victory Day. It was in Breslau when she heard over the radio that Germany capitulation was signed.
“Everyone ran outside,” she said. “They were crying and screaming from happiness. I still remember the big house across the road from our hotel where the captured Nazi generals were held hostage. They were on the balcony watching us and we just wanted to show them how happy we were. It was a glorious day.”
The Soviet Union had won but the country was in ruins. There was little food, clothing or shelter left and it was hard to get back to a normal life. The Cold War didn’t make it easier.
“We were finally hoping for a better relationship with the U.S.” Grinshtat said. “We felt great dislike toward us and propaganda played its part. The Cold War only made things worse because all the money went into military spending on both sides.”
Now, they feel that relationship toward Victory Day from the U.S. side is improving. During his visit to Russia, John Kerry was the first Secretary of State to lay a wreath in honor of the WWII soldiers. They hope this will change American’s perspective and honor those veterans who now live in the U.S.
Victory Day defines Russia and other former Soviet republics. Massive military parades take place all over the country, St. George’s ribbon is proudly pinned on people’s chests, and the music from the Great Patriotic War plays on the streets.
“It’s really an incredible celebration,” said Andrei Yushmanov, the Consul General of Russian Federation in Seattle at the veteran’s dinner. “[Veterans] saved the country, saved the world from Fascism. [Their] heroism is an example for all of us.”