Flags of our Forefathers

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The rusty Lada covered in tree branches, metal tube fixed to the hood, thundered down the oddly named 22 Parts’Yezda Avenue. A patriotic tune blared from its open windows, the hammer and sickle fluttering proudly on a red banner against the blue sky. Across the street, children in WWII era forage caps climbed atop a mounted Mig-21, their parents lazily conversing over shashlik (barbecue) and beer, while a couple beside me discussed the best vantage point to watch the firework show later that evening.

If it hadn’t been for the iconography, it could have been any Fourth of July celebration in the USA.  However, this wasn’t main street America but Mineralnye Vody, a small provincial town in the Caucasus.

In Russia, Victory Day (May 9th) has always meant more than just the defeat of Nazi Germany. It is a de facto independence day that marks the formation of the Soviet Union as a nation rather than a political entity. With over 20 million deaths (the USA had about 419,000) it is easy to see why this day stands out.  There is hardly a family in the Soviet Union that did not suffer directly from the consequences of war.

Today, Victory Day remains a shared point of unity. Around Mineralnye Vody, families proudly display pictures of loved ones, clad in Soviet uniforms, who fought in the war, strangers spontaneously breakout in rousing rounds of the Katyusha, and while almost everyone wears the black and orange ribbon of Saint George pinned to their chest (the official post-Soviet symbol for the day), it is the blood-red Soviet flag that calls the greatest attention.

Of Bars & Stars and Hammers & Sickles
Small town Russia

In America, there is currently a bitter debate over the country’s heritage, particularly, in how it’s most bloody conflict, the Civil War, is remembered.  The Confederate battle flag has long been in the crosshairs of those that say it is a symbol of racism, oppression, and even genocide. The discourse has become exceptionally heated in recent years by the election of Trump and the media’s almost obsessive coverage of the alt-right. Yet, even in the present political climate, several southern states still use Confederate symbolism in their own flags, claiming that it is part of their cultural heritage.

But in Russia, there is no such dispute over the hammer and sickle. Sentiment is overwhelmingly in support of the flag, and any attempt to remove communist symbolism from May 9th activities is met with staunch public disapproval. The Soviet banner remains a steadfast part of the Victory Day celebration, despite the fact that millions died in Soviet gulags and government orchestrated famines.

Is it right to fly the hammer and sickle on Victory Day? Maybe that is the wrong question to be asking.  Certainly, for many, communist imagery represents oppression. But when the Soviet banner flies on May 9th, it signifies the sacrifices of a nation.  On that day, it has nothing to do with work camps, show trials, or Stalinist purges.

Symbols can and do mean different things to different people.  It is just as intellectually disingenuous to simply dismiss someone holding a Confederate flag as racist as it is to ignore that history of racism intrinsically associated with the banner.  Just like the Soviet flag, the Confederate flag can represent a diverse range of feelings, and just like the hammer and sickle, the stars and bars is a symbol of both oppression and sacrifice depending on who you ask. Often these are honest sentiments, but all too frequently we look past the feelings of others only to focus on how these symbols affect us emotionally.

Then again, maybe the problem is with symbols all together.  Here too Russia provides some insight.  In 2012, 6,000 people in the Siberian city of Tomsk gathered with portraits of loved ones who had fought in the war.  It was called the March of the Immortal Regiment, and the idea was to honor the individuals who had sacrificed so much in the fight against Nazi Germany.  The idea quickly spread, and now every May 9th millions march throughout Russia proudly displaying photos of family members who served in the war effort.

The March of the Immortal Regiment is a solemn and moving occasion devoid of the pomp and circumstance of government-sponsored celebrations (although, the Kremlin has been slowly co-opting these marches for its own political purposes). In place of abstract symbols, it is real people with real stories that are on parade.

Maybe it is time that we too honor the individuals closest to us instead of worshiping empty idols.  Whether it’s the horrors endured by an ancestor under slavery or the sorrows of a conscripted soldier, these stories prove to be the most interesting and relevant. After all, their sacrifices are every bit as important as any motif emblazoned on silk thread.

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