David Rilley-Harris, Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History
As Britain once called The Napoleonic Wars “The Great War” and later adopted that name for the First World War, Russia once called the Napoleonic Wars “The Great Patriotic War” and later adopted that name for the Second World War. For the Soviet Union (USSR), and since 1991 the Russian Federation, “The Great Patriotic War” is the name given to the USSR’s western front against Germany between 1941 and 1945. More often referred to as Germany’s eastern front, the 1941-1945 front line between the USSR and Germany is where Nazi Germany was defeated. The Germans were turned around at the Battle of Stalingrad, and defeated at the Battle of Berlin. It was from this epic front line movement that the USSR suffered most of their roughly 26 million deaths (17 million civilians and 9 million military personnel). By contrast Germany lost 7 million people in the war and less than 1 million lives were lost by the USA and the UK combined. None of the Allied powers could have defeated Germany alone, but the USSR undisputedly made the greatest sacrifice. Despite this fact, the animosities of the Cold War left the USSR’s contribution in the Second World War understated in many histories and museums. It was with this injustice in mind that the DITSONG: National Museum of Military History (DNMMH) was proud to find partners with whom to work on a pair of display windows depicting USSR in the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945).
The Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo), and the DNMMH, were brought together by an organisation called the Volunteers of Victory with help from the Embassy of the Russian Federation. The Volunteers of Victory work throughout the world to properly present the USSR’s sacrifice in the Second World War and they were represented in that work at the DNMMH by volunteer David Kochukov.
A pleasing moment came when searching for a location in the DNMMH in which to place the new display. By the neatest coincidence, the ideal space was located in the Adler Hall and would require the dismantling of a Nazi German display and a Fascist Italian display. These were not the Museum’s only displays presenting Germany and Italy in the Second World War and there was remarkably little representing the USSR. The DNMMH had relied mostly on captured Russian weaponry from the Cold War to present Soviet presence in the Second World War. The German and Italian displays had been up for decades and were replaced with displays presenting the Russian battles of Germany’s eastern front. In Historical Methodology the concept of “selection” refers to the choice of presented material on any topic considering that it is physically impossible to present all information about any one topic. The selection can reveal bias (often unintentional) and can be the subject of criticism of any presentation of history. The creation of the new Russian displays at the DNMMH improved the Museum’s overall selection in both topic and nomenclature of the Second World War.
The unveiling ceremony for the new displays was organised primarily by the Rossotrudnichestvo and was attended by Russian Ambassador Ilya Rogachev. While Victory in Europe (VE) Day is held on 8 May each year, the Russian Federation holds their Victory Day on 9 May and so the unveiling of the new displays was held on Sunday 9 May 2021 (the 76th Anniversary of Germany’s defeat). David Kochukov represented the Volunteers of Victory, and Pavel Novozhilov represented the Rossotrudnichestvo. During the ceremony Ambassador Rogachev presented the DNMMH with a certificate of gratitude from the Rossotrudnichestvo, which now hangs proudly in the DNMMH entrance.
A poignant but proud part of the ceremony took the form of a Parade of the Immortal Regiment. This march is traditionally organised as a part of 9 May Victory Day commemorations and involves relatives of those who worked or fought for the USSR in the war carrying photographs (often like placards above their heads) as they march along a route on behalf of their loved ones. At the DNMMH the route was from the Adler Hall around the perimeter of the Museum and past the South African War Memorial before returning to the Adler Hall. Into the 21st century, the Parade of the Immortal Regiment started to be promoted as a more prevalent and global event as the number of people marching on Victory Day was dwindling with ever more war veterans passing away.
The Victory Day ceremony also included the planting of three birch trees in the Museum gardens as part of the Gardens of Memory Campaign. The campaign was launched on the 75th anniversary of the victory over Germany and sought to plant 27 million birch trees around the world in memory of the number of people from the USSR killed during the Second World War. The birch tree is a patriotic and romantic symbol in Russia where hugging a birch tree will bring you good luck. The three birch trees were planted alongside one another by Ambassador Rogachev, David Kochukov and Pavel Novozhilov. The birch trees are planted near two Russian Second World War field guns and across the grass from the Delville Wood tree which commemorates South Africa’s sacrifice in the First World War.
Alongside the new displays in a small container nailed to the wall are the traditional Russian black and orange ribbons for anybody to take and wear in commemoration of Russia’s sacrifice in the Second World War. Known as the St George ribbon, it was first approved for use in CE 1769 by Empress Catherine II. The USSR incorporated the ribbon into medals as the “Guards Ribbon” and it was used to represent special distinction in the service of a Soviet soldier. The orange and black stripes represent fire and smoke. In this small way at least, the DNMMH now incorporates Victory Day with the long standing commemoration of VE Day.