I properly met my maternal grandparents for the first time shortly before my 10th birthday. Until then, they had been photographs and letters I couldn’t read and Russian storybooks that arrived periodically in the mail. They were the sound of my parents shouting down the telephone line, because in the long ago 1980s people sounded as far away as they really were and did not yet magically turn up in your pocket in the middle of a work meeting. (In 2016, that was how I learned my grandfather had died — a mundane ping in my pocket, a few sentences held in my hand, while standing in line for a sandwich.)
But that was all a future unwritten in October 1987 when my grandparents arrived for a visit from Leningrad, courtesy of Gorbachev’s thaw, laden with love and two over-the-top chocolate wafer cakes which seemed the epitome of magic and sophistication. And, they brought their many strange Soviet habits, like folding sliced bread several times over to get the right thickness and drinking buttermilk straight up, a pre-hipster form of kefir, I now realize.
And, most memorably, my grandfather’s refusal to smile for the camera. I simply couldn’t understand what he had against the sunshine and rainbows rituals of family snapshots. When I think of those photos now, I instinctively imagine a uniform onto him, Soviet military medals hanging off the shoulders. But the uniform had been left behind, hanging in a closet in a small village outside Leningrad. What I’m imagining is really a side-effect of my internet life, where I’ve now seen so many photos of elderly men and women in uniforms, straight-backed, stiff and proud, that I’ve matched it to my grandfather. What he shared with those photos was the seriousness of the enterprise — the instant reflex to straighten himself, composing his face into a sombre expression to match what he considered The Occasion, and only then were we permitted to take the photograph. The Occasion being the camera, not the moment we were marking, whether that was the backyard fence he was helping paint, or a highway rest stop, Rocky mountains spilling out behind him.
I imagine now that he just wanted the camera to reflect who he was. The 16-year-old boy who went to war. Who helped evacuate his family out of the city of Dnipropetrovsk as the Nazis advanced in the summer of 1941, and then (I weep for his mother now) determinedly returned to their abandoned apartment to await his military papers from the air force. As if the mailman would still appear like it was any ordinary day. In Israel, decades into the future, my grandfather once scoffed that my 18-year-old cousin was too young and naive to make decisions about his military service. My mother laughed and reminded him of this story, which was how I learned about it.
That boy stopped being a boy, survived the war, met my grandmother, and kept right on wearing his uniform for another decade more. My grandfather had this particular way of chuckling and then ignoring direct questions about his life, so I don’t know anything about what he saw during the war. But I do know that in the years after, it became the Great Patriotic War, a turn of phrase that can’t be dismissed as mere Soviet propaganda. People suffered tremendously in the war, and those in the battlefields knew they were fighting not just for ideals, but for their very real homes and families. For Jewish soldiers, the loss was magnified by the traumas of the Holocaust — many returned to mass graves and an officially mandated silence around the particularities of Jewish suffering. Jews in both Dnipropetrovsk and Romanov, the village of my paternal grandfather — also a soldier in the Red Army — were wiped out by the Nazis. [For more on Soviet-Jews in the war, take a look at the Blavatnik Archive. And, an article I wrote for the Forward on one man’s quest to document all the Jewish “Heroes of the Soviet Union”, an official designation.]
In the Soviet Union, Victory Day, on May 9, was dedicated to memorializing the war and its dead. The day has outlasted the empire it served. Twenty-six years after the Soviet collapse, Victory Day parades are still held anywhere with a significant Russian-speaking population. There’s a lot to be said about propaganda at work but when I see frail and elderly men and women make the effort to pour their bodies into a young person’s uniform, and put on a show about these moments to their lives, I can somehow understand the importance of keeping that part of himself alive in every photo for my grandfather. Remember this time in my life, in all our lives, he seems to say.
I’m writing this on November 11, Remembrance Day here in the once-Allied countries. Awash in the poppies that once signalled a war to end all wars, and then expanded to WWII, to Korea, to Kuwait, to Afghanistan, it’s never been a day to make space for Soviet victories, or other countries and their wars.
I don’t think of either of my grandfathers during Victory Day — I grew up Here, not There. I’ve become aware of the day partly through my reading on the Soviet Union and partly because of the interweb’s tendency to amplify even the smallest occasion into a Thing. (And May 9 was my maternal grandmother’s birthday. Victory Day pales in comparison.) But I always think of my grandfathers on Remembrance Day. And now my older daughter does too. She comes home talking about soldiers and war, and so I tell her about the soldiers in her family, a list which includes her two great-grandfathers, along with their brothers and cousins (and everyone they knew).
Last year, in response to a Facebook post expressing ambivalence about military displays on Remembrance Day, I wrote the following:
It seems that we’re asking a lot of Remembrance Day— cramming all the black-and-white-and-grey of incredibly complex issues, and very different wars, into a single day. It deserves constant discussion and consideration, but in general, as a culture we don’t engage well with history. We just pick these touchstone days and the rest of the time we rely on the Steven Spielbergs to tell us how simple it all is. My Soviet grandfathers both fought in WWII, and I’m profoundly grateful for that because I most certainly wouldn’t be here otherwise. They — and their entire generation, in many parts of the world — had to make decisions that we haven’t ever faced. So I also think that we have the luxury of dissecting the meaning of Remembrance Day, which is great (and of course, we’ve had new wars since then where the necessity of violence has been far less clear), but it’s important to remember that that’s a privilege, and the world looked very different 70+ years ago.
Maybe the greatest sacrifice — and tragedy — of those who died in the two World Wars is the luxury we take in questioning their decisions, and by extension, the “pomp and circumstance” surrounding the military, even on this one day. War is shit, and often meaningless. But still, it seems such a small thing to ask of us, this moment to consider the lives that came before us. All the decisions we’ve never been asked to make.
I’ll close with something my mother observed, the last time I saw my grandfather alive in 2012, along with two of his brothers, Yulie and Moise. They were talking about their parents, and the NEP years, from 1921-28, after the Russian Civil War and the Bolshevik Revolution before that. “The only good time for [my grandparents] was during the NEP,” she said. “Just think of it — just those few years of a normal life in all their lifetime.”