Soviet citizens listen in Moscow as Molotov announces German invasion of USSR on June 22, 1941. Photo taken by Soviet-Jewish photograher, Yevgeny Khaldei.

Public and private during war: YouTube vs Soviet street announcements

Found: Surprise soldier homecoming videos, an entire YouTube phenomenon I never knew existed. Basically, American soldiers who plan to surprise their families with an unexpected homecoming. Usually in public, with a videographer in tow, often from a local TV station. There is an endless reel of these videos, and you can watch them for hours without repeating the same clip. I thought I’d share a few with you, because when I discovered this little universe, it was just days after the anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the USSR (June 22, 1941). My soldier grandfathers, the lives of vets today, and Putin’s visit to Israel to unveil a monument to the Red Army, were top of mind. And then there are these videos — an entirely different experience of war. It’s a collision of the most private of experiences with the very public nature of war propaganda — the WW2 version and the contemporary version. I’m not quite sure what to make of it, so here you go.

YouTube’s Surprise Soldier Homecoming Videos

The videos generally follow the same format: Dads showing up in their kids’ classes, or at their parents’ offices, or on the field at live sporting events. There’s a lot of hugging, crying, screaming. Everyone looks slightly uncomfortable in the spotlight and yet overwhelmed with very private emotions. It’s all very staged, but there’s always that moment of gut-wrenching rawness at the centre that people just can’t hide. It’s uncomfortable watching. Sometimes there are moms, but mostly they’re dads.

Some of the kids are heartbreakingly sad, and also horrifying. They can’t stop sobbing and they often don’t know what to say or how to react. They’re in their classrooms or at a school assembly or our on the sports field. And maybe I’m cynical, but you have to wonder about the teasing that goes on after.

(Warning: this may make you cry.)

Many of the videos are done by local TV stations, but they’re just as often homemade — the camera is shaky, the angles are awkward, and feet or ceilings often take over the frame. The soldiers often talk into the camera as they move in on the homestead, and you have to wonder who they’re recording for and who they think they’re talking to.

It’s a very odd bubble world entirely removed from the hardships and politics of being in uniform. You kind of wonder about everything that happened before and after this moment, to both the soldiers and the families. Or all the awful things that soldiers do in battle. Or all the families that don’t get a surprise reunion with a bow on top.

And yes, there’s a website that collects all the videos, writes up a pithy story to accompany each submission, and posts it. Categories include “Best Of” and “Dog Reunions”. You can, of course, ‘like’ on Facebook or follow on Twitter. It’s all very weird and very American. I’m trying to put this into context against other wars, past and present, and I just can’t quite slot this one in.

If you watch on YouTube, there’s the added weirdness of the related videos that show up in the sidebar, tagged for ‘surprise’ (surprise pregnancy announcements) and ‘reunion’ (soldiers welcomed home by dogs). Not the same thing at all.

And then, once the public piece has played out, the video goes on YouTube and the rest of can watch from home, in complete, voyeuristic anonymity. I don’t know these people, but I have this snippet of their lives at my fingertips in perpetuity.

In Moscow, listening to public radio broadcast announcing the German invasion

Which brings me here, to Moscow, on June 22, 1941. The other end of the war, the beginning part, just before all the soldiers go off and all hell descends. In the USSR, this moment too played out in public. It was announced in the streets and on the radio, where everyone listened together. It was photographed and documented, but at the behest of government instead of private media workign alongside private citizens.

Opposite sides of the same coin? You decide.

(This is a fairly well-known image — “Molotov’s Announcement of War” — taken by Yevgeny Khaldei, Soviet-Jewish photographer. David Shneer talks about it in his book Through Soviet Jewish Eye: Photography, War, and the Holocaust, and how it was cropped to convey a certain image of the first moments of war.)

You can also listen to the announcement here:

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