Hugh’s Paean to Russian Spring

Hugh Gatenby

Spring has sprung here in Moscow. I can recall saying that before, perhaps not with such confidence, and quite rightly too, as it turned out. Winter’s death rattle was spectacular. Driving snow over the Easter weekend. There is, I’m sure, a lightening of the collective mood. I’ve said that before, too. The temperatures haven’t caught up yet; I still go out with my hat. But council workmen are out planting shrubs and roses in our district, the low metal fences between housing blocks are getting their annual coat of regulation green paint, at our school armies of uniformed Uzbeks and Kirghiz groundsmen are at work in the landscaped grounds, and some of my older girls have been making some pretty decent stabs at writing their own English romantic verse. Some respect there; I can’t write anything that scans or rhymes in any language.

One way to raise the collective spirit is the promise of better things to come, like holidays and long weekends. From the very start, May provides these in abundance. The Mayday holiday is followed by the longer May 9th Victory Day celebrations, which generally take place over at least a couple of days and take in the nearest weekend. It is a massive outpouring of the public mood. War memorials, small, large and massive, are in abundance throughout Russia, and ceremonies are seemingly held at all of them. Two years ago I was working in a medium-sized industrial town, just outside Moscow, and it was as if the entire population of the town had turned out to become part of the official ceremony. Parades of military might have now largely been consigned to Russia’s Soviet past – with the exception of the Victory Day celebrations. In a massive family day out, huge crowds line Moscow’s boulevards as Russian armour, much of it of World War II vintage, trundles by. Past commemoration, and modern military muscle.

In terms of organisation and public participation it is a massive contrast to our Remembrance Day. Russia, much like the past, is Another Country, and they do things differently here. There is the sombre, deeply emotional feel to the ceremonies held at war memorials. Other aspects have a lighter, almost carnival-like mood. Young women on evenings out sit in cafes smartly dressed in the uniforms of Soviet World War II female soldiers. The day ends in a thousand firework displays, including the massive official ones in Red Square.

My school, its official title the Moscow Girls’ Boarding School of the Ministry of Defence of Russian Federation (a mouthful; it’s known as the ‘Pansion’ for short) will soon be on its own countdown to the Victory Day celebrations. I await.