Already at 9.15am, at S-Bahnhof Treptower Park, you could see the first of them arriving: old men and women carrying wreaths of flowers to lay at the feet of the monument. The Victory Day celebrations have been happening in Berlin every year, unnoticed by most people without a connection to the former Soviet states. In previous years, this would largely be a united day of celebration for Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians and Georgians, all of whom fought in the Red Army to defeat Nazi Germany. This year, however, any celebration of “Russian” victory was going to take on a bitter significance.
Police dressed in black lined both sides of the large stone arches which mark the entrance to the Soviet memorial. Visitors were being checked for any forbidden items – and the list was long. The Berlin government has not only banned the controversial ‘Z’ symbol, but both the Russian and Ukrainian flags, that of the Soviet Union, and the ribbon of St George, a symbol of the Russian military. Political slogans were also officially prohibited. It would be harder, of course, to get rid of the many hammers and sickles engraved in stone on the monument itself, or the quotes from Joseph Stalin which decorate the sarcophagi that lead up to the central monument.
For anyone who has not visited the Soviet memorial at Treptower Park, it is quite a sight. The main monument is an enormous statue depicting an idealised cape-wearing warrior standing on a broken swastika. He wields a sword in his right hand, a baby in his left. There are also 16 stone sarcophagi (one for each of the Soviet republics) with engraved reliefs of war scenes. A rumour – which was repeated by Nazi architect Albert Speer in his memoirs – has it that the monument was built from the rubble of Hitler’s enormous chancellery building, which was destroyed in 1945. This is disputed, but in any case, the monument is gigantic, honouring the 27 million Soviets who died during the Second World War.
Upon entering the grounds, Orthodox priests in black smocks led a procession of men in suits, many of whom were wearing the forbidden orange-and-black-striped ribbon of St George. These were embassy staff from the former Soviet republics who’d just finished laying their own wreaths for the different countries at the foot of the monument: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Since they were diplomatic staff, an exception had been granted regarding the controversial military ribbon. For the rest of the crowd, the police were more diligent. One couple arrived wearing pins in their hats which read “дружба” or “friendship”. They were not permitted to pass until the police had looked up the meaning of the word. Once they established it was not a statement of aggression, the couple were let in.
For the most part, the people attending the commemoration were of the same anti-NATO and pro-Russian opinion. Two brothers, Jean-Theo and Aalant Jost, unfurled a flag reading “NATO out” and were immediately surrounded by police who told them to put it away: this message was considered provocative and therefore not permitted. The police were followed shortly afterwards by journalists from outfits like ZDF and Die Welt, glad to have found some controversy.
“It is the insistence that Ukraine become part of NATO which is the cause of the terrible stuff happening now,” Aalant Jost explained. “The German press is totally against Russia, and they claim the West has done nothing wrong. The Pope is a little smarter, he at least said there is a Mitschuld [shared guilt]. But you won’t read that anywhere. Certainly not on ZDF.”
“I think Putin overestimated his own ability,” Aalant added. “He thought Kyiv would fall right away. But we are where we are. Now that Russia has done this action I think they should pull it through. The Russian population in Ukraine has a right to a referendum, like they did in Crimea.”
Igor, a Ukrainian from Kyiv, agreed that the West was responsible for the war. “Actually, I wouldn’t say war. It’s a special operation.” He was dressed in full Russian paratrooper costume: horizontally striped shirt, green trousers, cap with a button showing the hammer and sickle. “No one has asked me to take it off,” he said. “We are just here to honour our grandparents who fought in the war and defeated fascism. It’s not about what is happening now – though I do think [fewer] people are here this year. Maybe it’s just because it’s a work day, but it could be because of the special operation, too.”
There was a notable lack of Ukrainian flags. Sergei, a journalist from Moscow, said he had attended events the previous day both in Treptower Park and in Tiergarten and both had been markedly more pro-Ukrainian. Today, his friend Lilya was the only person wearing yellow and blue. “It’s a bit bizarre,” Sergei said. “Of course it’s a war. The only important thing I saw today was a demonstration to remember Bucha, but it was quickly taken away. I think yesterday there was some flag burning and so maybe they forbade some of today’s demonstrations. But I must say the atmosphere is very peaceful compared to what it would be in Russia. There, the police are the most dangerous element of any protest.”
One stand with a prominent place in the grounds represented the Staatenlos (Stateless) organisation. Decorated with Prussian flags, they also maintained an anti-NATO line, but broadcast the opinion that Germany is still an occupied country and that the EU represented the “Fourth Reich”. Other left-wingers approached and began to argue: Staatenlos want to return Germany to its Prussian borders, meaning that the country would once again occupy much of Poland. “We agree with them about NATO,” said Aalant, “but they’re not nice guys. Why are they given so much space when we can’t even show our flags? Who made that decision?”
On the way out, a police vehicle was parked by the entrance filled with confiscated material: a few red flags, some posters and St George’s ribbons lay wrapped in plastic sheeting in the back of a truck. The policewoman recording what was taken explained that most people agreed simply to put their items away. For the most part, the confiscated items were too large to be hidden. But it wasn’t much, she said, and she hadn’t seen any Z symbols.
In 2018, the Ukrainian film director Sergei Loznitsa released Victory Day, a film about the celebrations in Treptower Park. A stripped-bare documentary without any narration, it hinted at how this Soviet day of commemoration and nostalgia was becoming something more sinister. As in Loznitsa’s film, some of those attending the celebration today were dressed in the black outfits of the Night Wolves, an ultra-nationalist motorcycle gang with whom Putin has staged several macho bike-riding photoshoots. However, according to many people there today, this year’s event was much less well attended than those of previous years. Less singing, less celebrating. The crowds of the early morning had largely dissipated by about 1pm – a hint, perhaps, that many from Berlin’s Russian community had decided to stay away this year.