Victory Day In Sukhumi Abkhazia. Maybe you have seen the images beamed to your TV sets or on the web of thousands of Russian troops and tanks parading through Red Square in Moscow every May 9th. This is Victory Day which commemorates the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany. This day is recognized by Russia and many former Soviet Republics and Warsaw Pact countries. For a recent Victory Day in Moscow, over 14,000 troops, 126 military vehicles, and 78 aircraft were on display. It is a giant production showcasing Russia’s military might. As you can imagine, the military parades on display is much more modest in the other countries recognizing the day.
One of the smallest commemorations can be found in Abkhazia. Abkhazia was part of Georgia until a brief war with Georgia’s giant northern neighbor, Russia, in 2008. Now, Abkhazia is a de facto state, virtually a client state of Russia. In fact, when you pass the border to present your passport, you will note the checkpoint is manned by Russian soldiers.
By circumstance and serendipity, I was fortunate enough to be in Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia, for Victory Day. A promenade followed the Black Sea, a popular place for the locals to take a stroll or have an ice cream. And to have thousands gather to honor those who fought in the Great Patriotic War (WWII). On the promenade is the Tomb to the Unknown Soldier, facing the Black Sea, and the heart of the ceremonies for Victory Day.
I was staying at DEM Hotel which was located directly on the promenade. Conferring with the front desk in a mixture of Russian, English, and Google Translate I deduced that the Victory Day parade was taking place somewhere on the promenade. I departed the hotel shortly after 8 am in a huff with four extra batteries rushing down the promenade eagerly anticipating the commemorations of the day. But besides a handful of early morning joggers, the promenade was desolate. I was expecting a tank or two. I then began to approach the occasional passerby with “atkuda parad?”, attempting to say, “where is the parade?”. Multiple fingers pointed in multiple direction. I eventually passed a handful of cabbies playing chess who offered to drive me to the parade for 100 Rubbles (a bit under $2). I was dropped off at the Russian Embassy which was only 500 meters away.
I let out a sigh. There were no tanks. In fact, there were less than 30 people mostly on bicycles. Where were the soldiers, guns, and tanks? Talk about underwhelming. After snapping a handful of photos, the bikers organized and then pedaled away.
I befriend one of the policeman patrolling the area who was ethnically Armenian. He explained to me in Armenian that I should head back to the promenade and make a right for the ceremony.
And there it was, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, only five minutes from my hotel. A crowd had begun to gather. Soldiers gathered sharply dressed in their uniforms. Townspeople ambled about with flowers or pictures of loved ones.
Over an hour or two, thousands had gathered in the shadow of the Tomb. I mixed in with the crowds and became one with my camera. I approached scores of people taking photo after photo. Abkhazia is not quite the hot spot for western tourism (Russian tourists, yes), in fact, I believe I was the only westerner at the Victory Day ceremony.
Security rearranged the crowds, placing some behind temporary fencing whiles other were pushed back. I kept clicking photos, waiting to get a tap on the shoulder to be escorted out of the area. But, no one ever approached me. In fact, for some of the day, I would merge into the “press pool”.
Victory Day honors those who perished during WWII. The Soviet Union made an unimaginable sacrifice, losing over 20,000,000 soldiers and civilians. These immense losses had reshaped the nation. In contrast, the USA lost 400,000 soldiers during WWII. Abkhazia has also fought twice since the Soviet Union’s collapse. In their quest for independence, Abkhaz (with Russian) forces battled the Georgians 1992-1993. This was repeated in 2008 when Abkhazia gained its defacto independence. So these more recently losses were also honored.
It was a fantastic day, with gentle white puffy clouds and a warm sun. The ceremony did not end until mid-afternoon. With patriotic Russian music blaring over the speakers, the event began with goose-stepping soldiers accompanied by the sickle and hammer of the Soviet flag. A somber soldier with a sword on one hand and his helmet in the other, looked down, sculpted from white stone. The flame flickered in front of the statue.
I felt like the entire town had gathered as the plaza began to burst at the seams. All walks of life played their role. Many townspeople were accompanied by black and white photos of those lost. Children decked out in military uniforms with toy guns frolicked. Soldiers milled about. Russian Orthodox priests in their long black robes with dangling silver crosses mixed in the crowds. The president of Abkhazia with other politicians stood at attention in their dark suits. A Russian military band stood poised, ready to belt the next song. Next to the band was the VIP section. Old timers bedazzled in Soviet military medals relaxed on folding plastic chairs. And then there was me, in the midst of it all. Either being ignored or politely accommodated. At one point, I crouched behind the flame, taking photos of the people placing flowers.
A procession began which lasted hours. Wave after wave, of people lined up and gathered in front of the flame and statue, waiting for their turn to pay homage to those lost. Some carried wreaths, some flowers. Some bowed, others stood for a moment of silence.
Eventually, the processions withered away which then allowed an opportunity for the politicians to make speeches. They were followed by an elderly veteran who took to the microphone and then a group of children who read a poem.
The crowd dissipated and reconstituted on the promenade, lining up on either side. And finally my parade. There were no tanks nor planes, but plenty of soldiers. A multitude of soldiers in varying uniforms, clutching Ak-47s marched down the promenade. I noted the tri-colored Russian flag being hoisted by a platoon of Russian soldiers. And then another one.
After the soldiers marched off a large group of townspeople strode down the promenade. A red banner in Cyrillic with a handful of red flags led the group. Scores of people held photos of their loved ones. The procession came to an end, the crowds thinned, and I strolled back to the Tomb.
An elderly man in a crumpled suit with an abbreviated tie holding an orange balloon approached me. After a brief questioning in Russian, he realized I was from US and became quite animated. Not too many Americans holiday in Abkhazia. He then randomly gathered passing families alerting them that there was an American in the midst. A series of introductions and photographs took place. It was a nice way to end the day. Victory Day In Sukhumi Abkhazia.