I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect to think or feel when visiting the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery or the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad. I figured that because I have no personal connection to anything related to the war in Russia, I would not be able to connect with either of these two places. It is not possible for me to empathize with what happened to the country throughout World War II due to my complete dissociation with the country, yet at the same time, I felt something.
It became immediately obvious walking into the cemetery that it was not a place for tourists. Aside from modestly sized statue at one end, there are no large structures or monuments. It is a place for people to mourn those lost during the Siege of Leningrad, as well as the war in general, not a place to take pictures. The most striking part to me was the fact that there is no way to know who exactly is buried under the dozens and dozens of mounds. This was absolutely horrid to me, and the fact that over 500,000 people are buried throughout the cemetery makes it worse, but I would like to think that the cemetery is able to provide a place for present-day Russians to have a physical place to associate their lost family members too. Without the cemetery, all those that died in the siege and the war without anyone’s knowledge are completely lost. The cemetery stands as a reminder of the utter devastation of life that took place, and that is what made my heart sink. You don’t need to be a Russian or know someone who died to sympathize.
The monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad was in a similar vein for me, though unlike the cemetery, it is not meant to be subtle or unnoticed. Whereas the cemetery is a place of remembrance of those lost to during the siege, the monument here to me was more a place of remembrance of the entire city’s victory of the war.
The museum and name itself (“Heroic Defenders”) made me think it was more about the strength of the people St. Petersburg rather than about strictly about those lost to the war. The museum displayed many artifacts from the time of the war, and how the city was able to survive the siege and the war. For what the cemetery is, and what the monument represents, I’m not sure I could come up with a better way to structure them. They are both quiet and solemn, but the cemetery is modest, while the monument is grandiose, and I think that is how they should be.
Having seen photos of Park Pobedy before actually visiting, I expected it to be much like the monument in St. Petersburg, and the main similarity is the towering obelisk which stands in front of the museum building.
However, the statues under each of the obelisks differ greatly. The statue under the Leningrad monument is of two men, one a worker holding a hammer, the other a soldier holding a gun. Under the obelisk at Park Pobedy stands a statue of the famous depiction of St. George slaying a dragon.
This was the first thing that stood out to me, and after entering the Great Patriotic War Museum, I realized that Park Pobedy is not the same as the places from St. Petersburg: it is not as modest.
The museum displayed hundreds of artifacts from the war, many of them being weaponry.
One of the things that struck me was a replica of the front of the Reichstag, where Russian graffiti is written all over the columns standing on the front steps. There are several dioramas which depict various battles, such as the Battle of Stalingrad, as well as the invasion of Berlin. The brutality of the war is shown, but there is a clear focus on the utter defeat over the Nazis, as seen in the diorama of the destruction of Berlin and a battle which depicts Soviet soldiers killing Nazi soldiers in face-to-face combat. Behind the museum, there is a also large exhibit of replicas of all the tanks, planes, trains, and boats used throughout the war.
Having seen the Victory Day parade only a few days before visiting Park Pobedy I can’t say I was too surprised by the glorification of the war at the museum there. I had seen first hand that the country enjoys putting its power on display, and in reality, the US is just as guilty in glorifying the armed forces and war in general, so it’s not just a Russian thing. In the context of the cemetery and monument in St. Petersburg, however, I can see why this victory and war is so important for the country. Leningrad went from a population of 3.5 million to 700 thousand due to the siege, and the Soviet Union in total lost over 20 million people. It was a defining moment in the country’s history, and it would be ignorant of me to judge an entire culture because I can’t even relate to what occurred. The differences between these three places made me realize that Russia is truly not the clear-cut warmongering nation that the media can portray it to be.