There is a transitional zone between the culture of memory and the cult of memory––in which the past seems to have dreamed of a future that corresponds, strangely, with our own present. Strangely: in the transitional zone between the culture and the cult of memory, the operative memorial logic is extractive and recombinant. The past that appears in this zone is a fragmented version of a story formerly told differently, or more to the point, a set of fragments cut loose from their original setting, whose shifting meanings are suffused with dread and the urgency of unfulfilled commands.
It seemed to be just this transitional zone that I wandered into on May 9, 2018, Victory Day in the capital city of Moldova, Kishinev. In a direct continuation of Soviet practice, Victory Day commemorates the end of what Soviet and post-Soviet parlance calls the “Great Patriotic War”––what the West calls the Second World War. (These terms are close but not identical, a point I take up below.) In Kishinev, the day is a major public holiday, featuring several evenings of concerts on a grand stage erected in the middle of the city’s main thoroughfare, and a procession from the city center to the large memorial park known in Soviet times as the Victory Memorial, and today as the Eternity Memorial Complex, whose centerpiece is a twenty-five meter pyramid of stone rifles, five of them, rising from the tips of a five-pointed Soviet star that describes the pyramid’s footprint. In the center of the pyramid is an eternal flame, under continuous guard by the Moldovan army.
Tens of thousands of people take part in this procession, arriving with armfuls of flowers to lay around the eternal flame, as well as at the many other sculptures, inscriptions and monuments also in the memorial park. And it is not only flowers that people carry. Many bring Soviet flags, sometimes modified with commemorative inscriptions, or remade in the colors of the current Russian Federation. Even more people bring flags, banners and pennants of the black-and-orange striped Ribbon of St. George, and almost everyone wears the St. George ribbon as a lapel pin. Many people carry photographs of their ancestors who fought or died in the war, often in the form of large laminated placards adorned with slogans, the St. George ribbon and Soviet patriotic emblems. Those old enough to have served in the Soviet military wear their uniforms or medals, and many others wear the uniforms or the medals of their ancestors, while still others wear re-creations of Soviet uniforms and medals––especially children. All of these items are for sale in kiosks stretching a half-kilometer on either side of the memorial park’s main entrance.
As I saw it, at least three dimensions of memorial practice coexist––or collide––in the Kishinev festivities. At the most basic level, the day remembers the massive wartime losses of the Soviet Union, which numbered in excess of twenty-five million people, by far the largest of any state (the United States, by contrast, lost just over 400,000). In this sense, the commemoration is a family affair, an expression of the direct familial links between the Soviet war dead and their descendants today. But it is also a national affair––the second dimension––albeit of an uncommon sort. The day’s pageantry, theater and bombast are not hitched to pride in the nation to which the participants belong, but toward the military of a state that no longer exists, a fallen state to which no one belongs, except the dead being remembered. Commemoration of the victory of a non-existent state is almost by definition an exercise in myth-making, a form of nationalism better termed off-nationalism, which easily dilates into nostalgia toward the Soviet period writ large, apparently shining all the more brightly in the wake of its disintegration.
Perhaps this phenomenon is unremarkable, inasmuch as nostalgia by its nature actively invents its objects. But in this case, the myth-making excludes important things, and not merely the facts that the Soviet Union was not alone in the victory against Nazi Germany––to call it a “patriotic” war immediately bends the war’s purpose towards Soviet loyalties––or that the Soviet Union was an authoritarian police state with legion victims of its own. In the Great Patriotic War, which occurred from 1941-1945, the Soviet people fought and died opposing the aggression of Germany and its allies (which included Romania for much of the war). However, in the first two and a half years of the Second World War, which occurred from 1939-1945, the Soviet Union collaborated with Nazi Germany to invade sovereign countries and partition eastern Europe. Indeed, the sheer existence of contemporary Moldova owes precisely to Soviet-German collaboration. Moldova in its current form was created when the Soviets annexed from interwar Romania the region of Bessarabia, most of which became the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic, and in turn the post-Soviet Republic of Moldova. Victory Day, in other words, sits atop Soviet imperialism, which involved a shameless collaboration with the very state that millions of Soviets died fighting.
This contradiction opens onto the third dimension of the Victory Day commemorations, namely the contest between pro-Russian and pro-Romanian political movements in contemporary Moldova. The Victory Day celebrations were organized by Moldova’s Socialist Party, which advocates a Moscow-oriented, anti-European Union vision of Moldova’s future, and reasserts the old Soviet hierarchy, according to which the Russian people were the protectors of the Moldovan people, the Russian language superior to the Romanian language, and so forth. More pointedly, the pro-Russian political agenda amounts to revanchist answer to the deep poverty and endemic corruption of contemporary Moldova. If I am right, and this not-so-hidden agenda of the commemoration was a propellant factor, it seems no accident that the St. George’s ribbon should be Victory Day’s leading emblem, insofar as the ribbon is commonly understood to represent Russian nationalism as much as it does Soviet memory. Likewise it seems no accident that the Romanian language was scarcely to be heard at the memorial park on Victory Day, though the country is bilingual (Romanian and Russian), and ethnic Moldovans form two-thirds of the population (while Ukrainians and Russians comprise 15% and 10% respectively). This revanchism lends the Victory Day spectacle and costumery yet another meaning: to remember one’s grandfather is one thing, and symbolically to become one’s grandfather is another.
To see Victory Day in Kishinev was, for me, to see two questions being parried, both sincere, though the second less innocent than the first: “What do the dead still mean to us?” and “For what are the dead now useful?” Were I a sculptor, maybe I would express my perception not by making Moldovan versions of Trojan horses, but instead ideological matryoshka dolls in several varieties, because it is not very clear whether family memory of the war dead sits inside Soviet nostalgia or vice versa, or whether Soviet sentimentalia sits inside pro-Putin politics or vice versa, and it is not really clear which element governs the aesthetics of which other element. Being the photographer I am, the best I can do is to make pictures constructed like intricate puzzles, pictures thick with specificity and irresolution, pictures that attempt to do justice to their subject by precisely not offering stories, conclusions, or pronouncements. To make pictures that dwell with heightened concentration in the transitional zones of Victory Day––this is enough for an outsider like me.
May 10, 2018