“Take this,” said my door babushka, Pani Nadia, as I rushed out of my Kyiv apartment building one morning. This was a postcard, Soviet fire-engine red, which congratulated Kyivans on the sixtieth anniversary of the great victory—the end of World War II or, as it is referred to in these parts, the Soviet Union’s triumph over Fascist Germany. The back of the card listed some of the events that the Socialist Party of Ukraine was sponsoring. I thanked Pani Nadia for the card and told her I was looking forward to seeing the festivities. Was she also planning to go?
“No, I will be here,” she said, shrugging unapologetically. “I am too old for those things.” Pani Nadia indeed seemed too old: her face, lined with wrinkles, was monotonously pale, and her gravelly voice had the unnaturally loud register of the almost deaf. She also appeared, in the manner of the in firm, precariously sensitive to cold, for I had never seen her without her wool cap, bundled in several thin sweaters and a ratty scarf. Despite her age, though, she didn’t give the impression of being frail. Her body was full but not chubby, nurtured by a lifetime of mayonnaise and tomatoes.
I thanked her for the postcard and promised to report back my impressions. Pani Nadia nodded sharply. As I turned to leave, she grumbled, “I was at Stalingrad, you know.” I turned back. Stalingrad? “I was a military nurse during the war,” she added, more proudly this time. She went on to say, a bit indignant that I might have thought otherwise, that she had been there at the height of the siege, had taken care of wounded Soviet solders. Amazing: Stalingrad was the battle the Soviets threw the kitchen sink at, a fight of immense strategic importance (a Soviet loss could have given the Nazis the Caucuses, but their triumph began to push the Germans back across the Eastern front) and great human cost. About a million Soviet soldiers died at Stalingrad alone. Witnesses reported blood like rivers, fires like hell. Pania Nadia, then young and dexterous and quick, had probably seen more death than almost anyone who ever lived.
And somehow life took Pani Nadia from Stalingrad to the tiny, four-by-eleven-foot room in my apartment building’s foyer. Her job, to protect the building and its inhabitants from vandalism and theft, is a relative novelty. During Soviet times, apartment buildings rarely had any security mechanisms. When some people started to accumulate possessions after communism collapsed, security became a problem. Upscale buildings hired indigent pensioners to guard their entrances (called kontsyerzhky in Russian and Ukrainian), and the practice persists despite the proliferation of buzzers and electronic keys. For her labors, Pani Nadia is rewarded with a room and a middling pay.
In her room, the size of most Americans’ bathrooms, she spends her days and, I suspect, her nights, as I once heard an old woman’s squawk coming from her room when I clomped through the foyer particularly late. The walls of her cell are beige, the ceilings low. Its only notable fixtures are a lumpy gray bed; the desk in which she keeps the folder where she meticulously records her collection of the monthly two-dollar fee from each of the building’s twenty tenants; a folder-sized portrait of Yulia Tymoshenko; the distinct smell, strangely like that of a Ukrainian kitchen, of stale grease; a yellow, short-haired mutt; and occasionally a small child dropped off for a moment by a busy mom. An equally old and humped but much less pleasant babushka also drops in on her sometimes. Other than that, she has no visitors, nor has she ever, in the five months I’ve lived in the building, had a day off. When the weather grows warm, she and her friend move to the rickety bench outside, where they chat the day away. Pani Nadia offers greetings to the tenants as they enter and leave the building.
On Victory Day, I tried to go to the parade that Pani Nadia advertised, showing up on Khreshchatyk a mere fifteen minutes late on a drizzly, cold Monday morning. As I surveyed the slick, empty boulevard, I began to suspect that I had replicated a feat I often executed during the Orange Revolution: losing a crowd of thousands of people. Restless, freezing, and hung-over, I ducked back into the metro and attempted to head off the speedy marchers, whom I knew would be concluding their parade at the park of the Great Patriotic War. When I emerged from Arcenalna metro, the stop closest to the park, and saw that the square was filled with soaked pensioners hawking dripping red carnations and tulips, I knew that my plan had been successful.
I made my way to the park. Curiously, all of its entrances were blockaded, and visitors were forced to pass through metal detectors that had been erected at two of its sides. Ukraine has no thwarted separatists with a vendetta, and, even with the higher profile the Revolution established, it certainly isn’t at the top of the list for the world’s terrorists. Perhaps the authorities were worried that a senile veteran might get a bit nostalgic and, after a couple of celebratory shots of vodka, try to see if his army-issue Kalashnikov still worked. In any case, the rain made waiting in line for the detectors a nuisance. Once I got inside, I had a great view of the procession of the Socialists and other political groups as they entered the park. They, for some reason, were allowed to bypass the metal detectors.
The procession was less glorious than underwhelming. Sleek black umbrellas shielded the variety of faces and expressions that makes parades like this worth attending. Nevertheless, once the marchers got close enough, it was possible to see what made this day ostensibly unique. Wobbling, hoary old men waited patiently in columns to lay bent red carnations at the phallic memorial to the Unknown Soldier. Their chests were golden with war medals and puffed out slightly, like aging peacocks. The Ukrainian national anthem, melancholy and unapologetically sentimental, thundered throughout the park. The faces of the veterans showed that this moment meant the world to them. It even meant something to me.
Spread out among the veterans were younger spectators, most of them members of the political parties that had gathered the veterans here. (This procession was just one of many that would take place throughout the day.) One of them, a middle-aged man with a jaw of gold teeth, handed me two white balloons with the name of the political party “State” inscribed in maroon ink. I considered giving them to Pani Nadia as a memento from the parade. But then I decided that was lame, and resolved to buy her some red carnations instead.
A few months ago, Viktor Yushchenko proposed that Ukraine scrap the big, main parade. The veterans could still have their annual rendezvous in the capital, and enjoy the free “soldier’s meal” of vodka and buckwheat traditionally offered by the government. Instead of saturating Khreshchatyk with twenty-five-foot-tall posters and erecting a pageant stage on Maidan, however, the funds earmarked for the celebration would be used to supplement the veterans’ pitiful benefits. “We shouldn’t deceive people with insincere parades once a year,” Mykola Tomonenko, one of Yushchenko’s Vice Prime Ministers, told the press. Yushchenko’s idea was hotly criticized by veterans’ groups and the Communists, who accused the president of “blasphemy.” The plan was quietly dropped, and Yushchenko ended up giving two speeches to the veterans on Victory Day and marching in the parade down Khreshchatyk.
While the pomp in Kyiv came nowhere close to equaling the extravaganza that Putin staged in Moscow on Victory Day, the Ukrainian celebration was hardly subdued. By late afternoon, I was bundled up at home with the chills, a thermometer sticking out of my mouth, watching the rest of the day’s celebrations on television. Despite the irritatingly bad weather, a sizable crowd had gathered on the Maidan to take in the night’s festivities, which included a ballet-opera rendition of the strife, a full slate of Soviet war songs, and an impressive fireworks show. The TV commentator boasted that the numbers rivaled those of the Orange Revolution. Yushchenko’s speech capped off the night: “The war for us, for the Ukrainian nation, was never simply history. Her fight became a part of each of us, a part of our Ukrainian identity.” For those who suffered at Stalingrad and in other fierce battles and sieges, the legacy of the Second World War remains forever immediate. Some veterans must have managed to get over their catastrophic experiences, to incorporate them into a view of life that looks forward as well as back, a philosophy of identity flexible enough to grapple with the additional dilemmas posed by Soviet communism and the travails of the past fifteen years. But I suspect many Soviet veterans, of the army or just the regime, are more like Pani Nadia, or Chekhov’s “Man in a Case”—stuck in a box, literally or otherwise, watching the rest of life pass them by.