Anzac Day – portraits of Russian veterans not welcome?

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Op-ed by Galina Lazareva

Anzac Day is a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand, which originally commemorated WWI soldiers but today broadly commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders “who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations” and “the contribution and suffering of all those who have served”. It is observed on 25 April each year.

Every year since I arrived in Australia four years ago, I’ve attended the Anzac Day Parade in Sydney as a proud participant of the Russian unit of World War Two veterans and their descendants.

This year that changed. I was at first puzzled, then outraged, to hear the RSL New South Wales  (Returned Service League) had written to Russian community leaders, stating that our group had breached the policy guidelines by “carrying photos of deceased veterans and singing whilst marching”. We were warned not to repeat these actions, which, to the RSL officials, appeared as celebratory and lacking in respect, or we could be banned from marching next year.

With a heavy heart and after long consideration, I decided not to join the march this year or next – until I could get a clear explanation from the RSL of how carrying the portrait of my late grandfather, who, with his gunnery division, chased the Nazis across Europe all the way from Minsk to Prague, could be offensive.

While attending this year’s parade as an onlooker, I observed numerous Australians marching proudly who carried the portraits of those who could no longer march themselves. And I wondered: was the direction of the RSL marshals directed at only one particular community, the Russians in Australia?

I was privileged to take part in the first ever Anzac Day ceremony on the Moscow Kremlin grounds in 2012 when Australian and New Zealand Ambassadors laid wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I will always remember that day – not only because the wreath laying went well, but because I managed to convince Kremlin military officials at the ceremony to allow an unauthorised group of Australian tourists to enter the restricted grounds and witness the ceremony (an almost impossible task). I attended the Dawn Service and had tears in my eyes at the bugle call. Having grown up on World War Two stories, I couldn’t fail to understand the essence of this memorial event.

Red Square, 2017. Many Westerners, WWII allies, come to Moscow on May 9th, to commemorate their relatives.

 

When I migrated four years ago to marry an Australian, Anzac Day became one of the first – and most poignant – symbols that helped me find common ground with my new country. The parade was a powerful reminder of what Russians and Australians share: both our nations fought in terrible global wars, and both had learned to commemorate our losses and respect those who were prepared to offer the ultimate sacrifice.

My compatriots feel honoured to have a part in this march – and I proudly supported their singing efforts throughout these years. We don’t have a band so we sang the most famous Russian WWII song, our Waltzing Matilda, our Katyusha – about a girl waiting for her beloved to come back from the war. Does that sound offensive? We carried the portraits of our deceased relatives who fought in the Great Patriotic War as we call it: there is barely a single family in Russia that didn’t lose a loved one in that war. As the number of living veterans diminished, the Russian people came up with an idea of the “Immortal Regiment”, a march with portraits, which allowed us to commemorate their sacrifice long after they were gone. And we brought this tradition to Australia, believing it was completely in the Anzac spirit.

“Immortal Regiment”, Moscow

 

Now I feel alienated and excluded, and I know this feeling is shared by many Australian Russian compatriots. I notice we were not the only ones affected by strange decisions this year – in Canberra the RSL banned amateur bands from marching and in Sydney they tried to exclude young children from the ceremony. It was heart-warming to see the kids were still there. But I felt I couldn’t join the march until I received a clear answer to my question: why is my grandfather’s portrait – and other portraits of the veterans who sacrificed their health and their life so that we could live – not welcome at the commemorative march?

Last year I wrote an essay about my grandfather and his WWII story. I wrapped it up with an imaginary dialogue with him: listen, Grandpa, you’ve never been to Australia – would you like to meet some Aussies and go march with me? What, you can’t walk? Don’t worry, I’ll carry you.

Sorry, Grandpa. Not this year. You’ll just have to wait.

 

 

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