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Tuesday evening saw a historic event in Helsinki. Between the snow showers, a burst of sunshine basked over the Sibelius Monument where a group of approximately 250 Russians prepared to embark on Helsinki’s inaugural “Immortal Regiment” ceremony.
What started as a vivid dream experienced by a Russian man six years ago, has now developed into a global phenomenon. Victory Day is celebrated in Russia, and Europe, on May 9 to recognize the date Nazi Germany surrendered from World War II in 1945. The day had traditionally been celebrated in Russia with military displays of power rambling through city streets.
In 2015, President Putin lead 500,000 people, all bearing placards of their fallen relatives, on the first official “Immortal Regiment” march through the streets of Moscow. Since 2015, the idea has reverberated around the world with marches occurring this year in New York, Dublin, LA, Washington DC, Brisbane(Australia), Toronto, Madrid, Lisbon, Rome, Tokyo, Kuwait City, Mexico City, Haifa(Israel) and Helsinki.
With over 30,000 Russian citizens and more than 75,000 Russian speakers living in Finland, it’s surprising that it has taken over 70 years to establish a formal celebration for this beloved occasion in Helsinki.
Organizers of Helsinki’s first “Immortal Regiment”, Daria Skippari-Smirnov and Alexander Zhukov, advised they had been wanting to be part of this event in Finland but there was nothing organized. “In other years, a small group had taken a bus 30 minutes away and quietly placed flowers on a monument. We wanted something more.” “Friendship is what we are aiming for (between Finns and Russians). The history of Finland and Russia contains a lot of excellent things, and a lot of painful things. We don’t have to erase or be silent about it, we have to know, and study it. If our granddads were in the war, our obligation is to be friends.”
The crowd wore respectful, yet excited expressions. There was a sense of occasion and community amongst the group, as well as joining together in song. All ages were represented from babies in strollers to the elderly, and most people came bearing photographs of their lost loved ones. A single ribbon of orange and brown stripes was worn on each person as a symbol of respect.
Natalia was marching for her grandfather who fort to protect St Petersburg (then known at Leningrad) from the Germans. “His whole family died of starvation in the Leningrad blockade. I came today to show my respect and appreciation. It is only once a year but it counts. I used to live in Moscow but have never participated in one of these marches before.” “It is a way for Russian citizens to feel connected to their culture and to show thanks to their relatives who sacrificed so much in battle,” said another participant in the ceremony, Vladimir.
As the march commenced, there was a noticeable police presence escorting the procession along the sea towards the Russian war memorial 1.3 kilometers away. Alexander said that “the authorities were very helpful and co-operative.” Roads were blocked and there was only one lonely protestor. He was shouting his disagreement which was met by people peacefully showing him their photos and I heard comments such as “it is his right to have an opinion.”
Alexander Zhukov’s opinion was, “those who objected to this march haven’t read enough information.”
The march concluded at the Russian Orthodox church in Hietaniemi and Alexander advised the group the first Russian immigrants to Helsinki were buried in that very place a few centuries ago. Flowers were placed on the memorial but they overlooked the customary 100ml of vodka consumed to toast the dead. Organizers were pleased with the attendance but advised they are already looking forward to next year’s march and anticipate the numbers will be greater.