Den’ Pobedy vo Vremya Pandemy: reflections on Victory Day in the Republic of Tuva6 min read

 In Culture, Opinion, Russia
Victory Day 2020 and 2021 make interesting case studies about how a small ethnic minority population have altered their ways of celebration during a pandemic. A coordinated state-run top-down video and hashtag campaign forced minority republics to create videos of the celebration, highlighting the linguistic diversity within Russia.

Regardless of the motive, those videos have a profound impact on citizens within those republics as regardless of ethnicity, Russian nationals unanimously celebrate the victory over Nazi Germany. This history and their wartime participation remains largely uncontested and still, overwhelmingly positive. The Tuvan Head of State appeared in one of the “Victory Day in Many Languages” video singing in Tuvan in 2020. It was an opportunity that uplifted the citizens of the republic, accompanying the pride of being a linguistic minority within Russia.

Victory Day 2020 also marked the 75th anniversary of the celebration of victory over Nazi Germany. The Republic of Tuva, then known as the Tuvan ASSR contributed to the war effort and has participated in the celebration of Victory day in subsequent years.  Over eight thousand Tuvans served in the Second World War – a sizable chunk of the small population from the remote Siberian republic. During the Soviet Union, there were only about 90,000 Tuvans total. Now about 250,000 Tuvans live within the Republic. 

For the 2020 celebration, a video of the Tuvan Head of State, Sholban Kara-ool,  performing alongside three musicians at the Center of Asia obelisk monument on the banks of the Yenisei river was released on social media. Kara-ool, with three well-known musicians Andrei Mongush, Igor Koshkendey, and Stanislav Iril performed “Victory Day” in Tuvan with khoomei accents. “Victory Day” is a sentimental song about the heroes of war with solemn symbolism about the difficult road to victory. They were accompanied by the traditional Tuvan instruments: a bowed igil, guitar, and accordion. The most popular recording of this performance on Youtube, uploaded by V. D. Polenov Russian State House of Folk Art, and amassed over six thousand views by the end of 2020. The most popular upload on Vkontake was a private user and the video amassed over 28,000 views by December. These figures show just how adaptable Victory Day celebrations are even in the pandemic as well as how eager the people were ready to celebrate, even if “public” celebration was limited to viewing a video.

Spontaneous… or not?

State news remarked that there was “practically no preparation for the performance,” instead, that it was some spontaneous idea between the musicians and governor. Watching the performance seemed to suggest otherwise. It was clear that even though the authorities had had to adapt to the global pandemic, this was not a spontaneous get-together to celebrate Victory Day. Perhaps this display of traditional singing talent mirrors Russian president Vladimir Putin’s “spontaneous” fitness displays or Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov’s numerous working out and judo videos on social media. 

Neither are spontaneous but rather efforts to assert the leader as simultaneously a “traditional” native and a strongman leader. Kara-ool’s performance magnifies him as a traditional leader connected with their ethnic practices. He stands on the same stage as the beloved art heroes of Tuva – Andrei Mongush, Igor Koshkendey, and Stanislav Iril – with their unquestioned authority over Tuvan cultural practices. 

A multicultural celebration

Another reason this performance probably was not spontaneous was because it was a state-coordinated project. This project was implemented as a joint venture by the Federal Agency for Ethnic Affairs, Rossotrudnichestvo, Rospechat, Russian Historical Society, Russian Military Historical Society, Russian Union of Veterans, and the Victory Volunteers movement. Exactly one hundred languages were represented on the website with the hashtag #VictoryAnthem. The site boasts that over one million singers participated and over sixty thousand videos were uploaded as part of this campaign. 

The online-only environment that COVID-19 generated was conducive to a larger virtual celebration than ever. The large number of views can be attributed to several factors. At this point, absolutely all public celebrations were banned, so the singular video of Kara-ool’s musical number amassed a record number of views. No in-person  celebration could be coordinated. People were looking for something in the space of their regular activity. Certainly, a video of their president singing for the first time can replace normal proceedings. 

This Victory Day in Many Languages campaign was minority inclusive and an opportunity for ethnic republics like Tuva to shine, showcasing their cultural and artistic practices. With such a big push from Moscow, clever hashtags, and a central site for uploading videos,  Tuvan participation in the holiday was streamlined to match those of neighboring ethnic republics. 

While painted as spontaneous, it was actually an efficient and well-planned agreement between state and national government agencies and organizations. The effective roll-out of the Victory Day video received large numbers of views and echoed the positivity and pride surrounding Tuva’s national satisfaction in the handling of COVID-19 in May of last year. The epidemic had not reached Tuva, nor resulted in any deaths by this time in 2020. Its popularity also corresponds with the popularity of the holiday in recent years. Soviet victory over fascism in the Second World War has not become a contested event in any case. It is one of the only uncontroversial events that ethnic Russians and Tuvans can celebrate alike, unmarred by controversy.

Victory Day this year

Given the “spontaneity” of last year’s video, Kara-ool did not partake in another musical performance for Victory Day this year. An in-person parade did take place in the capital and featured military units, law enforcement agencies, and other army-affiliated organizations on May 9th, 2021. This followed the typical opening ceremonial and holiday remarks from the Head of State and other important officials. While spectators were masked, both the speakers and marchers were not required to wear masks to maintain the official military look. The crowd was packed, clearly a sign of the presumed end of a pandemic and relaxation of security measured compared to last year. What stole the performance on this day was a creative military-dance performance live streamed by Telechannel 24 Tuva.

The military training demonstration was a dance number that resembled an acrobatic stunt show. To start off, the performance featured twenty soldiers with faces painted orange, doing karate-like moves while holding guns. They emulate fight sequences and training situations to rock music. Then soldiers roll to the center with somersaults and eventually get in a formation of a human pyramid, with one soldier climbing on top of the pyramid to save the red flag of the Red Army. There’s orange smoke and grey jets to imitate warfare scattered throughout the performance. It was an entertaining display of Russo-military masculinity and another departure from the ordinary on Victory Day in Tuva. The scheduling for the rest of the day is packed, with events and contests for children – a complete 180 degrees from the year prior. 

Despite the rigorous schedule during the day, the government strangely issued a no-fireworks mandate to prevent crowds and the spread of Covid. Perhaps symptomatic of something else, that seemed to be the only change to the celebration. The 2021 celebration looked almost identical to all Victory Day celebrations prior to 2019. The business-as-usual format revealed that indeed, people were ready to return to in-person celebrations. While videos and live streams provided hope for people during a pandemic, quarantine attitudes have relaxed, even though the pandemic is not quite over. 

Featured image: Still from Youtube video of Victory Day Celebration
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