During my ill-timed first visit to Victory Park, after leaving class around five in the afternoon, I feel hesitant to leave the comparably tepid cocoon of the perekhod from the metro station. Murals on the walls of Soviet flags and military medals, in all their socialist pride and glory, greet me as I prepare to brave the elements on the way out. Thick purple clouds on a golden horizon flank the disappearing sun, and a fiercely unforgiving wind whips down the main path towards the World War II Museum, making me feel all the more stupid for lacking the foresight to bring gloves and a hat.
Pushing on through the swiftly arriving darkness, I observe the pillars to the side, topped with small clusters of soldiers, each seeming to represent a particular front or group on the offensive, commemorating the locations and dates of their achievements. The centrally located obelisk, with its every ten centimeters representing a day of the war, towers over everything else, aptly serving as a visual tool to communicate the unending nature of the country’s past plight. With night falling, I give in, retreating to the subterranean warmth of the metro to thaw out my extremities, and return the next day if the weather allows.
Though the return of the night comes just as unsettingly early, with a bit of better planning, I leave campus promptly after class the next day, managing to arrive at Victory Park with a solid hour and forty minutes of sunlight. I am rewarded by this advanced planning with some exquisite illumination of the same pillars and obelisks I saw shrowded in darkness the day before, and breathtakingly fiery colors in the sky behind the museum. Having had a good look at this promenade and central area already, I search curiously for the Memorial Synagogue and Memorial Mosque, wondering just what their purpose is. Are they houses of worship shared with the rest of the city, patronized actively by Jewish and Muslim Muscovites? Or more commemorative and symbolic, in union with the rest of the grounds, perhaps meant to honor soldiers of the respective faiths who died in the war? My questions go somewhat unanswered, as I find the synagogue closed, and the mosque located on the other side of a maze of fenced areas that I can’t seem to find a way across.
In both visits to the park, I notice the flame burning at the foot of the central obelisk, flanked by wreaths of flowers arranged in the colors of Russia’s flag. On one visit, the flame acts as a beacon of light and warmth in the surrounding chill and obscurity of night. On the second visit, it fuses with the rosy late afternoon light reflecting on the white stone walls of the museum as the sun dips below the horizon. And this seems to describe the site’s nature as a national eulogy - a place meant to represent both a beacon of emotion and solidarity, and unity, among a people where scarcely a family was left unscarred by the horrors of the war.
Interestingly, the atmosphere among the visitors to the park themselves surprises me in its dissasociation from its sobering inspiration. On both occasions, groups of schoolchildren on what appear to be fieldtrips boisterously chatter among themselves, play games, and weave around the grounds at top speed. Impeccably fashionable young women chat on their smartphones, their high heels clacking continuously on the pavement. A passing mother scolds her son in Russian hopelessly faster than what I’m able to comprehend under the pillars beside the museum, her critiques echoing off the stoney walls. Most seem to be here in fairly recreational passage, disconnected from the tragedy and suffering that the park commemorates. I am left to ponder how these two can be reconciled in the dissonance that lives on the grounds of the park in its future, as the nighttime taste of the oncoming winter once again seizes control of the city.