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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Victory Day Hits Home in St. Pete

ST. PETERSBURG -- Victory Day celebrations kicked off here Wednesday morning with a 4,000-strong military parade on Dvortsovaya Ploshchad. But for many St. Petersburgers such official events were secondary.

World War II, and especially the 900-day siege of Leningrad, profoundly affected all of the city's residents, young and old, soldiers and civilians. For many in the city today, this is the most important holiday of the year, a solemn day for gathering with family and remembering the dead and the privations of war.

Maria Rolnikaite, a Nazi concentration camp survivor, says Victory Day in 1945 was a "return to life." But when Red Army soldiers carried her out of the camp barracks and told her that the war was won, she felt little joy.

"My main thought was that now I wouldn't be killed. Nothing else. And the tears flowed. During all those years in the camp, I hadn't cried once since they separated me from my mother," Rolnikaite said.

May 9 in St. Petersburg is a day of gatherings large and small. In many city parks, elderly people waltz to accordion music and sing songs from the war years. Through their grandparents, the young have a direct connection to the hardships of the war.

"Both my grandmothers are blockade survivors, so for me this has very personal meaning," said Marina, 20. "If we hadn't won the war, I probably wouldn't be here, or my parents. Life would have been entirely different."

According to tradition, Victory Day celebrations begin here on May 8, when people place flowers beneath a famous sign on Nevsky Prospekt left over from the war, which reads: "Citizens, during artillery barrages this side of the street is the most dangerous."

Also Tuesday, residents and officials gathered at Piskaryovksoye Cemetery, site of a large mass grave that contains the remains of some 500,000 soldiers and civilians who died during the blockade.

Maria Ivanova, a blockade survivor who attended the ceremony, was struck by Governor Valentina Matviyenko, who turned up in a white coat decorated with an orange-and-black St. George ribbon.

Ivanova appreciated the attention veterans receive from government officials on this holiday. "They come up to us and ask how we're doing. We get to see them up close, and it makes you feel good to be alive," Ivanova said.

The government did not give blockade survivors what they wanted most, however: welfare benefits for everyone who lived in the city during the war that are on par with those of war veterans.

Irina Skripachyova, who heads a blockade survivors' organization, says the sufferings of the blokadniki still have not been recognized in full.

"Nothing was said for 40 years. There was a ban. And now this achievement is once more being diminished. Children, the elderly and soldiers stood side by side. When my mother was alive, she said, 'Don't try to separate us. I held on because I had a child at home. Otherwise, I wouldn't have survived. We were saved by saving others; that was the miracle of Leningrad.'"

The main event on Victory Day is the veterans' march down Nevsky Prospekt from Ploshchad Vosstaniya to Dvortsovaya Ploshchad. It's quite a walk for veterans who are now in their late-70s and 80s, especially in the rain.

"That's probably how it should be," Skripachyova said of the rain as she headed off to Nevsky. "The sky has been a source of trials for us since childhood. Why should today be any different?"