May 8th, Victory Day or VE Day, marks the end of World War II in Europe. Due to the time changes, the Russians celebrate this occasion on May 9th. They have military parades on Red Square, civilian parades down city streets, run old war movies all day on TV, and they gather with family and friends to eat and make many toasts. The USSR suffered the most casualties of any country during World War II, estimated at 27 million. China comes in a distant second with 10 million. Indeed they have reason to celebrate.
I was in Moscow in 1995 when Boris Yeltsin pulled out all the stops to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this day. Celebrities from all over the world attended including US President Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister John Major, French President Francois Mitterrand, and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
We were living in an apartment on the 5th floor right on Tverskaya, one of the main streets downtown that led right into Red Square and on the parade route.
One night we were shaken out of bed in the middle of the night. I thought it was an earthquake, but it kept going and going and after a while I thought we were being invaded because it sounded like large trucks. I looked out the window and there were huge tanks rolling down the middle of our street in the middle of the night. What was going on? Turns out they were practicing for the big military parades on Victory day. This went on for several weeks.
On May 8th, we were glued to the BBC watching the celebrations in the UK including the church service at St Paul’s Cathedral and Buckingham Palace with the Queen and the Queen Mum. From there BBC took us to Paris and we saw the parade around the Arc de Triumph and down the Champs Elysees.
We took the video camera and went down to Red Square and saw the big banners and the stage set up. The Hare Krishnas placed a wreath on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier (very surreal). We ran into some high school students from Wisconsin who said they were part of a marching band. We figured they were just on some school trip.
On May 9th we didn’t have to leave our apartment. First we watched the parade on Red Square on TV. Then the Communists paraded down our street so we watched them from the balcony and later in the day those tanks came rolling down in formation.
The last parade of the day was the marching bands. And in the middle of all the marching bands was the McFarland High School Band from Wisconsin playing “On Wisconsin”.
The 70th Anniversary celebrations last week were the largest in Russian history but President Obama and the EU leaders chose not to attend this time.
Any gathering in Russia starts with Zakuski. These are the warm ups, the small plates, the appetizers. They can include beet salads, potato salads, cabbage salads, pickled mushrooms, pickled herring, dried fish, caviar, or any other thing you can think of. Just so there is lots of it. For the toasts, vodka is the staple, followed by cognac for desert. Sometimes champagne precedes the vodka.
Here are a couple of my favorite Zakuski (they are easy to make):
Julienne (Mushrooms in Sour Cream)
1 lb mushrooms
3 Tbsp butter
1 ½ Tbsp flour
1 cup sour cream
½ tsp lemon juice
salt and pepper
Slice the mushrooms. Sauté in butter for 10 minutes. Sprinkle in the flour and continue cooking for another 5 minutes, stirring. Add sour cream and lemon juice. Keep the heat low and cook for 15 minutes more. If the sauce seems too thin, sprinkle in a little flour or if too thick add water. The sauce should be like thick cream. Season with salt and pepper.This can be served in individual cups or all together in a large dish.
Cucumbers in Smetana (Sour cream)
2 large cucumbers, peeled and thinly sliced
3 Tbsps chopped fresh parsley
2 Tbsps chopped fresh dill
1 ½ cups sour cream
2-3 Tbsps fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp olive oil
3 large cloves garlic, pressed
½ tsp black pepper (or to taste)
¾ tsp salt (or to taste)
Toss and chill