By Adrian and Lez Stevenson. WW2 or “The Great Patriotic War” made a huge impact on the Soviet Union. 27 million people died. The war touched almost every family in the land and this impact continues to be felt and remembered to the present day.
2nd Guards Rifle Division is the UK’s largest and longest formed living history group representing the Red Army of the Great Patriotic War. For the past three years we have been very kindly asked to provide a small contingent to attend the Victory Day celebrations in London. This year proved to be no exception and we were asked to attend two important Official events.
Lez and I travelled down to London on Sunday afternoon and checked into our apartment which would be home for the next two nights. We set our alarm early for 6am to give ourselves plenty of time to make final preparations: boots given a final polish, uniforms pressed and flowers to be collected from the florists. A short taxi ride took us to the Soviet War Memorial which is adjacent to the IWM in the Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park. This is the only memorial of its kind in the UK and was erected in 1999. We were soon greeted by our comrade Keith Nisbet from “Normandy 44” who had kindly agreed to come along to take photos. Almost straight away we were asked to pose for photos, not only by Keith, but by members of the “Russian” community, Veterans and other photographers who were out in force. We also bumped into our old friend Eugene Kasevin. We were shortly joined by the three other members from “2nd Guards”, Jamie Emmett, Sergei Saveljev and Segita Manite. We were then greeted by Ralph Gibson from the Soviet Memorial Trust who had organised this event and he made us welcome. Jamie and I had been designated to lay the floral tribute from our group. Looking at the programme for the service we were wreath laying number 43 on the list! We were both fairly nervous, we a quick “dry run” practise was done off to one side out of general sight. Ralph asked us to take our seats as the service was due to start shortly. We were surrounded by VIP’s. Off to our left sat many Veterans of the Arctic Convoys, easy to spot in their White berets. RAF Veterans from 151 Wing who fought in Northern Russia were also present. To our right were all the Ambassadors from different states of the CIS, (who once made up the former USSR: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Moldova, Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan ) military attaches, etc. The USA had sent their defence attaché too.
The service was started at 11am by Phillip Mathews, Chair of the Soviet Memorial Trust and introductions were made and the Colour Standard bearers from many different Veterans Associations trooped into place. Speeches were made by the deputy Major of Southwark, Councillor Lorraine Lauder MBE, and then the Russian Ambassador His Excellency Alexander Vladimirovich Yakovenko, followed by Rt. Hon. Simon Hughes MP for Bermondsey & Southwark.
The wreath laying ceremony then began. Jamie and I nervously kept checking the list with Lez to await our turn. Slowly the many different wreaths and flowers were laid in place. We moved into position just in front and to the left of the memorial. My palms started to sweat even more! Suddenly it was our turn. We both marched forward in true Russian style. I placed our red roses at the foot of the memorial, took a pace back, then we both saluted. About turn and marched back to our seats. Did that look OK we quietly asked? Lez said “it looked perfect and the Russian Ambassador never took his eyes off you”. We were both really relieved, but I think my hands still shook!
The final wreaths were placed, followed by music from the Russian Embassy School with singer Polina Baranova. A young lady with a great voice. She sang a piece called “Do the Russians want war?” The formal ceremony drew to a close with the Last Post, the exhortation, and then 2 minutes silence followed by Reveille. After the ceremony was formally concluded the His Excellency Yakovenko made a short speech to say how in previous years he had often spent the day in Red Square, Moscow, for the big Victory Parade, but he said this event being a much smaller affair was very personal and how he had enjoyed it. Everyone was then invited to have some food and drink kindly laid on by the Russian Embassy. We moved along to the small marquees where we were greeted with Vodka! The waitresses moved around the crowd ensuring everyone had something to eat. All kinds of treats were on offer, I don’t know what they were called, but they tasted good! Yet more Vodka was produced and the measures were rather generous. I never knew that Vodka also came in a bright green version? Toasts were made “To Victory!” and which we all joined in. Once again many photos were taken as people asked to have their photos taken with us. We now got a preview of some of Keith’s photographs. Fantastic! We got to meet some fascinating people and hear some amazing stories, ranging from Veterans to a Holocaust survivor liberated by the Red Army. All too quickly time was passing and we had to leave, along with the Arctic Convoy Veterans for our second event of the day.
Having met many of the Veterans last year we managed to get a lift on their bus to HMS Belfast. While on the bus, their Standard bearer made a point of thanking us. In 2010 after leaving HMS Belfast he slipped on the pavement, or so we though at the time. As he bumped his head and was a bit groggy, Lez insisted we call 999. What might have been put down to a fall and a few Rum’s was actually the blood being cut off to his brain. He thanked us for saving his life.
The bus proceeded through the London traffic, taking a roundabout route to the ship, crossing the Thames, much to the old boy’s amusement.
Quickly we made our way to the ship to be greeted again by our friend Eugene Kasevin. Eugene was the driving force and founder of “Victory Day, May 9th, London”. Over the past 5 years the event has been hosted onboard HMS Belfast. The Veterans and other dignitaries were now coming aboard and once again this proved to be a good time to have some photos taken and meet people. Lez and I had our photo taken with Admiral Lord West. We then made our way with the Vets up to the “Walrus” deck which would have formerly housed the ship’s aircraft where the formal ceremony was to take place. Two Russian veterans of the Arctic Convoys, Yury Kopytov and Viktor Popov, flew from Archangelsk for the ceremony. The guests of Honour now arrived, HRH the Duke of Kent and the Russian Ambassador. As we stood on the deck, bathed in warm sunshine, it seemed hard to imagine the same ship and some of those same vets in the freezing cold of the Russian Arctic some 60 odd years ago? The ceremony began. The Duke read out a message from the Queen:
“As you gather to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the first Arctic Convoy it is as important as ever to remember the hardships and sacrifices endured by you and your comrades in the cause of freedom. I am pleased to have this opportunity to send my warm good wishes to all the British and Russian veterans who are present on HMS BELFAST today and I hope that your event is a success for all concerned.”
The Russian and British veterans of the Arctic Convoys were personally greeted by the Ambassador of Russia, HE Alexander Yakovenko, Admiral Lord West, HMS Belfast director Phil Reed OBE, Head of Europe for VTB Capital Vladimir Sokolov and the Honourable Tim Lewin and of course Eugene. The ceremony was also attended by the Ambassadors of Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Moldova. The wartime Russian song “Dark Night” was performed by Jason Kouchak followed by a Minute’s Silence and the Russian and British national anthems performed by the Band of the Royal Artillery. A nine gun salute was then fired from as the 141-year old cannons brought especially for the occasion from HMS Collingwood, they fired a nine gun salute in honour of the Arctic Convoys 1941-1945. I swear you could see the glass shake in the buildings opposite.
The Vets then had their photo taken on the Bow of the ship. Like in previous years we formed a small Guard of Honour for them as they moved down the deck to the reception laid on for all concerned. Once again a great spread was provided, and as they event was sponsored by Russian Standard Vodka and Pussors Rum, there was no shortage of liquids for the toasts! In addition to music by the RA Band, there was traditional Russian accordion playing and impromptu singing of some wartime songs by two Russian ladies. This also gave Jamie the chance to show off his Cossack dancing skills! This always goes down well. Sergei and Segita, being native speakers, were once again a real asset, as mine and Lez’s Russian language skill are sadly lacking. We circulated around the guests making new friends and greeting old friends from last year. It was rather warm below decks and Keith found a good spot with a nice cold draught. As the event on HMS Belfast came to a close, Eugene invited us to join him and the Vets at the pub opposite the ship.
We all spilled out into the sunshine and made our way the short distance to the pub. As you can imagine we were something of a tourist attraction on the busy riverside, so once again we had to pose for photos with visitors. After drinking a lot of “shorts” all day, spirits were high and I was ready for a cold beer for a change. Lots of interesting contacts were made and telephone numbers and email addressed were exchanged. While queuing at the bar I got chatting to a Russian ex pat now living in London who served as an Officer in their war in Afghanistan in the 1980’s. It was interesting to hear his experiences and he was very pleased to see British people remembering the heavy sacrifice his country made in the GPW. We were now joined by another comrade from our group, Martin Standbridge, resplendent in Soviet Naval Uniform. Sadly Martin could not get the time off from work to attend the official events, but Eugene and our group were very pleased to see him. The rest of the night was spent chatting and dancing in Lez and Eugene’s case on the quayside . Eugene was very proud to have been given the message, on Buckingham Palace headed paper, from Her Majesty the Queen. The night came to a close at 11pm and we said our goodbyes and slowly made our way back to the apartment. The girl on duty at the reception also turned out to be Russian and she greeted us with “I know where you have been!”
Morning came all too soon, but what a fantastic day we had experienced! A unique and memorable time and something we all felt most privileged to have been asked to be a very small part of.
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