This year, for the first time, people in Kansas City will officially and publicly celebrate an important day in history along with the millions of others who already do. They've been celebrating privately for decades.
To people in the 15 former Soviet republics, May 9 is known as Victory Day. It's one of their biggest yearly celebrations, marking the day in 1945 that Germany officially surrendered and World War II ended. (Other nations mark the event as V-E Day on May 8, but in Moscow, the clocked had ticked over to the next day.)
Victory Day is a day of songs, togetherness, reflection and remembrance of the millions lost in the war.
And thanks to Svetlana Yeager of Lee's Summit, Russian speakers in the area, as well as anyone else who is interested, will spend Wednesday evening at the Jewish Community Center connecting over food, music and family stories.
Yeager, a musician and writer who moved to the United States in 1999 after she married a “Kansas boy,” has participated in area cultural activities for years in order to share her heritage. She’d dreamed of creating a Russian nonprofit for nearly a decade, but life kept getting in the way.
Finally, in 2017, she founded the Russian Cultural Association also known as Russian House of Kansas City.
“We promote the culture of the Russian-speaking people in Kansas and Missouri,” she says. “We are a very diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multinational group. What unites us is that we all speak the Russian language.”
Russian House of Kansas City emphasizes that it’s a non-political organization, though Yeager admits she is worried about current global politics. Despite escalating tensions between Russia and the United States, however, she says her organization has been warmly received.
Students of history know that the Soviet Union sustained more casualties in WWII than any other nation. Estimates vary widely: between 21 and 40 million lives lost. But even on the low end, the number is almost more than the deaths from all other nations combined.
One element of the Victory Day celebrations is called “Immortal Regiment,” which usually takes the shape of a parade or march in which participants hold photographs of their relatives who fought in WWII.
As part of the global movement of Immortal Regiment, which involves 80 locations around the world, Yeager asks that anyone who attends the Russian Cultural Association’s Victory Day celebration bring a photo of a World War II veteran from their family to create a temporary gallery. The veteran need not have served in the former Soviet Union; all are welcome.
Sarah Chao, a care manager for Jewish Family Services, has at least 100 local Russian-speaking clients. She speaks Russian as well, and says there are thousands of Russian speakers in the Kansas City Metro.
“I was always surprised that we didn’t have better outreach to that community from our organization,” Chao says.
Last year, she and her husband attended the Ethnic Festival at Swope Park, where she noticed Yeager’s booth.
“I had Lana (Yeager) come and visit Jewish Family Services, and we talked about how the Jewish Community Center used to host a lot of Russian programming,” Chao says, noting that Jewish Family Services played a large role in the Refugee Resettlement Initiative in the 1980s and '90s.
Many of those refugees came to Kansas City from the former Soviet Union.
Though Victory Day does not commemorate the Jewish experience of WWII more than the experience of any other group, the involvement of Jewish Family Services works to highlight Eastern European Jews who are often not included in Holocaust commemorations.
“The Holocaust narrative in the Soviet Union is very different from Western Europe in that those people weren’t captured and brought to concentration camps,” Chao explains. “They were either captured and shot and put in mass graves, or they were able to escape usually via cattle car into central Asia.”
Part of the Soviet Union’s philosophy of not allowing its citizens to practice religion was that they were all Soviet citizens and everyone was part of the “Soviet family,” she says.
That mentality still holds over, Chao says, minimizing prejudice in the United States between ethnic Russians and ethnic Jews from Russian-speaking countries.
“Everybody can celebrate that they overcame, that their families fought,” she says. “Some of their family members died, but all in the fight to end fascism and make a better place for everyone.”
May 9, Victory Day in the Great Patriotic War. Featured story-tellers: Maks Kunakhovich from Zelenodolsk, Russia; Dmitriy Nadtochiy from Kharkov, Ukraine; Svetlana and Oliver Yeager (Svetlana is from Ulyanovsk, Russia; Oliver was born in the U.S.); Ian Schmidt from St. Petersburg, Russia; Zhanna Landysheva from Kiev, Ukraine. 6-8 p.m., Wednesday, May 9 at the Jewish Community Center, 5801 W. 115th St., Overland Park, Kansas 66211. Tickets $10.