Live from Moscow, Travel Writing

For most of history, Russia has often found itself at odds with the United States.  For brief period during World War II, however, these nations found themselves to be unlikely allies in a fight for survival against Nazi Germany.  It is in the spirit that Openendedsocialstudies.org founder Thomas Kenning traveled to Moscow to participate in the 73rd annual Victory Day celebration – one part Veteran’s Day, one part Fourth of July, one part Thanksgiving, this is a massive holiday for Russians.

Below are the Adventure Blog entries documenting that expedition from May 2018. Educational in their own right, his blog posts offer plenty of history, culture, and photos woven into a first person narrative, which attempts to present honestly and conversationally one traveler’s experience while conducting research abroad.

Consider reading these dispatches at face value, for enjoyment.  Use them to plot a geographic course through Moscow, Russia or to plan a hypothetical student trip, or as a starting point to inspire an individual research project from questions that arise naturally while reading.  

Happy travels and happy reading.

Find the lessons inspired by this expedition here – Victory Day in Russia.

The Material Culture of the Soviet Union

This lesson was reported from:
Adapted in part from open sources.
  1. What is material culture?
  2. Why did transition of socialism to capitalism have such a dramatic impact on the material culture of Russia?
  3. Consider the vending machines which utilize a communal glass instead of cans or bottles.  What does this suggest about Soviet culture?  About the Soviet use of resources?

Somewhere out beyond Moscow’s Third Ring Road, a group of enthusiastic amateur archivists has undertaken a truly heroic project – to collect all of the loose odds and ends of Russia’s Twentieth Century material culture.  They have rented an old warehouse complex south of Kuzminki Park, packed it beyond capacity with everything from kitchen appliances to Soviet-era arcade games, and called it the Museum of Industrial Culture.

IMG_1608.jpgThe men behind the project seem to be gregarious old putterers – fix-it men with eye for design and detail.  They greeted me warmly and charge nothing for entry, though they will gladly accept donations.  During my visit, they were engaged in various restoration and conservation projects – getting that old Soviet dirt bike running, feeding the guard dogs some kind of ad hoc mash, sorting some new addition to the collection.

What appears to be a mess on first glance is actually carefully organized by a logic that becomes mostly apparent to any visitor careful enough to notice.  All of the old Soviet cars, trucks, and buses are out back – along with several partial jet fuselages, one passenger, one fighter.  There is a case full of old food packaging and another with toys.  Some of the arcade games turn on, and visitors are encouraged to play.

I did not have the touch for the shooting game, much to the curator’s amusement.  You can learn more about Soviet-era arcade games here.

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Lined up in the shade outside is a row of Soviet-style vending machines – which dispense beverages into the buyer’s own personal cup.  If you’re thirsty and you didn’t bring a cup, you can use the communal one that is chained to the machine.

There’s nothing too obscure for these guys – there are various styles of the metal grating that guard windows on the Soviet apartment buildings throughout the city.  They’ve got 1980s computer equipment and old maps showing train routes throughout the USSR.  They even have those coin operated mechanical animals that sit outside supermarkets.  Whole bins of screws and fasteners.

Nothing here is sorted chronologically, and there is almost no signage.  I bet these men could tell me stories about every item in their collection, but I don’t speak Russian and they don’t seem to speak English.  All of that context would be fascinating – it is a conversation I’d love to be a part of and a book I’d die to read… But just handling these things – getting right up beside them, squinting to recognize that weird decide as a 1960s vacuum cleaner or is it a men’s electric razor?  Smelling the leaky oil from that motorcycle’s crankcase or hearing that old arcade game roar to life – these men are engaged in something bigger than a hobby…

They are archaeologists working in the recent past, collecting the things that the rest off the world has called obsolete.  What most Russians have discarded and replaced, they have rescued and preserved.

This is a barely living history, full of the granular details that no one bothers to note – because they’re so mundane, so omnipresent that no one in the future will find them interesting, right?  I mean everyone uses a typewriter for important papers, and we all consult the phone book from time to time, when we’re not too busy reading the newspaper…

Those things once seemed like they were so obvious, so unimprovable that they would just be around forever – like your smartphone or your car do today…  But one day, your great-grandkids or some future archaeologist will be confounded by the material traces of your life, too.

The old saying is, “The clothes make the man.”

You could also say, “All of the clothes, all of the cars, the toys, the tools – these make the society.”

This is the Museum of Industrial Culture in Moscow, Russia.

It is the work of a few impassioned collectors – men working to preserve the material culture of the Soviet Union.

Material culture is a term used to describe the physical objects that make up everyday life.  Material culture is what packs this unassuming warehouse.

IMG_1614.jpgThe Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, and with it all of the state-run industries that held a monopoly on the ordinary consumer products that make up this museum’s collection.

In the new, post-Soviet 90s, those state-run industries suddenly faced competition with the capitalist companies of the West.  In an effort to shift Russia’s economy from socialism to capitalism, these industries were quickly auctioned off, making certain insiders quite wealthy.  This process was painful for many average Russians, however, who lost jobs, benefits, and their lifestyle during this dramatic period.  Practically overnight, the government got out of manufacturing.

In terms of these products that feel these shelves: who wanted a Lada when suddenly you could buy a VW? Or that crummy arcade game when there was Nintendo?  There was no longer a large demand for goods largely considered to be inferior to their Western counterparts.

The Soviet system of government was gone, for better or worse, and so too was the material culture that had defined Russian life for generations.

Most every item in this museum was discontinued – a mass extinction of mass  production.

In the 21st century, the economy has gradually recovered. With prosperity, Russians have cast off their aging Soviet possessions, consigning them to landfills, to memory…

And to this museum – a work-in-progress which seeks to turn that material culture into a proper history of the Soviet experience.

Listen to a 99% Invisible podcast – Unsung Icons of Soviet Design – discussing some of the items featured in this museum.

Actvities

  1. What do your shoes say about you?  What about your car?  Your cell phone?  Create a virtual Museum of Industrial Culture documenting the material culture of your classroom, bedroom, or home.  Write informational signs describing the items featured in your museum – including the brands, marketing campaigns, and social meaning each item confers on its owner.
  2. Create a students’ paradise in your own classroom.  When you walked in today, your classroom was likely organized according to a capitalist model, in which each individual student controls his or her own school supplies. Create an inventory of all of the supplies brought to class today – the sum total of all of the pencils, pens, erasers, calculators, notebooks, etc…  If these supplies were divided evenly between all classmates, how many of each would an individual student receive?  Which classmates are better off under this new distribution of supplies?  Which are worse off?  Which system is more fair?  Which system would lead to a more productive classroom?
  3. Imagine that you have been commissioned by the Museum of Industrial Culture to write English-language signs explaining the function and history of the items in their collection.  Use the Internet to research Soviet products that might be found in the Museum of Industrial Culture.  Find pictures to accompany the text and create a virtual traveling exhibition in your classroom.

THIS LESSON WAS MADE POSSIBLE THROUGH GENEROUS SUPPORT AND COOPERATION FROM ROSSOTRUDNICHESTVO.
 The main building of Moscow State University, one Moscow’s Seven Sisters – stunning Soviet-era skyscrapers built in part with the slave labor of German POWs – was built in an attempt to modernize the capital, transforming it into a world class city with its own distinctly Russian style of architecture.  They are not so easy to cast aside, even if you wanted to. (Moscow, Russia, 2018.)

You can actually visit parts of the world featured in this lesson:

  • A Guided Tour of Moscow is a curated photo essay for use in middle and high school social studies classrooms.  The essay offers a brief, completely non-comprehensive overview of Russian history and culture circa 2017 and is meant to present these topics in an unconventional way – that is, as if the student were travelling through, wandering, and exploring Moscow on their own.  Explore Red Square and Gorky Park, commute through the Moscow Metro, and participate in the 2017 Victory Day celebrations commemorating the end of World War II.
  • Live From Moscow, 2018:

May 12, 2018: What You Leave Behind

Somewhere out beyond Moscow’s Third Ring Road, a group of enthusiastic amateur archivists has undertaken a truly heroic project – to collect all of the loose odds and ends of Russia’s Twentieth Century material culture.  They have rented an old warehouse complex south of Kuzminki Park, packed it beyond capacity with everything from kitchen appliances to Soviet-era arcade games, and called it the Museum of Industrial Culture.

 

The men behind the project seem to be gregarious old putterers – fix-it men with eye for design and detail.  They greeted me warmly and charge nothing for entry, though they will gladly accept donations.  During my visit, they were engaged in various restoration and conservation projects – getting that old Soviet dirt bike running, feeding the guard dogs some kind of ad hoc mash, sorting some new addition to the collection.

What appears to be a mess on first glance is actually carefully organized by a logic that becomes mostly apparent to any visitor careful enough to notice.  All of the old Soviet cars, trucks, and buses are out back – along with several partial jet fuselages, one passenger, one fighter.  There is a case full of old food packaging and another with toys.  Some of the arcade games turn on, and visitors are encouraged to play.

I did not have the touch for the shooting game, much to the curator’s amusement.

 

Lined up in the shade outside is a row of Soviet-style vending machines – which dispense beverages into the buyer’s own personal cup.  If you’re thirsty and you didn’t bring a cup, you can use the communal one that is chained to the machine.

There’s nothing too obscure for these guys – there are various styles of the metal grating that guard windows on the Soviet apartment buildings throughout the city.  They’ve got 1980s computer equipment and old maps showing train routes throughout the USSR.  They even have those coin operated mechanical animals that sit outside supermarkets.  Whole bins of screws and fasteners.

Nothing here is sorted chronologically, and there is almost no signage.  I bet these men could tell me stories about every item in their collection, but I don’t speak Russian and they don’t seem to speak English.  All of that context would be fascinating – it is a conversation I’d love to be a part of and a book I’d die to read… But just handling these things – getting right up beside them, squinting to recognize that weird decide as a 1960s vacuum cleaner or is it a men’s electric razor?  Smelling the leaky oil from that motorcycle’s crankcase or hearing that old arcade game roar to life – these men are engaged in something bigger than a hobby…

 

They are archeologists working in the recent past, collecting the things that the rest off the world has called obsolete.  What most Russians have discarded and replaced, they have rescued and preserved.

This is a barely living history, full of the granular details that no one bothers to note – because they’re so mundane, so omnipresent that no one in the future will find them interesting, right?  I mean everyone uses a typewriter for important papers, and we all consult the phone book from time to time, when we’re not too busy reading the newspaper…

Those things once seemed like they were so obvious, so unimprovable that they would just be around forever – like your smartphone or your car do today…  But one day, your great-grandkids or some future archeologist will be confounded by the material traces of your life, too.

The Museum of Industrial Culture is a great pairing with my afternoon visit to the more conventional, state-sanctioned Moscow Museum of Archeology.  This museum sits several stories underground, near the Kremlin, where excavations at the start of the Twenty-First Century uncovered the ruins of Seventh Century bridge – that spanned a river that has since been confined to an underground channel and completely forgotten by modern Muscovites.

 

This museum has the glass cases and captions – as well as state-of-the-art VR goggles – of a more conventional institution.  A city like Moscow – that is more than 800 years old – turns up its fair share of random debris during everyday construction projects, and much that of that randomness has made its way here.  Literal pots full of gold coins hint at moments of tumult and uncertainty from centuries past – why else would somewhere bury a basket of more than 3000 coins and never come back for it?

Equally evocative are the bits of cloth – a woolen belt or a pair of socks, the scraps of a leather shoe that was uncomfortable the day it was made.  There are bits of colorful glass jewelry – tacky by modern standards, but good god, those Technicolor greens and yellows must have dazzled in a world dominated by dust, mud, and snow, like Russia had to have been 500 years ago.

These two museums have a lot in common, and leave me reflecting on my own too brief experience in this ancient city.  It is my last day in Moscow, and I have barely heard the opening lines in the epic poem that is Russia….

What do I leave behind?  It’s not a medieval comb or a rotary telephone from the Soviet-era – it is more lessons, more ideas, more points of view that I have only begun to recognize, let alone learn…

I’ll be back – with more questions in tow.

May 11, 2018: Life and Death in Moscow, Russia

In Moscow, the sun rises at 4:30 this time of year.  It doesn’t set until nearly. 9 pm.  That`s a lot of daylight, and I have made it my business to use every minute of it to explore, sometimes to the detriment of keeping up with this blog.

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This morning`s run took me to Moscow’s most elite address – Novodevichy Cemetery, a stunning ramshackle necropolis that holds more than century’s worth of famous Russians.

Most famous among Novodevichy’s luminaries are none of than Boris Yeltsin and Nikita Khrushchev.  Stalin’s wife is also buried here, alongside hundreds of Russian poets, actors, musicians, soldiers, and cosmonauts.  In the Soviet era, the only honor higher than burial here was to be interred in the walls of the Kremlin itself…

The whole necropolis feels a little bit like a costume party in a really big, slightly overgrown backyard… Except everyone came dressed as an abstract, stone version of themselves.  Soviet life emphasized the elevation of the common man, but there is nothing common about these monuments, which seem to be in an arms race to outdo each other…  Luckily, this arm race is different from the Cold War – no one gets hurt because they’re already dead…

I feel like this is one of the most intimate windows into the hope, dreams, and values of Russia’s most accomplished elite.  The soldier’s monuments ripple with military imagery – helicopters, derrigibles, and even ICBMs carved in lurid detail into the granite.  One mathematician’s grave is covered with formulas, both solved and incomplete.  Some guy has a tombstone that depicts both a Viking ship riding a choppy wave and a flying saucer over the cratered surface of some far off world.  Yeltin’s grave is a giant stone depiction of a rippling Russian flag that looks a bit like a cake that someone dropped a bowling ball into.  There is even a guy who is depicted in stone with a frilly collar and a monkey on his shoulder…  This graveyard hints at so many untold stories of Soviet life and aspirations…  Today I am left wondering, but I vow to understand…

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After a fantastic lunch and even better conversation with my friend Viktor, I visited the massive GUM department store.   The building dates to the late Nineteenth Century, just like the cemetery.  It is a stunning old building on Red Square that in Soviet times was distinguished not only by its size and location but by the fact that it rarely experienced shortages of consumer goods. As a result, lines of eager customers from all over Moscow would sometimes stretch well into the square outside.

The history and architecture make GUM well worth the visit, but I have to say that the whole place is full of people with too much money and not enough imagination…  I’m just not all that impressed by international luxury brands.

In the end, though there’s not much difference between GUM and Novodevichy Cemetery, is there?

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Both are parade grounds for different kinds of vanity…  But I’ll give the folks buried at Novodevichy the benefit of the doubt…  The sometimes excessive opulence of their tombs was likely chosen for them by others; the shoppers at GUM don’t have that excuse!

May 9, 2018: Victory Day, in which our hero inadvertently crosses Vladimir Putin

Victory Day is the annual commemoration of the Great Patriotic War, what we in the West call World War II.  The holiday is something like Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving, all rolled into one.  There isn’t much anything like it, exactly, in the United States.

My friend Allen and I led the charge among the group we are traveling with to get up and out of the hotel early today.  We wanted to bear witness to the annual military parade – a fixture during Soviet times, revived in the last decade by Vladimir Putin.

Our fixer, Viktor, a wonderful man if I have ever met one, tried mightily to make this happen for us.  He got us to the right Metro stop in Pushkin Square, a mere block from where the tanks, missiles, and drones traditionally roll by.  Unfortunately, this year, with no notice, the parade route was shortened and modified, and no onlookers were allowed on the street in this part of the city.

3B4FB26F-1B7B-494B-82E0-0EC43CBB90FA.jpegWe found ourselves shunted between crowd control barriers and a fleet of loaded dump trucks (insurance against a European style vehicle attack), but unable to see anything.  We could hear the rumble of distant military hardware.  Finally, at the end of the parade, some 75 aircraft flew over in various configurations – helicopters, bombers, fighters, the latter of which carried two of Rusia’s newest tactical nuclear warheads…  These can fired at hypersonic speeds, theoretically making them invulnerable to any current US missile defense schemes.

It is a chilling thing the way these fighters appear overhead in the gaps between the Moscow’s low rise architecture and its leafy green trees.  They are virtually silent until you see them, then they roar overhead about out of sight again with barely enough time to register their shape.  And these were flying at a fraction of their capacity, far slower than attack speed.

They dropped no bombs and fired no missiles – they did nothing but expel jaunty streams of smoke colored in the configuration of the Russian flag.  But they lowered upon me a feeling of dread.  Not because they were Russian, but because they carry with them weaponized terror.

 

 

My heart was racing, and I couldn’t help but think of all of the people in the world – in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Vietnam, Laos, Korea, Germany, England, Japan – in every country that has ever been subjected to aerial bombardment on any scale… If those planes were coming for my city, my home…  All hope would be lost, and I would be helpless.  At the mercy of their cold, raptor attack.

We humans can make awful things.

I had a lot of time to reflect upon this, behind that dump truck barrier.  The next phase of Victory Day is the march of the Immortal Regiment.  This is a massive outpouring of commemoration – Russians print pictures of family members who served in the Great Patriotic War and parade these by the tens of thousands through Red Square.  Some wear period clothing, including the uniforms of their ancestors.  Wartime music fills the air, spilling from cranked PAs or more humble men and boys who play their accordions.  Some members of the crowd sing along and others dance.  A sort of buckwheat porridge with only trace amounts of meat – a meager, if tasty peasant’s food associated in the minds of Russians with war time hardship – is cooked on massive military grade barbecues, distributed for free, and eaten with enthusiasm by nearly everyone.

 

 

The march of the Immortal Regiment is the main event for many Russians.  Its origins are in the grassroots – it started a decade ago as an unofficial event, but is now facilitated and subsidized by the government.  Putin even leads the march carrying a photo of his father who was wounded in the war.

We baked for four or five hours in the sun as the authorities held us out of Red Square.  As with the sudden change in plans that meant we couldnt see the military parade, there was no immediate explanation for why the march of the Immortal Regiment was delayed for so long,  I’m not sure any explanation will ever be forthcoming – the government does not owe you, and you don’t really have the right to question.

As with so many things in Russian history, the people will take what they given, and they will be thankful for it.

We are all Russians today.

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The entry into Red Square is triumphal – a release from all of the tension, discomfort, and uncertainty of the scorching, stalled parade, the whole thing a brilliant simulacrum of the Russian war experience itself. This is Red Square the way it is meant to be seen – in the midst of a grand procession, the people energized and jubalant.  First you must suffer to then taste the sweetness of its embrace.

Somewhere near Lenin`s mausoleum, we found ourselves tripped up once more.  It seemed like another barricade had been set to block our progress, as a massive crowd of people planted themselves in the middle of the otherwise open square.  We carefully navigated our way around the mass, noting that in actuality, the mass of people was supporting a gigantic banner invoking the gone heroes of the Soviet Union…  I snapped a few photos and went on my way, thinking that he day was more or less done.

Later, back at the hotel, watching the day’s highlights on TV, I found out that Vladimir Putin himself was one of the people carrying the banner.  I can say honestly that my eyes have seen him, even if my brain didn’t recognize him…

The night ended on the roof of the 29 story Crown Plaza hotel, opened specially for my group and several other participants in the Immortal Regiment parade…  At 10 pm, from 360 degrees all around Moscow, the largest fireworks display I have ever seen was unreeled – an homage to the artillery barrage that announced the surrender of the Nazis some 73 years ago.

Truly, this is Russia at its most bombastic self – a country that demands respect that it feels it rarely gets.

 

 

May 8, 2018: New Perspectives in Art

This morning our group met with Aleksey Pushkov, an outspoken and prominent Russian politician, in a Soviet-vintage government meeting space set above a nondescript strip mall.  He opened our audience in this wood paneled conference room with a humble, “What do you want from me?”

5DDF5C25-217B-4AF4-B8E0-6F9303FF7BE7.jpegHe then launched into a thoughtful outline of the world from Russia’s point of view, speaking immaculate English without an interpreter or even notes for reference.  It was all that I could ask for…

To summarize, hopefully without oversimplifying, he pointed out that the world order has been in a state of transition for years.  The US may still be the single most influential country by most measures – but it certainly has less claim to unchallenged dominance than it once had…  His commentary was far reaching, but for me, the key take away was that Americans must consider how it sounds and feels to the rest of the world when we talk about our exceptionalism.

We tell ourselves that we know what it is right.  That we are the good guys – the late arriving hero in world history.  And this self-righteous attitude often makes us blind to other points of view.  After all, if we are the good guys – and Russia disagrees with us about something – then logically, they must be the bad guys.  Right?

We also refuse to learn from history.

Combine these traits, and you get a situation like Syria.  The US espouses regime change in Syria.  Russia does not.  To hear Pushkov tell it, this has less to do with Russia liking Assad – and much more to do with lessons learned from Iraq.  In Iraq the US made regime change our business, upending the Middle East, incubating ISIS, helping along the Syrian civil war, which has fueled the refugee risks that is now driving the EU apart…  And now we want to topple the Syrian government, brutal as it may be, with no clear plan for what comes next…  Pushkov calls that irresponsible, and it is tough to disagree.

The Russians certainly subscribe to a realpolitik view of the world…  But US willingness to pursue ideals that are not grounded in reality – however well-intentioned those ideals may be – can lead to some very serious consequences…

When your default position is I’m the good guy, and I mean well, you don’t tend to examine your own actions quite so closely…  You are not so self-aware.

In the second half of the day, I learned I was not fully aware of Russia’s past either.  I visited a museum near Gorky Park, full of Russia’s 20th century art.  I went for the social realism – the signature style of the USSR’s public and propagandistic art, but I was so pleasantly surprised to see a plethora of other styles created under Soviet rule…  The work ranged from abstract to surprisingly personal…  It was at times evocative and in moments, it hinted at subversion.

I have been taught to think of Soviet artists as closely managed and repressed, but I have found that many managed to produce expressive, diverse work.  I know there were things that they were forbidden to say expressly in their art – but sometimes limitations push artists to communicate their message more subtly, right under the noses of their censors.

That said, the gallery featuring work from the 1990s – the years after the USSR collapsed and Russia became a more open society – is full of jokes these artists must have been waiting decades to share.  And there is a heck of a lot of glee to be found in the work from this period as well.  Just look:

 

May 7, 2018: Stories

How we choose to tell our stories sometimes matters more than the story itself.
If there is a theme for today, that is it.

 


Spent the morning at RT studios. In case you haven’t caught it somewhere on the high end of your satellite TV package, RT is a Russian news service that broadcasts in the English language. If you ever want to know how Russia is talking about Syria, Trump, or any of the other Russia-proximate stories that seem to dominate the American news cycle these days, RT is the place to find out. It isn’t a propaganda vehicle, per se. And yet, most of their coverage has a way of looking slightly off model to the American viewer.
But in truth, I think that is just how things look from this side of the planet.
Everyone we meet is very earnest – idealistic, even. They are excited about reporting the news. But the media’s relationship to power in this country is very different from America. Whereas there is an expectation in the US that the media should adopt a skeptical, even adversarial posture relative to the government, there is no strong tradition of this in Russia. None.
Not in czarist times. Not in Soviet. Maybe briefly in 90s, but all that got them was chaos, corruption, and unpredictability. And that is a high price to pay for an independent media.
Maybe Russians are naive for believing what they see on TV. Or maybe they are more sophisticated than the average American for taking it with a grain of salt.
So RT is telling a Russian story. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it is propaganda. Or maybe it is propaganda, but that doesn’t mean that it is not also true.
The same could be said for the story told in the Victory Museum, which we visit after a fine lunch in restaurant devoted to Soviet-era nostalgia. Just as certain Americans remember the racially polarized, repressive 50s with fondness, despite those negatives, there is a big market here for golden warm memories of years past…

 


The Victory Museum outlines the broad strokes of Russia’s World War II experience – its struggle for survival against the Nazis, to whom it nearly succumbed. Most of the world had their money on the Nazis. It looked like Russia’s number was up. But through superhuman sacrifice – to the tune of more than 20 million lives – the Russians prevailed, breaking the back of the German army before a single boot hit the sand at Normandy.
Is the version of events portrayed in the museum self-serving? Sure. It leaves out many of the more egregious Soviet actions – the retribution against Nazi collaborators, for example… The ways in which the very telegraphed Nazi attack still managed to catch Stalin off guard…
But to be fair, most American stories about the war ignore the Russians more or less entirely. The invasion of Normandy is D-Day, which decided the war in Europe. We sort of saved the Russians, to hear it laid out in most history books or Hollywood films.
So we all tell stories.