Victory Day, Moscow. To mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the second World War, Russia stages a massive military parade across Red Square. On the program: over 16,000 troops, 200 armored vehicles and 150 aircraft. It’s the last major anniversary that many veterans will be alive to witness, yet all eyes are on the empty space around Vladimir Putin: Western leaders have chosen to boycott the event in protest against Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
World War II was devastating for the Soviet Union, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 26 million people, including 8.7 million soldiers. Nearly every Soviet family lost someone. But the 9th of May display of military strength amidst the spiraling crisis in Ukraine was a stark reminder of how quickly war can cloud Europe. “We should remember the horrors of war and our history,” says Ukrainian-born photographer Arthur Bondar, who spent the last five years traveling the region to meet WWII veterans before they die. His book, “Signatures of War,” is a tribute to their sacrifices as well as a duty of remembrance for the generations that follow. He joined R&K from Moscow.
Roads & Kingdoms: How much did your family speak about WWII before you started this project?
Arthur Bondar: We didn’t speak much about this topic at all. It was quite hard to bring up because it’s such a painful page in the history of every family, especially in Ukraine, where I grew up. During my childhood, my brother and I spent summers at our grandmothers’ homes. I remember them telling stories about the war. When my maternal grandmother died, I realized how many questions I hadn’t asked her. It was the main reason I decided to start a project about the veterans of WWII. That was five years ago. At that time, I was 25 years old and everything I knew about WWII came from history books. I was very curious to meet real people who had lived through the war while they still alive.
Galina Kondratyevna Bondar.
German Peat Factory.
Photo by Arthur Bondar / VII Photo Mentor Program
R&K: Were you looking to answer questions about your own family?
Bondar: I never tried to find stories that were similar to my grandmother’s. We all share the same history, but each veteran has his own unique experience and life story. I was interested in the whole generation that went trough the war. People who lost their friends and came back alive to start a new life. I think that generation was much more human and honest than we are. They have very different values than we have today. I admired every veteran that I met during these five years.
R&K: How did you find them and what were the conversations like?
Bondar: There is such a lack of communication between veterans and the rest of society. Veterans usually speak either with their relatives or with other veterans. Their circle of communication is very small. It wasn’t difficult to find them. When I asked if they had friends who were also veterans, they would give me a huge list. I wanted to just open my heart and be really interested in their destinies. They told me their life stories, their names, when they experienced war for the first time and what happened after that. They told me their memories and feelings about war. It sometimes lasted five to six hours because nobody had ever asked them these simple questions. Our government and most people only remember veterans during Victory Day, on the 9th of May. Just one day of the year. It’s such a pity.