10 British veterans (5 from from England and 5 from Scotland) traveled to Saint-Petersburg on May the 7th to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of Victory in the Second World War together with their Russian brothers-in-arms veterans of the Arctic Convoys. The trip organiser Eugene Kasevin remarked on his "joy at the thought that seven of the British veterans who travelled have not seen Russia since the Arctic Convoys took place over 70 years ago."
Arrival to Saint-Petersbug - 7 May
Upon arrival at Pulkovo Airport, the veterans and their family members were offered a Royalty-like reception with traditional Russian bread and salt hospitality.
Interfax Press Conference - 7 May
The same evening, Interfax News Group held a press-conference to highlight the fact of the British veterans taking part in the 70th Victory Day celebrations in Saint-Petersburg, Russia.
Participants included: Secretary of the HMS Belfast Association Walter Filby; Vice President of the Legion Scotland Janet Harvey; Rector and Professor of the Admiral Makarov Naval State University Sergey Baryshnikov; founder and head of the Victory Day London project Eugene Kasevin; veteran of the Second World War, President of the Saint-Petersburg regional organization 'Polar Convoy Club', Commander Yuri Alexandrov; Arctic Convoys' veteran from Edinburgh Harold O'Neal; Arctic Convoys' veteran from Saint-Peterburg Anatoli Lifshits; Cavalier of four State Orders for Courage Alexei Novgorodov.
Harold O'Neil (93) demonstrated his special Soviet permit document that was issued to him in April 1942, which enabled him to step ashore at any time - a very rare occurrence in those days. He also demonstrated a photograph given to him by a Russian sailor, which was signed "For memories to Harold O'Neil from Nikolai Kuntysh. 4 April 1942."
During the press-conference, Janet Harvey presented the Legion Scotland Honorary Life Membership to Yuri Alexandrov, Anatoli Lifshits and Eugene Kasevin for their ongoing support of the Arctic Convoys legacies and their work with the veterans. Walter Filby presented the HMS Belfast Association Honorary Life Membership to Commander Yuri Alexandrov.
Alexei Novgorodov presented the Arctic Convoys Clubs Standard to the President of The Polar Convoy Club (Russia) Commander Yuri Alexandrov and the Honorary Life Member of The Russian Convoy Club (UK) Eugene Kasevin. The Standard was brought to Saint-Petersburg from the Russian capital Moscow to signify the ongoing friendship between the veterans of both nations. The Standard is currently placed with The Polar Convoy Club, Saint-Petersburg.
Piskaryovskoye Cemetery Remembrance Ceremony - 8 May
On the morning of Friday 8 May, the British veterans and their family members joined thousands of people paying their respects to the fallen during the 900 Days Siege of Leningrad at the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.
British Consul General Reception - 8 May
On the eve of Friday 8 May, the Consul General of the United Kingdom in Saint-Petersburg Keith Allan held a splendid reception in honour of British and Russian veterans of Arctic Convoys at his Residence, which is situated near the historic Smolny building. The Naval Attache of Great Britain Commander David Fields RN travelled from Moscow to join the veterans at the reception and all 70th Anniversary of Victory festivities.
Victory Parade on Palace Square - 9 May
The Victory Parade on Palace Square became the main highlight of the visit for the British delegation. Britons were offered prime sits against the background of the Hermitage (the former Winter Palace residence of the Tsars).
The warm reception from the Russian people towards the British veterans was overwhelming beyond any expectations!
Arctic Convoys Exhibition - 9 May
Following the Victory Parade, the British delegation visited the exhibition entitled "Daily routine of the Arctic convoys" in the historic Saint Peter and Paul Fortress. The exhibition was organised by The Polar Convoy Club to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of Victory.
Governor of Saint-Petersburg Georgy Poltavchenko paid a special visit to meet with the British veterans and to view the exhibition.
The meeting was also attended by Chairman of the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg Vyacheslav Makarov, the British Consul General in St. Petersburg, Keith Allan, chairman of the Committee for External Relations of St. Petersburg Evgeny Grigoriev, Russian veterans of the Arctic Convoys.
In his address to the veterans the Governor of Saint-Petersburg stressed that the Arctic Convoys have played an important role in the history of World War II. He said:
I am very pleased to see that on this very special and sacred day for all Russian people we have with us representatives of the anti-Hitler coalition.
The Arctic Convoys were far from Leningrad, but our city remembers very well what it means to receive real and sincere help on time.
Help that came from our partners in the coalition, indeed, was very significant - food, medicine, weapons, ammunition. It was also a great moral support for our people in the difficult struggle against fascism.
Georgy Poltavchenko congratulated veterans on Victory Day and wished them good health, prosperity and peaceful sky over Russia and Britain.
The Immortal Regiment Procession - 9 May
A number of British veterans who could still withstand the emotional excitement of the Day's programme joined thousands of people for their solemn march of the Immortal Regiment in remembrance of the millions of Soviet people's lives lost during the Second World War.
On their way along the Nevskiy Prospekt (the central long avenue in the city) the veterans were overwhelmed with the heartfelt greetings from the crowd and numerous carnations presented to them on every step of the way. One Russian woman veteran approached Harold O'Neil and bowed to him with "Thank you for what you have done for us!" with her right hand placed firmly on her heart.
At the same time on Palace Square performances were taking place in celebration of the 70th Anniversary of Victory. British violinist Litsa Tunnah who accompanied the veterans on their trip to Russia was given the opportunity to perform at the first part of the commemorative concert in front of many hundreds of people gathered on the central square of Saint-Petersburg. Her performance of Bach's Chaconne was received with long ovations. Litsa's stunning dress was especially provided by a London'd designer Quintana Couture.
The day was concluded with the dinner reception organised by the Committee of Foreign Relations where British and Russian veterans enjoyed a variety performances from various artists.
Boat Cruise to the Gulf of Finland - 10 May
On the morning of Sunday 10 May the British delegation was taken on the boat trip along the River Neva with entry to the Gulf of Finland where a wreath was lowered in commemoration of British and Russian sailors. The trip was organised by The Polar Convoy Club.
A splendid meal in a superb company of Russian and British veterans was enjoyed by all during the 5-hours boat trip.
Reception at the House of Friendship - 10 May
On their last eve in Saint-Petersburg, British veterans and their carers attended a special reception hosted by the Saint-Petersburg Association for International Cooperation in the House of Friendship.
British guests enjoyed a wonderful variety performance from young musicians of Saint-Petersburg. The outstanding virtuoso performance from Andrei Baranenko (piano) left everyone convinced in the best Russian classical music traditions staying alive.
The Arctic Convoys Memorial - 11 May
Just hours before leaving Saint-Petersburg, the British delegation and their Russian friends were joined by the British Consul General Keith Allan at the grand memorial to the Arctic Convoys sailors, which was unveiled on Sunday 31 August 2014 in front of the Naval College of the State Maritime Academy of Admiral Makarov.
The Russia House wreath was laid to the memorial by the veterans and the old traditional Royal Navy toast "Up Spirits!" was raised with Pusser's Rum.
The British veterans and their family members safely returned home on Monday 11 May and Eugene Kasevin saw the Scottish group to their First Class overnight Caledonian Sleeper train that was generously provided by the rail company.
7-11 May 2015 - a visit never to forget
For the British veterans of Arctic convoys, also known as Northern or Polar convoys, it would have been very hard to find a better place to celebrate their 70th anniversary of Great Victory. This opinion was expressed by former 1st Sea Lord of the Royal Navy Admiral Lord Alan West in an interview with TASS Correspondent Ilya Dmitryachev. Lord West said:
Seventieth anniversary of Victory is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for all veterans to celebrate together in Saint Petersburg, the city of naval glory. I do not think you can find a better place to celebrate this significant anniversary of our joint victory over the Nazis and fascism in World War II.
The Admiral said that the basis for a strong link between the naval authorities of Russia and Great Britain was founded in the late XVII century when the Russian Emperor Peter the Great visited England.
During the Great Patriotic War these relations had yet another test of strength. The memory of our joint heroism lives on after seven decades following the defeat of fascism. “We managed to maintain a long and wonderful friendship between veterans of the Royal British Navy and the Russian Navy”, – stated the Admiral, noting that the veterans themselves kept a very active position.
About 16 years ago, British veterans launched a national campaign to establish the medal for those who risked their lives in the delivery of ammunition, food and equipment to the Soviet Union on hazardous Northern Sea Route. As a result, in 2012 the UK government issued the Arctic Star medal for the participants of Arctic convoys.
Shortly after, by decree of Russian President Vladimir Putin, 3303 Britons were awarded the Medal of Ushakov. The Russian diplomatic staff in London and Edinburgh, in their wish to personally present medals to their recipients, continue to distribute the award across the UK.
According to the Admiral, the campaign organised by the veterans led to the fact that people have learned more about the Arctic convoys. Their role for the Soviet Union was enormous, but Lord Alan does not forget the contribution of Soviet troops in the defeat of Nazi coalition. “Everyone played an important role in the war, but the German army was defeated by the Soviet army”, – he said.
Ahead of the British veterans visit to Russia, one of the most influential British military leaders, the former Chief of the Defence Staff and head of the British Armed Forces, General Lord David Richards of Herstmonceux GCB CBE DSO DL said:
The Arctic convoys played a critical part in allowing our Russian allies to turn the tide of WW2 decisively in the Allies favour. It is marvellous that British Arctic Convoy veterans are travelling to St Petersburg to celebrate with their Russian comrades-in-arms not only their role in the defeat of Nazi tyranny but also, at this troubled time, to remind us all of the deep ties between our two nations. I wish all involved a memorable and enjoyable visit.
The former member of British Parliament and minister of justice Simon Hughes greeted the veterans:
This year the world celebrates the 70th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War. In May a group of British veterans of the Arctic Convoys from England and Scotland are due to travel to Saint Petersburg to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of victory, together with their Russian brothers in arms.
The Arctic Convoys played an enormous role in assisting the Soviet Union to defeat the Nazi Army on the Eastern Front and to advance the liberation of Europe. I would like to wish the veterans the most happy and memorable time spent together in the historic naval city of Saint Petersburg, on such a remarkable occasion.
President of The Polar Convoy Club in St. Petersburg, Commander Yuri Alexandrov stated:
It was extraordinary for us to be able to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of our joint victory over fascism together with our British friends.
As living witnesses and participants of the worst war known to human kind, we want to convey to younger generations the vital necessity of not repeating the mistakes of the past and preserving the most important values in human life.