By Ilya Khineyko
In Europe and North America the allied victory over Nazi Germany is commemorated on May 8. Ukraine, like most other countries of the former Soviet Union except the Baltic states, celebrated Victory Day on May 9, a Soviet statutory holiday introduced by Leonid Brezhnev in 1965 to commemorate victory in what was officially defined as the Great Patriotic War. The difference here is not merely in terminology. While in the West it is an occasion to remember the past and pay tribute to the surviving veterans, attitudes towards Soviet victory in the war are very much part of the current political discourse on the post-Soviet space.
Recent riots in Estonia over the relocation of a Red Army memorial have underscored a deep rift between ethnic Estonians and a Russian speaking minority that is not prepared to accept the “Soviets and Nazis as two evils” interpretation of the war. In Ukraine, the legacy of the Second World War remains equally divisive. That is why speaking to the crowd of veterans gathered at the Memorial Museum of War History in Kyiv, President Viktor Yushchenko not only praised the veterans and “all Ukrainians who died fighting against totalitarian aggressors,” but also used the occasion to appeal for national unity.
President Yushchenko takes part in the veterans’ march down Khreshchatyk Street in Kyiv. Source: UNIAN
“I am deeply convinced that we must be proud of numerous examples of unity and bravery of our people in war years. This unity existed despite evil, despite violence, war fronts and lines. This unity was created by millions of Ukrainian names and thousand of feats of arms… in the ability to give up ideologies and see in each heroic deed love to Ukraine – this is the real unity of our nation,” he said.
What Yushchenko was trying to counter is a long-standing rift between Western Ukraine and the rest of the country in regard to the issue, which is rooted in different historical memories. For Western Ukrainians, the war did not begin on June 22 1941 but in 1939 with the Soviet Union’s takeover of Western Ukraine carried out in accordance with the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. It did not end in 1945 as the post-war resistance to the new regime continued well into the early 1950s. Thus, their attitudes to the Soviet concept of Victory Day are very similar to those of Estonians and other Baltic nations. Some representatives of the national-democratic camp have also rejected the May 9 narrative, pointing out the totalitarian character of the Soviet system and the fact that the existence of an independent Ukraine directly contradicts the myth of the Great Patriotic War. Such arguments were reiterated by Ostap Kryvdyk in an article published by Ukrains’ka Pravda on May 8. He argued that May 9 1945 did not constitute a victory for Ukraine.
“’Victory in the Great Patriotic War’ is a victory of Stalin and communism who used their ‘monopoly’ on victory to cast their enemies as ‘Nazis’. Other elements of this Pandora Box are the myth about the Russians as the older brother to whom all other [Soviet] nationalities are indebted, the perception of Ukraine as a territory not a state, keeping alive the already dead notion of ‘a heroic Soviet people’ while downplaying the fact that the war’s other victims are those who fell for Stalinist propaganda.”
Judging by the feedback in the Ukrains’ka Pravda comment section, the article has struck a nerve with many readers. The indignation evident in the tone of many of the commentaries may not necessarily be an indication of a profound ideological difference. For many Ukrainians outside of Western Ukraine, May 9 remains a very personal holiday, as almost every family has a relative who either stayed on the occupied territory or fought in the Red Army. After all, it was Ukraine that bore the brunt of Nazi policies. As Yuri Korhorodsky writes in another Ukrains’ka Pravda article, during the “black years of German occupation” almost 4,500 million people perished on Ukrainian territory and thousands of towns and villages were destroyed. He is skeptical about the possibility of bringing these two conflicting visions together so that a national ‘narrative’ can be formulated. However, there have been many attempts to challenge the official Soviet interpretation of the Second World War, starting with Oleskandr Dovzhenko’s screenplay “Ukraine in Flames” (1944), trashed by Stalin for being “a great manifestation of Ukrainian nationalism.” In doing so, Ukrainian intellectual and political elites might want to examine the experience of other countries, such as Canada, which has been able to successfully incorporate the battle of Vimy Ridge into the national narrative.
Ultimately, the success of national reconciliation is not just incumbent upon the willingness of Eastern Ukraine to recognize the UPA. Western Ukraine must also acknowledge the fact that Ukrainians in the Red Army also fought for the liberation of their motherland. Only then can the old divisions be healed and the Victory Day become a true national holiday.