How May 9 turned from a celebration of the might of Russia and the USSR into a day of solidarity with Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) attends the Victory Day military parade in the Red Square in Moscow, Russia, 09 May 2022.
© EPA-EFE/MIKHAIL METZEL / KREMLIN POOL / SPUTNIK   |   Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) attends the Victory Day military parade in the Red Square in Moscow, Russia, 09 May 2022.

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May 9 is one of the pillars underlying the Soviet-Russian myth that the Putin regime has been fostering for years. It is a celebration of the triumph of a peaceful nation that was attacked by the Nazi evil, a country whose people took up arms, first to defend their fatherland, then to save the whole of Europe. The Russian people is the descendant of the Great Soviet nation, and Russia is the heir to the USSR. Much like its predecessor, Russia stands for the good threatened by evil. Like the USSR, Russia too is a force to be reckoned with, which could very easily reach Berlin again, if necessary. May 9 is the day when the whole world recalls the might of the USSR and can admire that of present-day Russia, proudly showcased in military parades organized in the Red Square in Moscow.

Myth outshines history or reality. The facts that taint this image of heroic victim are typically mystified: the role the USSR played in triggering World War II, the original pact with the Nazis, the war crimes and the brutal occupation that followed in parts of Europe, Russia’s acts of aggression in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine. The Kremlin projects an image that has nothing to do with the hard reality, a Potemkin village.

The charade continued this year as well, and the reality beyond the myth could no longer be concealed. Perhaps the Russians, after being fed state propaganda on every channel that is still broadcasting, still believe in the strength of their army. Yet external observers cannot but notice the stark contrast between the images of the glittering and well-disciplined army parading in the Red Square and the failure of Russian forces in Ukraine. Between the smiles of female soldiers marching and the weary, haunted faces of Ukrainian women who escaped Mariupol. Between the symbols that cameras typically zoomed in on time and again – the religious icons, the two-headed eagle, the eternal flame – and the ruins of Ukrainian buildings destroyed by Russian shelling. The same contrast applies to the old Putin, a macho seen horse-riding bare-chested in Siberia or who would shrewdly smile at Alina Kabaeva, and the present-day Putin, overweight and trudging along, reading out his speeches from large-font cue cards or covering his legs with a blanket, just like an old man whom the cold is starting to get to in his old age.  In previous years, joining Putin in the stands were other heads of state who would come to witness Russia’s military might for themselves. This year, not even Lukashenko turned up.

Outside Russia, Moscow’s representatives and supporters tried to mark Victory Day in ex-Soviet and ex-communist countries, but in most cases, their actions were overshadowed by protest actions against Russia’s acts of aggression or demonstrations of solidarity with Ukraine. Veridica’s contributors in ex-Soviet and ex-communist states have closely followed May 9 celebrations.

Bulgaria: a show of support for Ukraine featuring Russians opposing Putin

Traditional May 9 celebrations in Bulgaria were much more muted in comparison to previous years. Russian ambassador Eleonora Mitrofanova, controversial for openly supporting Kremlin's politics during media appearances and intimidating on several occasions the ruling coalition, commemorated the event in Sofia and Plovdiv with a high level of security around her. "We see crowds of supporters of fascism these days", Mitrofanova, dressed in red, said in Plovdiv. 

In Sofia, May 9 turned into a day of expressing support for Ukraine. Several thousands took part in a rally which started from the square near the Presidency and ended in front of the Russian embassy, while some crowds also protested against the police-guarded Soviet era monuments in the capital which have been repeatedly defaced with protest messages since the start of the invasion. As in previous events, the rally in support of Ukraine was also joined by Russians protesting under the blue and white “peace” flag, symbolising the Russians opposing the Kremlin.

Photo: Svetoslav Todorov

Although the rally went through central streets of Sofia and continued beyond, blocking usual traffic routes, it was mildly covered by local TV stations.

(Svetoslav Todorov, Sofia)

The Czech Republic: On May 9, Czech cities stripped Russian heroes of their honorary citizenships

The Czech Republic was celebrating the 77th anniversary of the end of the war last week. Thousands of people waved at a US military convoy in the West Bohemian city of Pilsen, which was liberated by the US army. In Prague, a memorial ceremony was held at the Olšany Cemetery, where fallen soldiers of various nationalities and armies are buried. Both Prime Minister Petr Fiala and President Miloš Zeman gave speeches. The latter usually celebrated Victory Day at the Russian embassy or in Moscow, but this time he gave a pro-Ukrainian speech, in line with the new attitude he displays towards Russia and Ukraine since February 24. Nonetheless, Zeman was met by demonstrators who reminded him of his previous pro-Russian positions.

On 9 May, without much public interest, Victory Day was commemorated by Russian diplomats or the Communists, who have not been a parliamentary party since last year's elections.

The city of Prague, on the other hand, decided on the same day to strip Marshal Konev of the honorary citizenship he received in June 1945. The reason for this is his decision to bomb the Czech town of Mladá Boleslav on 9 May 1945 and his later participation in the bloody suppression of the Hungarian uprising. The decision still has to be approved by the council.

On the same day, the South Bohemian town of České Budějovice decided to revoke the honorary citizenship of the first woman cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, a current Russian MP who supported the aggression against Ukraine.

(Michael Švec, Prague)

Latvia: rising tensions after the pro-Russians came back on May the 10th and laid new flowers at a Soviet monument

This year the 9th of May was the Day of Commemoration of victims in Ukraine. Since the country’s independence, the 9th of May in Latvia was just a normal day – it has never been a holiday, nor a commemoration day. However, as in other years, some people – most of them from the Russian-speaking community – laid flowers next to the monument of Victory in Riga. Similar events took place in several other Latvian cities with significant Russian-speaking communities. The day basically was silent and calm – only several dozen people were taken by police because they were drunk or glorified Russia and its army. But there were no conflicts and no clashes between the people who support the Russian policies and those who criticize them.

At the same time, there were several interesting episodes that made this 9th of May different in comparison with other years. People who wanted to lay the flowers next to the monument of Victory were supposed to do it next to Latvian and Ukrainian flags. Also, the access to the monument was limited, so people stood in long lines waiting for their time to lay down the flowers. Some of them expressed their unhappiness about the lines and about the flags but conflicts or heavy arguments did not follow.

Next to the Monument, there was a photo exhibition of the war in Ukraine showing the things that the Russian army is doing in Ukraine, but the Ministry of Interior decided to move it away in order to avoid provocations; many pro-Ukrainian people in Latvia denounced this as an act of cowardice. In general, many Latvians, especially ethnic Latvians, expressed their negativity and even disgust toward the events dedicated for the 9th of May.

The number of participants in the commemorations was smaller than in other years and, as the St. George ribbon and Soviet symbols are banned in Latvia, there were almost no people with Russian or Soviet symbols in Riga.

Despite the fact that it is forbidden, at the end of the day, somewhere in Riga were private fireworks dedicated to the 9th of May. On Tuesday morning, May 10, the flowers placed at the Victory Monument were harvested by the tractor. This caused great dissatisfaction in some parts of society.

Thus, some people decided to buy new flowers and lay them next to the monument on the 10th of May. And, so they did it. This time there was no police surveillance, so Soviet and Russian symbols were in sight, including St. George ribbon and the letters Z and V, while some sunt Soviet war songs. Only in the evening did the police arrive to overlook the situation and prevent the potential conflicts with those who did not support the event. During the night, the police decided totally close the access to the monument to prevent similar events in upcoming days. Many Latvians are shocked and on social media, they are asking for the resignation of the minister of interior. However, minister Marija Golubeva already rejected such a probability. The temperature in the society of Lavia is quite high now. Some Latvians are saying that next few days there will be pro-Latvian / pro-Ukrainian demonstrations in Riga to show that such things as happened in the 10th of May in Riga is totally unacceptable. Thus, this year the 9th May events could play a big long-term role in Latvian society and politics.

And, finally, the political parties working in the Latvian government decided that Latvia must start to demolish the Monument of Victory as it is the Soviet and current Russian symbol in Latvia. We have plenty of monuments around Latvia that symbolize the Soviet age but this is, probably, the biggest and most famous one. And, probably, the events around the "death" of the monument, the reaction of Russia, and the part of the Russian-speaking community are going to be very emotional. So, this story is not ended.

(Kaspars Germanis, Riga)

The Republic of Moldova: Pro-Russians marched on the streets wearing the ribbon of Saint George in their chests, but no incidents were reported

May 9 unfolded in Chișinău without any major incidents, despite fears there might be acts of provocation that should destabilize the Republic of Moldova. Of course, the so-called Victory March was held, which has become a tradition in the last 20 years, and which this time was organized by the pro-Russian Parliament opposition – the Bloc of Communists and Socialists.

Attending the march were the former and current leaders of the Party of Communists and Party of Socialists – Vladimir Voronin and Igor Dodon. Both are also former presidents of the Republic of Moldova. Like many other regular folk, both had the black and orange ribbon of Saint George pinned to their chests, although it was recently banned in the Republic of Moldova, along with the letters Z and V as symbols of Russia’s war in Ukraine. The Moldovan Police announced it recorded 42 such violations over the course of the day and that those who were identified displaying the symbols risk fines up to 900 Euro. 

Photo: Mădălin Necșuțu

Like every year, the march ended in front of the memorial to the Soviet soldiers, where officials and authorities paid floral tributes. There is also another smaller memorial on the same premise devoted to the heroes killed in the 1992 war in Transnistria. Unlike participants who celebrated the victory of the USSR against Nazi Germany in 1945, the Moldovan Parliament Speaker, Igor Grosu, referred to May 9 as a commemoration of peace, at the same time criticizing the war in Ukraine

(Corneliu Rusnac, Chișinău)

Poland: “This is not the day of victory over fascism, but the day of the revival of fascism. A day of disgrace”

The Embassy of the Russian Federation in Warsaw planned to organize the traditional May 9 celebration, but two days before that date – after the mayor of the capital said that "he has no consent to the aggressor's fete in Warsaw" – it gave up the plan. However, in spite of the cancelation of the main event, ambassador Sergei Andreyev announced that he would lay flowers at the Mausoleum of Soviet Soldiers Cemetery in Warsaw. Anti-war activists warned that he would not be allowed to do so. On Monday, two hours before the planned arrival of the ambassador, protesters began to gather at the entrance to the cemetery. In addition to opponents of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, there was also a group with the orange and black ribbons of St. George (it has been one of the symbols of support for Vladimir Putin's aggressive policy towards Ukraine since the annexation of Crimea). Pro-Russian demonstrators shouted homophobic and anti-Semitic slogans in Polish and shouted at the Ukrainians: "Down with the Nazis!" The quarrels between the two groups intensified.

At the same time, an anti-war event was taking place at the entrance gate to the cemetery: people were lying on the ground, their clothes were covered with red paint, behind them a large banner with the inscription "Criminals". “We are here out of respect for people who are fighting with Russia in Ukraine for freedom and democracy. We respect the victims of the war lying in this cemetery, but we treat the ambassador's visit as a provocation to the victims of rape and murders committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine,” said Volodymyr, the organizer of the protest. “This is not the day of victory over fascism, but the day of the revival of fascism. A day of disgrace”, shouted Natalia Panczenko from Euromaidan-Warsaw, a citizen initiative that has been working to support Ukraine on its way to European integration.

When the Russian ambassador got out of the car at noon, the crowd began to press against the small group of policemen protecting him. The crowd shouted, "Fascists!" Ukrainian journalist Iryna Zemlyana threw a can of red paint at the ambassador and hit him in the head. Andreyev, his face covered in red paint, acted as if he had expected it and calmly returned to the car. The incident fuelled the scuffles between Putin's opponents and supporters even more. Bottles flew, fist fights started, someone fell with his head cut open, real blood was shed. “They ruined our holiday,” a Russian diplomat later complained. The Russian Embassy called on the Polish authorities to allow its representatives to lay flowers at the monument commemorating the Red Army on the same day in the afternoon.

Photo: EPA-EFE/Leszek Szymanski

The head of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs regretted the incident "which should not have happened". On the other hand, the interior minister admitted that "the emotions of Ukrainian women whose husbands are fighting to defend their homeland are understandable."

They are understandable, but it must also be understood that Russia has received material that it will surely enjoy using for the next few days, or maybe weeks, to severely criticize Poland. The photo of the "bloodied" ambassador of the Russian Federation, attacked in Warsaw, is a valuable trophy for Putin's propaganda.

(Michal Kukawski, Warsaw)

Romania: “The Red Square show was overshadowed by the images from Bucha and Mariupol

This year, Victory Day was marked in the West as a celebration of peace, reconciliation and unity, while in Moscow it venerated war and death. The grotesque parade staged in the Red Square recalled the Nazi rallies, while the TV production was reminiscent of Leni Riefenstahl’s finest propaganda works. The “liberating” Red Army paraded against an absurd and discordant backdrop of religious icons, hammers and sickles.

The Romanian media broadcast the messages of both Putin and Zelensky. The Red Square show was overshadowed by the images from Bucha and Mariupol. Putin looked like a self-made caricature, the head gravedigger.

This year, the war in Ukraine casts a shadow over Europe Day celebrations. Unexpectedly, Romanian politicians these days appeared to be reasonable, even wise.

(Marian Voicu, Bucharest)

Ukraine: “evil has returned”

In Ukraine, Victory Day marking the victory against Nazism in World War II was celebrated in the context of military clashes with Russia. Ukraine is gradually shifting from the concept of victory to the commemoration of the victims of the world war, while the war launched by Russia in February is accelerating this process.

No one in large Ukrainian cities organized any parades. The soldiers are out there, fighting in the trenches, piloting fighter jets or navigating battleships, defending their country against the Russian aggression.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said the Ukrainian people will never forget what their forbearers did in the Second World War. “Very soon, there will be two Victory Days in Ukraine. And someone will no longer have a day to celebrate”, Zelensky said, referring to Russia’s “defeat” in this war.

“We won the war back then. And we will win today as well”, Zelensky went on to say, referring to talks held last week in Parliament in Kyiv, according to which Russia was “privatizing” the victory against German Nazism, while Ukrainian territory itself was the most ravaged by the war.

On May 9, Zelensky said “we will not allow anyone to annex victory, to privatize it”, suggesting that it wasn’t just Russia that defeated Nazism in World War II.

On May 8, Ukraine marked the Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation. In a video message recorded in the city of Borodyanka, where Russian soldiers committed war crimes, president Zelensky said that “evil has returned, in a different form, under different slogans, but for the same purpose”.

The president of Ukraine compared Russian military to the Nazi evil, arguing that Ukraine and its Western allies will prevail again: “No evil can go unpunished, it cannot hide in a bunker.”

It came as a great surprise for the Ukrainian people to learn that people attended parades in Russian-held cities in eastern and southern Ukraine, in the crosshairs of snipers and supported by large groups of people brought over from Crimea and Moscow especially for this event.

The images were used to show the Russians back home that the “liberated cities” are already rejoicing for being able to celebrate Victory Day.

(Marin Gherman, Cernăuți)

Read more on Veridica: Victory Day and the Soviet Empire: what May 9 may still mean in the former USSR and ex-communist states

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