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

Russian heavy weapons at Tverskaya street during the rehearsal of the Victory Day parade in Moscow, Russia, 28 April 2022.
©EPA-EFE/YURI KOCHETKOV  |   Russian heavy weapons at Tverskaya street during the rehearsal of the Victory Day parade in Moscow, Russia, 28 April 2022.

For decades, from Moscow to East Berlin, May 9 was celebrated as Victory Day in World War II. For the Soviets and those in their orbit, May 9 marked the triumph of what they called the Great War for the Defense of the Fatherland. It was the day that celebrated, more than any other day, the strength of the Red Army, and it was a day of the communist world: in the West, the end of the war in Europe is celebrated on May 8, the day Germany capitulated; the date difference is given by the fact that when the Instrument of Surrender was signed in Berlin, it was already May 9 in Moscow.

Under Vladimir Putin, Victory Day has become perhaps Russia's most important celebration. It is an opportunity to claim the legacy and glory of the USSR and to project the strength of the new Russia through military parades reminiscent of those of the Cold War. In the former Soviet republics and ex-communist states, May 9 became a holiday for those nostalgic for the former empire, for those who were still looking up to Moscow.

At least since 2008, Russia has been the biggest threat to European security and its growing aggression, along with the choice of most East-European countries to join the Euro-Atlantic structure, has been another reason for the celebration of May 9 to be reconsidered, and even moved to May 8.

This year, May 9, has a special significance. Russia has unleashed the largest war in Europe since World War II. The widespread destruction, the attack on civilian targets, the war crimes committed by Putin's army have reminded many of the horrors of World War II. The Kremlin's rhetoric too brings back memories of that conflict: the Russians are being told that their country is fighting, as it was then, against Nazis. On May 9, a military parade will take place in Moscow, and Russia will try to show again that it is a great military power, although the reality on the ground in Ukraine has shattered the myth of the great Russian army.

More expected than the parade itself is Vladimir Putin. Everyone is wondering what he will say: will he declare war on Ukraine? On NATO? Will he declare general mobilization for a new “great war for the defense of the fatherland”? Will he proclaim victory in Ukraine? Nobody besides the Kremlin knows.

Outside of Russia, May 9 will be different than usual too: celebrating it could be seen as a celebration of Russia’s aggression. While waiting for the events in Moscow and elsewhere to unfold, Veridica has set out to find out what May 9 may still mean in the former USSR and ex-communist countries, as reported by its correspondents in those countries.

The Czech Republic: “since 1991, the date of the Victory Day was changed to May the 8th, as in Western Europe”

Victory Day is still one of the most important public holidays in the Czech Republic, but perception of this day has gradually changed. In Czechoslovakia, more than 40 years of communist totalitarianism imposed Soviet-style celebrations, including military parades, the glorification of the Red Army and the total erasure of the memory of the US Army. 

The Czech situation is specific, as the demarcation line crossed the country and the American army met the Red Army in Western and Southern Bohemia. Originally, the line was supposed to run along the Czechoslovak-German border – the Soviet Union wanted to minimize the presence of American soldiers on Czechoslovak territory – but due to the fighting with the Nazis, the demarcation line eventually ran inside Czechoslovakia. Thus, the American zone included mainly the southwestern border area, but also the city of Pilsen. 

In Pilsen, the memory of the liberation by the American army was maintained for all the 40 years of communism, even though the public commemoration or display of American flags was forbidden by the regime with the sole exception of 1968. 

After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the approach to celebrations of liberation changed: both armies were commemorated, and historians were finally free to discuss the history of liberation. Since 1990, public events have been held every year in Pilsen and they were attended by American soldiers who had participated in the liberation.

Since 1991, the date of the Victory Day was changed to May the 8th, as in Western Europe; until then it was 9 May, following the Soviet model.

The celebrations have long included the participation of state representatives in official Russian events, whether it was a reception hosted by the Russian Embassy or direct participation in a military parade in Moscow. President Miloš Zeman attended the event in 2015, even though Russia was already occupying Ukraine's Crimea and part of the Donbas. He wanted to participate in 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic made it impossible. If Zeman was not in Moscow, he usually attended the celebrations at the Russian embassy. One unforgettable visit was in 2013, shortly after he took office. He drank with the Russian ambassador at a reception and came out of the embassy drunk for the unveiling of the crown jewels, which should be one of the most dignified acts of his tenure.

(Michael Švec, Prague)

Latvia: many people feel that Red Army monuments are a symbol of the Soviet occupation in the past and Russian imperialism and aggression, nowadays

Traditionally, the celebrations on the 9th of May are popular among the Russian-speaking population. Probably, this year as usual many people are going to the Monument of Victory in Riga – dedicated to Soviet soldiers who, according to the Russian narrative, liberated Riga from Nazis during WWII – to gather and lay flowers. However, this year is special. Some part of the Russian-speaking community will probably not go to the Monument because they do not support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Also, ethnic Latvians and the government of Latvia have become much stricter in relation to the Monument and the celebrations in general. Many of them expressed support for the idea that this type of monuments must be demolished. According to them, this always has been a symbol of the Soviet occupation in the past and Russian imperialism and aggression, nowadays. Of course, some Russians have already expressed their anger and dissatisfaction with this idea. By the way, this year next to the monument is an outdoor exhibition of Ukrainian war photos that opened just before the 9th of May. So, this year the 9th of May is in the shadow of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and discussions about the future of the monument.

(Kaspars Germanis, Riga)

The Republic of Moldova: tension over Victory Day, after authorities banned symbols of the Russian army

In the Republic of Moldova, May 9 is officially marked as “Day of Victory and Commemoration of the Fallen Heroes for the Independence of the Fatherland” and also as Europe Day. People celebrate what they feel is important to them: either the holiday of Soviet origin, or European peace and unity. This year, against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, May 9 has acquired special valences, especially after the banning of the so-called Ribbon of St. George, intensely promoted in Russia in the last two decades as a symbol of the USSR's victory in World War II, although it was used more by the Soviet troops who allied with the Nazis (General Vlasov's army). Along with this ribbon, the use of the insignia associated with the Russian intervention in Ukraine - the letters “Z” and “V” - was also banned in the Republic of Moldova.

The opposition in Chisinau would not comply with the law banning the symbols of the Russian army

Representatives of the pro-Russian opposition in Chisinau, the leaders of the Party of Socialists in particular, have stated that they will not comply with the restrictions and will wear the black-and-orange ribbon on May 9 at the events they will stage on the occasion. The idea of ​​possible provocations on this day, directed against the pro-European authorities in Chisinau, is being circulated in the public space these days. The Interior Ministry says that the police and the carabinieri, as the gendarmes are called in the Republic of Moldova, are ready to intervene, if need be. The Interior Ministry has stated that, on May 9, it will not stop people wearing the black-and-orange ribbon, but will give fines according to the legislation in force. For parties, the fines can go as high as 30,000 Moldovan lei (1,500 euros).

Victory Day, abandoned after the fall of the USSR, became a topic of interest once again thanks to Voronin's communists

In the first years after the collapse of the USSR, the 9th of May had ceased to be officially marked and was celebrated mainly by Russian speakers, who would lay flowers at the Memorial of the Soviet Soldiers in Chisinau. The interest in this day, however, started to grow with the coming to power in 2001 of the Party of Communists led by Vladimir Voronin, who, like Vladimir Putin in Russia, tried to render it grandiose.  However, all he managed to do was to divide society even more, a society affected by the oscillations between East and West of the parties that held the reins of power in Chisinau over the years.

(Corneliu Rusnac, Chișinău)

Poland: May 9 was an official holiday until 2015, when victory started to be celebrated on the 8th, together with Western Europe

As early as 1945, the Council of Ministers together with the President of the National Council of Poland established that on May 9 the National Victory and Freedom Day would be celebrated in Poland. "In order to commemorate for all times the victory of the Polish Nation and its Great Allies over the German invader, democracy over Nazism and fascism, freedom and justice over thraldom and violation - May 9, as the day of the end of hostilities, will be the National Holiday" - stated in the decree.

From 1946 to 1950, it was a day off from work and celebrated with great pomp at Plac Defilad (Parade Square) in the centre of Warsaw, where in 1952 "the gift of the Soviet nation for the Polish nation" began to be created. It was the first city's skyscraper - the Palace of Culture and Science. During the communist era, the celebration of the end of WWII was equated in Poland with the victory of the USSR in the Great Patriotic War, which began in 1941.

After the transformation in 1989, no official celebrations were organized, but in many cities military units jointly organized their own celebrations. In addition, Polish soldiers irregularly took part in the parade in Moscow.

Despite the political changes in Poland, the National Victory and Freedom Day celebrated on May 9 remained an official state holiday. Only in 2015, as part of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the Parliament decided to change it - since then, the National Victory Day (new name!) is celebrated on May 8. It was argued that it was on May 8, 1945 (according to CET time zone) that the armed forces of the Third Reich signed the capitulation, but it was also emphasized that May 9 was declared a national holiday "to commemorate the victory of freedom and justice over thraldom and violation," while Poland – although freed from the captivity of German fascism – fell under the long-term servitude of Soviet communism and now it was also necessary to break these symbolic ties with Russia.

As the parliamentarians noted, the establishment of May 9th as a National Holiday was "one of the acts of falsifying history and an expression of the subordination of the Polish communist authorities to the Soviet administrator." „As a consequence, this commemoration cannot survive in the Third Republic of Poland. Having the possibility of democratically deciding the fate of the homeland, we should annul the decree that is still in force, which is a relic of Soviet totalitarianism "- they emphasized.

(Michal Kukawski, Warsaw)

Romania: “Romanians oscillate between East and West, checking their watches, which fascinated Russian soldiers 80 years ago”

For Romanians, May 9 has a threefold significance: it marks Independence Day, Europe Day and Victory Day in the Second World War. In messages conveyed by officials and news agencies, they each carry different weight. Those who argue in favor of a more united and integrated Europe first refer to it as Europe Day. Those for whom Europe is all about national identity first and foremost will first refer to it as Independence Day. And finally, those for whom the past matters more than the future, see May 9 as Victory Day, a day celebrated after the Soviet model (because the Soviets, and now the Russians, believed victory in WWII was fully their doing). In the 1990s, people were even more confused. The former communists would often celebrate on May 8 the founding of the Romanian Communist Party, while the former royalists would recuperate the tradition of celebrating May 10 as the National Day of Romania.

Perhaps the most paradoxical interpretation of the multifaceted significance of this day in Romanian media was the reference to the military parade organized in the Red Square. Seen as a flawlessly directed TV show, the parade was broadcast live in Romania for a long time. Romanians were again able to set their watches after the Kremlin. May 9 was thus celebrated Eurovision-style, starting early in the morning, overshadowing Independence Day or Europe Day. Even after the annexation of Crimea and the military aggression in Donbas, some Romanian television stations continued to rebroadcast the parade. It was a powerful instinctive gesture. What even Ceaușescu himself took to be Soviet propaganda, banning it on the public television, had now become appealing and fitting.  

Confused by the current intricate and eventful political framework, Romanians now oscillate between East and West, checking their watches, which fascinated Russian soldiers 80 years ago”.

(Marian Voicu, Bucharest)

Serbia: this year we can expect to see more European flags and less Russian flags

Serbia was on the victorious side in the Second World War and made huge sacrifices. In that sense, Serbia has the absolute right to celebrate Victory Day on May 9, but so far there has been no clear message about where Serbia belongs today. So far, at the celebration of Victory Day in Belgrade, everything has been colored by Serbian-Russian friendship with the demonstration of Russian soft power. It was an opportunity to point out the brotherhood of the two nations and praise the love for Russia. Symbolically, it also showed Serbia's distance from the European value on which the EU was established. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Serbia's foreign policy position has increasingly shown signals of distancing itself from Russia, so this year we can expect to see more European flags and less Russian flags. It will also be a symbolic signal of Serbia's new positioning.

(Vuk Velebit, Belgrade)

Ukraine: following the Russian aggression, Victory Day has been thrown into history’s trashcan

In Ukraine, in the context created by the decommunization policy launched in 2015, Victory Day was no longer celebrated as it used to in the Soviet period. Before the war started by Russia against Ukraine on February 24, Kiev had relied on a compromise: it did not ban the holiday, but added a new one, for those rejecting the USSR's legacy. During the term of President Petro Poroshenko, Kiev stopped glorifying the communist regime, considering it as bad as the Nazi regime. Post-Euromaidan politicians included two separate events in the calendar of important data for the Ukrainian state: May 8, marking the Day of Remembrance and Conciliation, in commemoration of the Ukrainians who fought against the USSR - either by the side of the German forces or against them - in World War II, and May 9, celebrating Victory Day over Nazism in World War II.

Against the background of the new decommunization policy, the concept of the Great War for the Defense of the Fatherland was declared invalid. Ukraine acknowledged that the war did not begin in 1941, with the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany, but in 1939, when the two empires partitioned sovereign Poland between them.

According to Soviet historiography, the Red Army liberated western Belarus and western Ukraine from Poland’s bourgeois occupation. Most of the “liberated” territories were annexed to the USSR. In reality, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact provided the Soviets with additional space for defense / offensive in the west, giving them the opportunity to regain the territories ceded under the Treaty of Riga and to unite the Belarusian and Ukrainian peoples in the east and west under the Soviet government, a fact recognized for the first time by Ukraine in 2015.

Kiev's decision to drop the notion of the Great War for the Defense of the Fatherland was denounced by Russia's leadership, and became a reason for the latter to start developing false narratives about “Ukrainian Nazism” and Ukraine’s alignment with the rhetoric of the European states “liberated” by the Soviet Union 77 years ago. To the Russian media, the fact that Ukraine shares such western approaches is a betrayal, an attempt to rehabilitate and revive Nazism.

According to Moscow's thesis,  the USSR liberated Europe from Nazis and fascists, sacrificed itself for the future of mankind, but unfortunately the West would not be grateful to Russia, as the descendant of the Soviet Union, for the heroism demonstrated in the past.

The war started by Russia on February 24, 2002, breaks Ukraine apart from the Soviet celebrations for good

On February 24, after hundreds of false narratives released by the pro-Kremlin press over the past eight years about Ukraine as a “Nazi”, “false” or “artificial” state, Russia decided to start a war on the territory of the Ukrainian state, after annexing Crimea in 2014 and supporting the Donbas separatist movement.

Anti-Russian sentiments and the hate for President Vladimir Putin have grown so high in Ukraine that all polls indicate that most Ukrainians consider Russia an enemy that must be defeated.

According to an opinion poll, quoted by the Ukrainian press, after 2 months of war, 36% of Ukrainians consider Victory Day to be a historical rudiment, and 23% - a day of no importance.

The Rating sociological group has found that  May 9 is no longer a holiday for Ukrainians ,  but rather a day of commemoration. Therefore, only 15% of citizens consider May 9 to be a holiday, and 80% - a day to commemorate the victims of a war between two empires.

Ukrainian sociologists claim that Russia's aggression against Ukraine is the last stage in the divorce between Ukrainians and the Soviet past. In other words, we are in the middle of a second wave of informal decommunization, triggered by the Kremlin's aggression.

After two months of war, only 11% of Ukrainians say they are nostalgic for the USSR. The rest, the vast majority, believe that the Soviet period was a catastrophe for Ukraine. If nostalgia for the USSR in Ukraine is fading by the year - with Communist Party and Soviet symbols banned - in Russia, on the contrary, the number of those who want to restore the Soviet Union is on the rise, a process accelerated and supported by the Kremlin.

In April, a bill was registered in the Ukrainian Parliament proposing to merge the two events related to the memory of the Second World War, and to make May 9 Europe Day. Starting 2023, Europe Day could be celebrated in Ukraine on May 9, just like in the EU.

Victory Day in the Great War for the Defense of the Fatherland, inherited from the USSR, has become in 2022 in the eyes of Ukrainians a day of enslavement by the Soviet imperialism. They want to throw this holiday into the trashcan of history once and for all. May 9 reminds Ukrainians of “their older brothers” who started a bloody and destructive war.

(Marin Gherman, Cernauti)

Tags: Republica Moldova , Ukraine , Russia , Poland , Romania , War in Ukraine
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