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21 May, 2012

Replacing Victory Parades With Commemoration

The official soviet tradition of celebrating Victory Day as one of the greatest ‘red’ dates on the calendar was firmly entrenched under Leonid Brezhnev. In 1965, the Presidium of the Verkhovna Rada issued a decree to announce 9 May a state holiday and a day-off for the first time after 1946. The grand celebration with military parades and patriotic elements was aimed at reviving and widely entrenching the myth of the Great Patriotic War and the great victory of the soviet nation.

For that same purpose, the soviet practice of celebrating 9 May was exported to FSU countries. In 1951, Czechoslovakia introduced the Day of Liberation by the Soviet Army, which was celebrated with a flow of appreciation to the USSR for liberating the Czechs and Slovaks from Nazi oppression. From late 1975 until the end of the GDR, East Germany celebrated Victory Day instead of Liberation Day, which was celebrated on May 8th prior to that, following the soviet tradition. Paradoxically, the Germans had to celebrate victory over themselves.

Shortly after the early 1990s transformations, FSU countries dropped the Moscow-imposed interpretation of how the war with Hitler ended. Czechoslovakia, for instance, changed Victory Day into the neutral ‘Day of Liberation from Fascism’, putting it off to May 8th a year later, like in Western and Central Europe. Unlike in the era of socialism, they quit pompous military parades replacing them with the placing of symbolic flowers at the graves and memorials of WWII victims.

Ukraine, in contrast, has preserved the soviet ideological burden of 9 May ever since 1991 as an integral part of the Victory Day celebrations organized by the government. Viktor Yushchenko’s attempts to insert a national statehood component into the celebration by referring to the defeat of Nazism as “Our victory is the celebration of the Ukrainian statehood”, was the peak of all efforts to integrate elements of the soviet story into a national context. Mixing soviet rituals with all kinds of honours for war veterans and Ukrainian Insurgent Army fighters, coupled with calls on reconciliation and unity, not only brought no expected historical compromise, but aggravated the confrontation in society on the ground of opposing WWII memorial models. An obvious thing at that point was that a totally new vision of WWII, and Ukraine’s role in it, were the only things that made transformation of the tradition to celebrate 9 May possible. Mr. Yushchenko’s eclecticism resulted in a defeat in the failing attempts to walk away from the soviet historical legacy.

After Viktor Yanukovych came to power, the pompous celebrations of the “common victory” in a typical Brezhnev style with parades and soviet propaganda campaigns were reincarnated in a perfectly predictable way. Deep inside, the propaganda campaigns were aimed at the basic South-Eastern Ukraine electorate of the party in power in, while on the outside they perform the symbolic function of a historical curtsey to Russia as a strategic ally. However, the celebration and excitement with aggressive anti-fascist rhetoric overshadowes the understanding of the real human dimension of the last ‘Great War’ and wipes out the possibility of asking whether Ukraine had any ‘victory’ of its own in WWII.

Commemoration of Ukrainians that were killed in the war should become an alternative scenario to the tradition of celebrating 9 May. A UN General Assembly Resolution dated 22 November 2004 is specifically oriented at this interpretation of the defeat of Nazism. It introduced commemoration and reconciliation days for the victims of WWII in the international calendar on May 8th and 9th. The resolution states that member-states can have their victory, liberation and celebration days, yet it offers all member-states, UN organizations, NGOs and private entities to commemorate WWII victims on one, or both of these days.

Baltic States opted for this option to celebrate the defeat of National Socialism. Estonia commemorates those who died in WWII, as well as the victims of repression and the crimes of occupational regimes, on 8 May following the Western European tradition. That is when official events with the nation’s leaders and foreign diplomats take place and flowers are carried to the Holocaust Memorial in Klooga and the military cemetery of the Estonian Army. The new model of commemorating the day when the war with Hitler ended fits well into the European policy of reconciliation and unification. In 2005, the Day of Europe, celebrated on 9 May, was declared as the day of reconciliation and forgiveness. Attempts to construct a new model of  European memorial days based on the traumatic experience of totalitarianisms, 23 August, is entrenching itself in EU commemorative practice as the Commemoration Day for the Victims of Totalitarian Regimes, allowing people to realize that a victory of one tyrant over another involving Western countries never gave ultimate piece to the world.

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