Christian Caryl

In a Divided Ukraine, Even Victory Over Hitler Isn’t What It Used to Be

As Russia marks the USSR's victory over Nazi Germany in 1945, the chill of Crimea casts a shadow over remembrances.

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

The American writer William Faulkner knew what he was talking about: "History," he once wrote, "is not what was, it is." May 9 marks the day, more than any other, when memories of the old Soviet Union rise from the ashes. All over the former USSR, from Vilnius to Vladivostok, people are carrying hammer-and-sickle flags to the monuments in city parks where "eternal flames" still commemorate the more than 20 million who lost their lives in the fight against Nazi Germany. In most cases, actually, those flames no longer burn full time — but you can bet they’ll be switched on again for the sake of the last few elderly veterans who manage to show up, proudly displaying their hard-won medals on their jacket lapels. (The photo above shows today’s May 9th ceremony in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk.)

Yet not everyone will be celebrating, especially this year. For some, May 9 is the cornerstone of the Soviet secular religion, an intensely emotional moment when the blood sacrifice of millions is used to justify the existence of a country that no longer exists. But for many other ex-Soviet citizens, Victory Day is an occasion for mourning rather than celebration, one that marks the moment when their forbears exchanged the horrors of Nazi occupation for the brutality of Stalinism.

In most of the ex-USSR, this contested sense of history hasn’t generally been the cause for major political conflicts. But the crisis in Ukraine has brought those differences to the fore, fueling worries that today’s observance of the date could trigger clashes around the country — between zealous adherents of Kiev’s independence (who tend to have a positive view of the Ukrainian nationalists who battled Soviet forces during World War II) and pro-Russian activists (who regard the Red Army’s victory in the "Great Patriotic War" as the ultimate validation of Soviet ideology). Their nearly irreconcilable views on 20th-century history shape the two sides’ positions on the nature of Ukrainian statehood today — and few other moments bring out the differences more sharply than May 9.

Indeed, earlier this week, the Russian Foreign Ministry registered an official complaint with the government of Austria over an incident involving a statue commemorating Red Army soldiers in Vienna that was apparently vandalized by pro-Ukrainian activists. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin traveled to Crimea, where he observed Victory Day celebrations designed to underline Russia’s claims to the territory, which was a major battlefield in World War II. Meanwhile, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin opted to observe May 9 in the separatist enclave of Transnistria in Moldova — a gesture that amounts to one huge Bronx cheer aimed at the embattled government of that tiny country, which could be next in line if Ukraine succumbs to Kremlin pressure.

The Americans and the Europeans, who tend to see the war as a black-and-white conflict between Western liberal democracy and Nazi totalitarianism, tend to forget that it was a far more complicated affair for those unfortunate countries that found themselves squeezed between the Third Reich and the USSR. In August 1939, Hitler and Stalin signed a treaty that divided up Eastern Europe between them, giving the Nazis a green light for their invasion of Poland and the myriad atrocities that followed. Yet the Balts, Poles, Romanians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians who ended up East of that dividing line, and thus under occupation by the Soviets, found little to recommend the experience. Stalin’s secret police, who accompanied the arrival of the Red Army, arrested and executed tens of thousands of real and imagined opponents throughout the new territories under his control, and deported tens of thousands more, at the cost of great human suffering, to Siberia or Central Asia.

Millions of people in Soviet Ukraine had already died from the great famine there in the early 1930s, which hardly endeared the survivors to the Soviet Communist Party. That also helps to explain why some Ukrainians (as well as others from the "bloodlands," as historian Timothy Snyder describes the region ravaged by both Nazi and Soviet rule) had cause to view the German invasion in 1941, at least initially, as a welcome relief from the horrors of Stalinism.

Some even saw this as a reason to cooperate with Hitler’s forces — including those nationalist anti-Semites whose active collaboration in the Holocaust would enable Stalin’s henchmen to tar all resistance to Soviet rule as "fascist" (the same way that pro-Russian forces now like to characterize all the supporters of the current interim government in Kiev as "Nazis," even though modern-day ultranationalists remain a fringe phenomenon, while a far larger group of Ukrainians have been actively supporting pro-European Union views that make a mockery of such a labeling). The memory of Stalinist terror explains why many Eastern Europeans who watched the return of the Red Army in 1944 didn’t experience that moment as the "liberation" depicted in Soviet propaganda. Indeed, many of those who had survived to experience the return of Soviet forces once again found themselves subjected to the familiar policies of arrest or deportation.

Many citizens of the former USSR don’t know that side of the story, of course, thanks to the selective version of history served up to them in school. But they are intimately familiar with the other story of the war symbolized by May 9: the sacrifice made by the millions of Soviet soldiers and civilians who died in the fight against Hitler.

Ask any present-day Russian about the war, and they’ll immediately begin ticking off the long family casualty list. This collective memory, handed down from generation to generation, helps to explain why even a 19-year-old Russian is likely to have a surprisingly intense emotional link to the legacy of the war — and why imagery associated with the Great Patriotic War is so tangled up in the competing views of Ukraine today. For one side, Ukraine is part of the sacred Soviet soil that Great Grandpa was fighting to liberate; for the other, Ukraine is territory that was regrettably re-conquered by the Red Army’s occupiers in 1944, condemning it to another 47 years of Communist rule.

Boris Hersonsky, a political analyst in Odessa, told me during a recent visit there that one of the most important aspects of the political struggle now dividing Ukraine is the "war of symbols," many of which are intimately connected with World War II. He pointed out that pro-Ukrainian forces identify themselves with the yellow-blue flag of independent Ukraine, a central symbol for the Ukrainian nationalist movement that Stalin’s secret police spent decades trying to crush. Many western Ukrainians also profess sympathy for the World War II nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, whose Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) fought both the Nazis and the Soviets during the war — though there were also moments when Bandera sought tactical alliances with the Germans, allowing the Soviets, and many modern-day Russians (including Putin himself), to vilify him as a collaborator. Nonetheless, modern-day nationalists often proudly display the red-and-black flag of Bandera’s UPA, which they see as a sign of the stubborn endurance of the Ukrainian national idea even under the grimmest conditions.

"For people in western Ukraine, the Red Army were occupiers, no worse than the Germans," says Hersonsky. "Eastern Ukrainians can’t accept that."

Indeed, the pro-Russian forces in the East, who despise the "Banderites" as Nazi collaborators, display their loyalties by wearing the black-and-orange ribbons of St. George, a traditional Russian patriotic symbol that was revived as a symbol of victory in 1945. For that reason, this year some of the Ukrainians commemorating May 9 have chosen to drop the ribbons, donning instead the poppies often used to memorialize the dead of the world wars in Western Europe. Pro-Ukrainians have taken to referring to the wearers of the ribbons as koloradki, a mocking reference to the Colorado potato beetle, an invasive and destructive pest that boasts the same color scheme.

The intensifying political polarization within Ukraine means, though, that the differences of opinion embodied by these symbols are no joke. Last month, when one prominent pro-Russian politician showed up in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odessa to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the city’s recapture by Soviet forces, he was surrounded in his hotel by pro-Kiev demonstrators, who considered his visit a calculated political slight. The local authorities managed to spirit him away, avoiding what might have otherwise become a major confrontation. The horrific deaths of more than 40 pro-Russian demonstrators in an Odessa building last week in the wake of a clash between them and pro-Ukrainian groups show, however, just how easily such situations can spiral out of control. Let’s hope that this year’s Victory Day can be commemorated in peace — as it should be.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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