In America, Victory in Europe Day (VE Day) is quite simple. To the extent that it is observed—and it is observed much less than it ought to be—May 8 is celebrated as an uncomplicated triumph of good over evil, the day that the forces of liberty received the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, one of the most horrific and warlike tyrannies in human history. On the Western Front, there is nothing more that needs to be said.
The farther east one goes, however, the more complicated it becomes. Victory Day, as it is called in the former Soviet empire, is observed on May 9 (the correct date for Moscow because of time zone differences). In Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere, it is celebrated as a national holiday complete with parades, speeches, and military bands. Now aging veterans march in ranks, with the banners of victory fluttering in the air.
And therein lies the problem. The banner of victory, of course, was the hammer and sickle of the Red Army. On the Western Front, victory meant the triumph of liberal democracy. On the Eastern Front, it meant the triumph of Stalinism.
Consequently, especially in places like Ukraine and Estonia, Victory Day is a source of division that is not easy to understand in the West.
First, Stalin’s victory meant the reassertion of Soviet and Russian dominance over what once were and are now independent states. The hoisting of the hammer and sickle anew raises the hackles of nationalists. For this reason, the Victory Day parade in Kyiv boasted a large number of Ukrainian national flags, as well. Likewise, the Ukrainian flag now adorns the entrance hall to the massive museum of the Great Patriotic War in Kyiv, built at Brezhnev’s insistence in the 1970s.
Second, the return of the Red Army was, of course, quickly followed by the return of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. Even leaving aside the question of national independence, it is difficult for people who love freedom to fully embrace as a “liberation” an event that replaced the Gestapo with the NKVD, Auschwitz with the Gulag, and Hitler with Stalin. This is more reasonably seen as a mere exchange of masters. The communists had already killed five or ten million Ukrainians before the Nazis invaded and killed another five or ten million.
For these reasons, the populations of many former Soviet colonies are ambivalent about both the May 9 observation and war memorials like the “Hero Liberator” statue which was recently moved out of the center of Tallinn by Estonian authorities. The Estonian decision and the riots following the decision—riots incited by Moscow—demonstrated both the potency of feeling by people in these countries and the interest Russia still takes in maintaining the myth of benevolent Russian liberation as a cover for imperialism.
At the same time, there can be no doubt that hundreds of thousands of ordinary Soviet soldiers hailing from Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia itself fought bravely not for Stalin or Bolshevism, but for their homes and families. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn and others make the case that the Soviet war effort turned around only when Stalin de-emphasized communism and allowed a rebirth of religion and national sentiment. There can also be no doubt that the Soviet effort was critical to the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany. The Soviet victory might not have done much for the freedom of the East, but it may have helped save the freedom of the West. And not all pieces of the U.S.S.R. were treated the same under German occupation. That occupation was harsh everywhere, and Jews everywhere were the victims of mass murder. But where Nazi race theory saw the Baltic peoples as Germanic or Nordic compatriots, it declared the Slavs of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia as inferior peoples who must be enslaved or annihilated. In these places, the war was literally a fight to the death, and one can understand how the advance of the Soviet army could be welcomed as a respite from a collective death sentence, regardless of the brutality or bloodlust of the top leadership of the Kremlin.
The division of opinion on these matters today reflects divisions at the time among the populations of these countries. This, too, is unfamiliar to Americans, who had little experience with such things in the War. Other than the German-American Bund, which quickly went defunct, and Axis Sally, the nation was unified in the defense of its democracy. With no good choices available, however, people on the Eastern Front fragmented. Many joined the Soviet army; some, caught behind the lines, joined Soviet partisan groups; some joined special national units of the Waffen SS; and in some countries, nationalist partisan groups formed which fought against both the Nazis and the Communists. In Estonia, the “Brothers of the Forest” carried on a fight against the Soviets after 1944. In Ukraine, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, with perhaps 100,000 men under arms, fought against both the Swastika and the Red Star, conducting operations well into the 1950s in western Ukraine.
Today, these divisions continue to haunt the politics of remembrance. In Ukraine, the nationalist insurgents have long asked for the same pensions given to Soviet partisans and the right to march in the Victory Day parade, a move supported by nationalist politicians like President Viktor Yushchenko. Red Army veterans and pro-Russian politicians have staunchly opposed such suggestions. Sometimes fistfights have broken out between veterans of the two partisan groups and their supporters.
In the end, Victory Day in the East is a mixed bag, carrying with it pride in a military victory of enormous scale, gratitude for the sacrifices of ordinary soldiers who drove out foreign occupiers and helped rid the world of Nazism, less happy reflections on the subjugation of national and individual rights that came with Soviet power, and continuing ideological struggle over who can be seated at the table of the “victors.” Victory Day is also perhaps the only moment that can still serve to provide some semblance of legitimacy to a worn out and greying Communist Party—a fact which the Communists exploit to the maximum.
Nevertheless, if elections are held in Ukraine later this year, the Communists will struggle to reach the 3 percent threshold necessary for representation in the Supreme Rada. In Kyiv’s Victory Day parade, the rows of veterans received hearty cheers from the crowds lining the streets. When the contingent from the Communist Party of Ukraine marched past, their red flags waving incongruously in front of the McDonald’s on the central avenue, they were greeted with silence.
Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is currently teaching in Ukraine on a Fulbright grant.