Liberation from the “spiritual fasteners” of Russian imperialism

UA HES Special Event: Contested Ground
The Legacy of the Second World War in Eastern Europe

Victory Celebrations (9 May) in Ukraine:
Liberation from the “spiritual fasteners” of Russian imperialism

Vladslav Hrynewych

Featured remarks by Academician of Ukraine Dr. Vladslav Hrynewych delivered during UA HES Special Event: Contested Ground, at the University of Alberta in Edmonton AB, October 23-24, 2015.

I will begin with two quotations from the works of the Russian humanist writer Viktor Astafiev, who predicted, already in 1995, in a jubilee year of the Great Victory where the fostering of this heroic myth could lead.


As Victory Day approaches, the running routine associated with it is annoying me – people tugging at my sleeves are tearing them off and the telephone is never silent. Everybody needs patriotic talk about the war – I defend myself as best as I can. God, what kind of nation are we, after all, ready to drown everything that is most sacred in an irrepressible and irresponsible glossolalia. Without thought nor conscience, they do not even comprehend the blasphemy of decorating oneself, jutting out one’s chest, and the playing with medals. It does not even enter anyone’s head to pray: the people’s heads [unable to ascertain the meaning of the (slang?) “бошки”] are bent, crippled by communist morality and lies.


“I am writing a book about the war in order to show people, first off, to Russians, that war is a horrific crime against humanity and against human morality; I write in order to tame, and if not tame, at least restrain the human impulse to aggression. And yet You [Astafiev addresses the reader] reaquire that courage in wartime and massive suffering be extolled, and forget as you do so, that the more you lie about a past war, the more quickly you will draw a future war nearer.

Viktor P. Astafiev, I Have No Answer… Epistolary Diary, 1952-2001
Irkutsk: Sapronov Publisher, 2009; p. 752.

Twenty years ago, this writer prophetically remarked how the Great Lie about the Great Patriotic War prepared the ground for the current Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Victory Day was and remains the keystone of the myth of the Great Patriotic War (GPW).

Despite the fact that the Allies first signed the act of German capitulation on 7 May 1945 at the Staff Headquarters of the Supreme Allied Commander, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, in Reims, France, and only two days later was an analogous act signed at the Soviet HQ in Berlin-Karlshorst, in the presence of Marshall Georgiy Zhukov, Stalin ordered that celebrations be established on 9 May as the day of “the Victory of the Soviet people,” and not of the Allies in general. In most of Europe [as well as in the US, Canada, and Australia], VE Day is commemorated on 8 May. Thus it was that the victory and its memory was divided into the “ours and not ours.” For Soviets, the Second World War became a foreign war, while the GPW became a native one.

The first few anniversaries of the victory were not officially celebrated [by the USSR]. There was a victory parade on 24 June 1945 in Moscow. Subsequent parades to commemorate the victory were held only in jubilee years – in 1965 and 1985. (In the USSR there were two annual parades on 1 May and 7 November, in which military materiel was included. 1 May was celebrated in honour of the International Solidarity of Workers (until 1968), and 7 November to commemorate the October Revolution (until 1990).

In 1946, the marking of the anniversary included a procedure of awarding the personnel who participated in the fixing of the “Victory flag” on the Reichstag in May 1945 – five men all told. However, in 1947, 9 May was declared to be a working day, and the single day off in the USSR became 1 January. Actually, the only common attribute of the early celebrations of victory were the [many-gun] salutes. In 1948, in accordance with an order issued by the USSR’s Minister of the Armed Forces, on this day, 30 artillery salvos were heard in Moscow, the capitals of the republics of the union, and also in Kaliningrad, Lviv, and the following “hero cities”: Leningrad, Stalingrad, Sevastopol, and Odessa.

And so, apart from the fact that the cult of memory of war and victory was born during the times of Stalin, it actually did not become truly widespread at that point. Stalin exploited it selectively in order to solidify this own cult as a wartime political genius and did not seek to remind Soviet society of its traumatic wartime experiences. needlessly. The revival of the might and greatness of the Soviet Union and the infallibility of the Generalissimo himself were extolled instead. The paradox of the victory was that it was used by Stalin to strengthen his own grip on power, and so the triumphant struggle of the Soviet people against the Nazis resulted in still greater suppressions of liberty in the USSR.

Under Nikita Khrushchev, days of victory were not celebrated in order to avoid reminders of Stalin himself, because the cult of the war had become inextricably linked to him. However, during the war itself, Khrushchev had already begun to create a “Ukrainian” variant of the myth. In the autumn of 1944, he established celebrations of the Liberation of Kyiv then, later that fall, established a date of the Liberation of all of Ukraine from the Germans. The Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine set in motion a large-scale effort to build monuments to the liberators: a “pantheon of the heroes of the GPW.” This included a series of busts of generals who took part in the liberation of Ukraine’s cities, separate monuments to “Glory” and “Victory,” and also the construction in various settlements of the Sumy, Chernihiv, Stalin (Donetsk), and Voroshilovhrad (Luhansk) oblasts dedicated to the heroes of the partisan war. Plans were drawn up for the construction of a separate memorial-monument to “Victory”, which was to portray “the struggle of the Soviet people against foreign invaders and the assistance provided by the Russian people and the other peoples of the USSR and the Great Stalin to the Ukrainian people in liberating the territory of Soviet Ukraine.”

In the years following the war, Khrushchev also initiated establishment of “general civic national-state celebrations of the Ukrainian people”: Kyiv Liberation Day (6 November) and the Day of Liberation of Ukraine (14 October). These dates continue to be commemorated. Although Stalin did not permit Nikita Sergeyevich, despite the latter’s requests, to establish attendant official medals, it should be noted that apart from those orders created to award Russians, only Ukrainians were granted the creation of a separate “national order” – the Order of Bohdan Khmelnytskyi.

In 1961, when he was already the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Khrushchev secured the naming of Kyiv as a “hero city.” This designation had been created in 1945 to reward “heroic defense during the GPW.” Until 1961, only Leningrad, Sevastopol, Stalingrad (Volgograd), and Odessa had been so designated. Khrushchev secured this measure only after considerable effort, given the circumstances with which the defense of Kyiv had become associated in the minds of Stalin’s former marshals. It involved the largest encirclement of a Soviet force and the biggest defeat of Soviet armies during the war. Over a half-million men were taken prisoner, and the commander of the defenses of the Ukrainian capital had been Andrei Vlasov – Traitor Number 1 of the Stalinist empire.

For that matter, Moscow itself did not become a “hero city” until Leonid Brezhnev’s tenure – in 1965. Also on the occasion of the victory’s 20th anniversary, an emplacement near Berestia in the Belorussian SSR was designated as a “hero fortress.” The city itself was not, since Berestia had been the location of an anti-Soviet uprising in the first days of the war.

The myth of the GPW was given new life during the Brezhnev period, when, after the brief “thaw” under Khrushchev, the neo-Stalinists came to power. Some of them were even veterans of this war. In any case, it was as they directed the political life of the USSR from the mid-1960s to the 1980s, a period that came to be known as the period of stagnation, that the memory of the war was transformed into a veritable cult. It also became one of the foundations and means of legitimization of the myth of the superiority of the Soviet system. The GPW also became a tool in the creation of a new Soviet identity.

Gradually, under pressure of a powerful propaganda machine, Soviet society found itself in the grips of this grandiose myth. Soviet veterans became, volens nolens, both active agents and passive cogs of a massive falsification. In 1965, the day of the Great Victory was re-established as a day off, as was the practice, briefly discontinued during the period of disavowal of the cult of personality, of wearing medals and orders. Veterans who had been completely neglected under Khrushchev once again felt the euphoria produced by a strong dose of emphatic celebration and civic recognition. And yet, in the end, Soviet society itself came to pay for this demonstration and artificial “rehabilitation of memory” with another round of severe prohibitions of the truth.

After the collapse of the USSR, attitudes to the GPW became fundamentally different in Ukraine and Russia. In the Russian Federation, against a background of this “geopolitical catastrophe,” this myth came to accumulate all of those imperial values in which the USSR’s officium had always prided itself – victory over the West (i.e. Germany), the capturing of new territories, the expansion of its sphere of influence into half of Europe (“We never haggled over the price of sacrifice”), and the transformation of Russia into a super-empire (“Everyone feared us then”). It was no accident that the in the polls conducted in the 1990s, 78% of Russians listed the victory in the GPW as the most important determinant of Russia’s fate in the 20th century.

In the Kremlin’s current politics of memory, the GPW and the Victory remain the key myths and the core content for the creation of a new Russian identity. Its affirmation is programmed as a dimension of an exceptionally victorious, heroically patriotic, triumphant, and positively loaded history. In such a history there is no place for defeats, nor mention of crimes committed by the Soviet leadership against its own people and against other peoples. However, the unwillingness of Russian society to recognize its responsibility for the crime of totalitarianism inevitably leads to its solidarity with the present undemocratic regime.

The fact that Russians do not wish to share the laurels of victors of the GPW with anyone else can also be added to the manifestations of an imperial mindset. According to a 2003 study, 67% of Russians believed that the USSR could have emerged victorious in this war without any assistance from any allies. On 16 December 2010, then-prime minister Vladimir Putin said to a live television audience: “We would have been victorious in any case, because we are a country of victors.”

Elements of the “missionary” and the anti-Western have also been preserved, in slogans such as “We saved Europe from fascism,” and “We defeated an opponent before whom none of the most developed, richest, successful, civilized peoples of Europe failed to stand.” To all of this has been added the new anti-American dictum: “We came to Berlin – we’ll come to Washington!” Current Russian propaganda seeks to impress upon the world that it is once again defending Europe, but this time against “Ukrainian fascism” (although, for internal consumption this is occasionally leavened by reference to a struggle against the USA for the sake of “our Ukrainian brothers.”

For Russia, the celebration of victory continues to be, first of all, the Day of Victory over Hitlerite Germany. It is the country’s major holiday, and its symbols – the Soviet Red Star (the emblem of Communism and of the Red Army) and, lately, the St. George’s banner. The latter brings together the symbols of the tsarist and Soviet empires, which the Kremlin’s leadership have begun to export into the post-Soviet space (since 2005) as one of the emblems of the “Russian World.”

It is no accident that the myth of the GPW has appeared at the forefront of the war of memory between Ukraine and Russia, and therefore, in the loci of conflict between the two countries – first in the confrontations on the Maidan in Kyiv, and later in the war in the Donbas. Thus, it is symbolic that when memory about the GULAG is silenced and museums about it are closed in Russia, on 9 May 2015 a “Museum of Novo-Rossiya” in St. Petersburg was opened, which glorifies Russian armies that lead the struggle against “fascists in Ukraine.”

The processes which unfolded in the post-imperial space after the collapse of the USSR can be described as a conflict between post-colonial and post-imperial memory. Newly independent states turned as one either to a creation or recuperation (reformatting, if you will) of the past, which differed fundamentally from Soviet versions of the past, since “a new future requires a new past.”

In Ukraine since 1991, there have been ongoing debates about the relevance of the term “the Great Patriotic War” (which a segment of the population rejected), as well over the celebration of the Day of Victory, and also over the manner in which this war was explicated in textbooks, official memorializations, etc.

While presidents Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma talked quite a lot about the importance of a renovated historical memory, a return to the sources of national identity, and a revival of national traditions and so forth, in practice they did very little in this respect. Instead of institutionalizing traditional Ukrainian holidays and traditions, their regimes sought to adapt Soviet ones to them. Kuchma reinstated the Day of the Defender of the Fatherland (discontinued by Kravchuk) of 23 November. In 2003, Kuchma also revived the tradition of official 1 May celebrations. Kuchma also introduced a new holiday – the Day of Partisan Glory. This was marked on 22 September, deliberately set as prior to the (unofficial) Day of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA Day), 14 October.

The cult of victory was not only not abolished, but was given official support. In 2000, during the 55th anniversary celebrations, Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada took up the recommendation of the Organization of Ukraine’s Veterans and issued a law “On the Immortalization of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945.” Victory Day was designated as an official holiday, with the intent of maintaining Soviet ritual symbols. This law also passed over in silence the “painful subject” of the role in and place of examinations of the UPA’s fighters in this war. Given that no new official Ukrainian conceptualizations of the history of this war were created, and that the old conceptions about it were revealed to be thoroughly falsified, it seemed somewhat paradoxical that this law included a provision stipulating the “inadmissibility of falsifications of the Great Patriotic War in academic studies, academic-methodological literature, textbooks, and media of mass information.”

During Kuchma’s second term as president, and particularly in the wake of the so-called “recordings scandal,” the regime found itself internationally isolated. These circumstances significantly influenced a turn of the political orientation of Ukraine’s government towards Russia. An emphasis on Russo-Ukrainian military brotherhood during the war and the common Soviet past became commonplace. It was also intended as a goodwill gesture to the northern neighbour. The crowning of this policy was the arrival in Kyiv, in the fall of 2004, of Russian President Vladimir Putin “for the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Ukraine from the Germano-fascist invaders” at the height of Ukraine’s presidential election campaign.

The politics of memory underwent a change during Viktor Yushchenko’s term as president. As a whole, according to the new model, the Stalinist USSR was seen as an empire which caused Ukraine considerable harm. Accordingly, the president spoke about Ukraine’s former colonial status, describe its status as a post-colonial, post-totalitarian, and post-genocidal country.

As for the memory of the Second World War, the Ukrainian model remained crippled. The term “Great Patriotic War” was fostered as before, as was the Day of Victory of 9 May (to be sure, now without military personnel), and Soviet-Russian symbology was still in evidence at each event. Into this mnemonic system, elements of Soviet heroic rhetoric about the GPW were firmly implanted, elements quite distant from anything that might be considered an objective apprehension of historical events. In his memory policy, Yushchenko continued his predecessor’s attempts to Ukrainize the myth of the GPW. This was manifested, in particular, in his conferring of the designation of Hero of Ukraine (posthumously) to Oleksiy Berest, the Ukrainian political officer who, together with the Georgian Meliton Kantaria and the Russian Mikhail Yegorov, took part in the “raising of the Red Banner” on the Reichstag in 1945.

According to president Yushchenko’s edicts, Soviet symbols were to be treated as official during commemorations of 9 May. St. George’s banner and Russian songs were also in evidence during the commemorations of 2008. It also seemed paradoxical that it was actually after the Orange Revolution that the term “Great Patriotic War” reappeared in Ukraine’s primary and secondary school textbooks.

This took place primarily thanks to the efforts of the so-called “Orange Socialists,” that is, members of the parliamentary coalition Yushchenko’s party formed with Socialist Party of Ukraine, among whom was Stanislav Nikolayenko, minister of education and science in 2005-07.

All of this notwithstanding, objectively speaking, the politics of memory that Yushchenko pursued led to a straining of relations with the Russian Federation. Apart from exercising its economic hegemony (particularly via its control of natural gas supply), Russia clearly sought to re-establish its political and cultural (civilizational) dominance in the post-Soviet space, and the GPW played a significant role in this respect. A barely concealed information war between the two states was engaged.

After Yushchenko’s defeat, an attempt at revanchism in the sphere of political memory was made by the new president, Viktor Yanukovych. His public refusal to recognize the Holodomor as a genocide, the juridical stripping of the status of Hero of Ukraine (conferred by Yushchenko) from Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, the revival of celebrations of Victory Day with military pageantry, the civic conflict over the controversial Law on the Red Flag of 2011, the Verkhovna Rada’s silent abetting of the erection of a monument to Stalin in Zaporizhzhia – all not only did not bring calm to Ukrainian society, but roiled it. And no wonder. Yushchenko’s admittedly flawed but somewhat consistent policy of distancing the country’s officium from communism and the condemnation of the crimes of the Stalinist empire against a background of a revived Ukrainian national narrative began to be eclipsed by a policy of reanimation of a heroicized Soviet legacy against a background of attempts to blur distinctions between Ukrainian and Russian identity.

As mentioned above, Victory Day celebrations under Yanukovych once again included a military component. In fact, for the first time since Ukraine’s declaration of independence, military hardware reappeared on the streets of Kyiv on 9 May 2010. In Lviv, the first Victory Day parade since independence was held.

The streets of Lviv also witnessed an alternative gathering, whose participants insisted that on this day those who perished in World War Two should be remembered and prayed for, but that it should not be turned into a festival. There were instances of confrontation between the two groups.

A scandalous event took place during Yanukovych’s presidency in connection with the celebrations, in 2011, in Lviv on 9 May that turned into a street fight. On the eve of the anniversary, at the initiative of the Communist Party of Ukraine and the Party of Regions, Ukraine’s parliament adopted a law which provided for the official of the Red (Soviet) Banner of victory on an equal footing with the state flag during commemorations of the GPW. This provoked a somewhat stormy reaction. Some of the country’s legal experts suggested that the “Law on the Flag of Victory” was a direct borrowing from legislation promulgated in the Russian Federation, an exploitation of veterans, and an act which would cause the intensification of civic confrontations. The city councils of Ivano-Frankivske and Lviv passed ordinances prohibiting the exhibition of any flags bearing Soviet symbols on Victory Day. However, a group of “veterans” from Ukraine’s eastern regions decided to travel to Lviv in order to “unfurl the Red Banner.” All of this led to the first instances of outright physical violence on the streets of that city since independence.

How are people in Ukraine currently disposed to Victory Day celebrations? According to an opinion poll conducted in 2013, 75% of respondents declared they would mark the occasion. It appears that this is less connected to ideology than it is to the fact that almost every single family in Ukraine suffered during the war. For example, my own grandfather and paternal uncle were killed in the fighting, and my father fought in the ranks of the Red Army throughout the war. As such, this was not viewed as a celebration, but a tribute of memory to those who perished, and a gesture of respect to those who survived.

After the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine, Victory Day was first commemorated on 8-9 May, as it is in most of Europe. The official ceremonies were organized as a day of remembrance of the dead, and a memorialization of the physical ruination caused – that is, a marking of the horrors of war in general. In 2014, the government formally refused to use the St. George’s banner, which had become, in the interim, a clear symbol used by the separatists of the Donbas. The red poppy was adopted as an official symbol. This symbol was also used, for the first time, as a logo of the conference titled “World War II and the (Re)Creation of Historical Memory in Contemporary Ukraine” held annually since 2009 under the auspices of Fulbright Program in Ukraine.

In 2014, 9 May was commemorated under conditions created by the Russian occupation of Crimea and the beginning of events in the Donbas, which prompted the local authorities of the majority of Ukraine’s cities to cancel any major ceremonies in order to avoid provocations, including in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Odessa. Religious services were held in Lutsk and Rivne instead of parades. In Lviv, commemorations were held on 8 May. And yet, a triumphant parade was held in Russian-occupied Sevastopol, with the personal participation of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A logical consequence of the Russo-Ukrainian war of historical memory, as well as of the hybrid war being conducted by Putin in the Donbas, is that Ukraine has fundamentally rejected its Soviet heritage. Also in 2014, President Poroshenko issued an edict abolishing the Day of the Defender of the Fatherland, which had been marked on 23 February. However, Ukraine’s chief executive instituted a new holiday – the Day of the Defender of Ukraine, which will be marked on 14 October, to coincide with the Feast of Mary the Protectress, UPA Day, and the Day of the Ukrainian Kozak. On 9 May 2015, the Verkhovna Rada adopted four laws, the so-called “De-communization packet.” One of them was the law “on the Immortalization of the Victory over Nazism,” which stipulated that 8 May will be marked as a day of remembrance and peace. The term “Great Patriotic War” was officially replaced by “the Second World War.” In 2016, 9 May will be officially commemorated not as Victory Day, but as the Day of Victory over Nazism in the Second World War.

The importance of this de-communizing legislation is difficult to over-estimate. It carries a strategic meaning for the future of Ukraine, and should clear the way for the formation of a new Ukrainian identity. And so, we are now presented with the very real prospect of being able to bid farewell to the legacy of the USSR. It is paramount that such a process not end with the destruction of monuments, the abolition of official festivals, and the changing of toponyms. It is necessary that urgently needed and insistent intellectual work on the “cultivation of the past” be conducted with the aim of decommunizing Ukraine’s civic consciousness, which should also be prompted to free itself from post-colonial complexes. Only such deconstruction of empire will rid us of the “phantoms of the past.”