From May 9 to May 8: why Ukraine broke with Russia's Victory Day

With a skillful speech president Zelensky shifted the Ukrainian commemoration of World War II from the Soviet Victory Parade of May 9 to the European Day of liberation of May 8. It is a radical break with Russia's confiscation of the so called 'Great Patriotic War' that distorts the war history of the Soviet Union and Russia, explains the Ukrainian political analyst Mykola Riabchuk. It is a huge symbolic step in decoupling Ukraine from the Soviet legacy. But the main job is still to come.

oekraine 8 mei von der leyen zelenskyPresident Zelensky received Ursula von der Leyen in Kyiv during the installment of May 9 as national Day of Europe (picture presidential administration)

by Mykola Riabchuk

On May 8, president Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree that made the 'Day of Europe' (May 9) an official holiday in Ukraine. The day is certainly not among the major European festivities, and a good number of Europeans are probably not even aware of it. But for Ukrainians, whose European identity until recently has been resolutely denied in most West European capitals, it is quite a different story.

The Day of Europe was originally installed in 1985 by the European Communities (the EU predecessor), to commemorate the 1950 Robert Schuman Declaration that set the base for the eventual European integration. In Ukraine, the holiday was introduced in 2003 by president Leonid Kuchma who, in his second term, flirted warily with the EU and speculated occasionally (and rather opportunistically) on Ukraine’s tentative EU accession.

In Ukraine Europe Day, however, was not celebrated on May 9, as elsewhere in Europe, but on the arbitrary date of the third Saturday of May. The reason was simple: since 1946 the Ninth of May was booked for Victory Day – one of the main Soviet holidays, interpreted as the day of 'Victory of the Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War'.

It differed from the European tradition: Europe on May 8 celebrates the Allies' victory over Nazism in the Second World War that lasted from 1939 through 1945, but in the Soviet abridged version the ‘Great Patriotic War’ lasted from 1941 to 1945. In both versions the Soviets had good reasons to forge reality – to achieve propagandistic goals and meet ideological prerequisites. As a matter of fact, Nazi Germany capitulated neither on the 8th nor the 9th of May, but on May 7 when General Alfred Jodl, German Chief-of-Staff, on behalf of admiral Karl Dönitz (Hitler's shortlived successor at the end of the war), signed the unconditional surrender at the Allied Headquarters in Reims.

The Soviets, however, insisted on a re-enactment of the capitulation ceremony in their zone of influence in Berlin, to fully capitalize on the historical event. The Allies yielded to Moscow's blackmail since they, Americans in particular, were interested in a continued Soviet engagement in WWII in the Pacific, against Japan. For that reason the release of the extremely important news of the capitulation on the request of the Soviets was postponed for 36 hours.

capitulatie duitsers in berlijn zjoekovMarshall Zhukov at the Russian re-enactment of the signing of Germany's capitulation in Berlin on May 8 22.45 hours. In Moscow it was May 9.

Associated Press journalist Edward Kennedy, however, risked his career and broke the nondisclosure obligation as he believed that every extra hour of silence of the vitally important news prolongued the war and thus multiplied unjustifiable bloodshed. He sent the news to his agency and it immediately conquered the globe. This spoiled Soviet propagandistic ambitions slightly, but did not derail them.

And thus the ceremony was re-enacted under Soviet supervision in Berlin. The declaration of capitulation was signed on May 8 at 22:45 hours, but because of the time difference in Moscow it was May 9. From this moment on May 9 was promoted in the Soviet Union and its satellite countries as the day of capitulation in order to obliterate the fact that Germany surrendered to the Allies on May 7 in Reims.

Marginalization of the Allies

The widespread substitution of the term 'Great Patriotic War' for World War II in Soviet war rhetoric had much more serious consequences. It narrowed the focus on the Soviet (implicitly 'Russian') struggle, marginalized the war efforts of all other people in both the West and the Soviet Union itself and, crucially, obliterated the fact that after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact the Soviets from 1939 till 1941) collaborated with the Nazi's and divided Eastern-Europe in their spheres of influence. In fact it absolved the rogue regime from all its past crimes, including the Holodomor (famine), Gulag, Great Terror and deportations, the invasion of the Baltics and Finland, the  partition of Poland, and many more.

Gorbachev's perestroika and the early post-Soviet years brought about attempts to revise the Stalinist historical mythology. Very soon, however, with Putin's accession to power, the old narratives were retrieved, revitalized and developed into a nationalistic quasi-religious cult.

victory parade 2023Victory Parade, Moscow 2023 (picture Kremlin)

Western gullible leaders played into Putin’s hands, regularly attending his militaristic shows in Moscow on May 9 that were less and less about commemoration of the victims and more and more a manifestation of imperial hubris, aggressive jingoism and claims to unrestrained dominance in the region. For too long, Westerners were turning a blind eye at the mounting crimes of the regime, both domestic and international, and tacitly encouraged it to further 'assertive' steps in various fields.

Ukraine appeared to be a collateral victim of this Western self-inflicted myopia. First, because too many Westerners uncritically bought the  propagandistic narratives about Russia's justified 'security concerns' and about Russia as the 'most invaded country'. (In fact, in modern times Russia was invaded only twice – by Napoleon in 1812 and by its perfidious ally Hitler in 1941 - while in all other cases it was rather invading than invaded).

Nonetheless, throngs of international pundits still seriously discuss these fictitious 'security concerns' of Russia, whereas nobody cares about the much more real and reasonable concerns of Russia’s neighbors. This asymmetry largely reflects the old-style racist prioritizing of 'real' people who have a 'real' historical agency and whose every whims ('concerns') should be taken into account, as opposed to the 'less important', 'non-historical' people who have neither agency nor dignity of their own, and therefore can be ignored and sacrificed for the sake of 'international stability'.

The second collateral problem that hunts Ukraine originates from the long tradition of the crude equasion of the Soviet Union with Russia. This automatically bestowed Russia with all the credits for the victory over Nazi Germany, while ignoring the contribution of other nations (e.g., six million Ukrainians who fought in the Red Army, where almost two million of them perished).

Or, even worse, it conveniently places non-Russian nations on the wrong side of the historical barricade as alleged German 'collaborators'. That simplistic view fully ignores the fact that the most tragic developments of WWII unfolded not in Russia, occupied only partly and for a relatively short period. The main dramas occurred on the fully occupied territories of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine (aptly defined by historian Timothy Snyder as the 'Bloodlands'). In percentage Belarus suffered the highest losses – 25% of its population. Poland  with 20%) was the second most inflicted country and Ukraine with 16% was third. Russian losses made up for about 13% of the population – roughly the same percentage as Armenian losses (mostly military) or Latvian or Lithuanian (mostly civilian, largely because of the extermination of Jews).

Divergences growing

Since the late 1990s, the Ukrainian and Russian view of the roots, developments, and protagonists Increasingly started to diverge. While in Ukraine, in a relatively open, pluralistic environment, the revision of historical blind spots and the reinterpretation of many events, unleashed by Gorbachev’s perestroika, continued, in Russia the process was stopped and rolled backed under Putin. The divergence might be the best illustrated by Ukrainians’ increasingly negative attitude toward Stalin (from 37% in 2012 to 90% today) while the percentage of Russians with a positive attitude rose from 28% in 2012 to 59% in 2021 and probably more since then).

Another watershed is the assessment of the consequences of the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement of August 23 1939. This non-agression-pact between Hitler and Stalin paved the way for WWII: when Hitler invaded West-Poland on 1 september 1939, Stalin started the invasion of East-Poland two weeks later. The effect is that, as of January 2023 85 per cent of Ukrainian respondents consider the Soviet Union responsible for the launch of WWII (an almost 30% increase since 2020) while only 7% of respondents think that the Soviet Union was innocent[3] (in 2020 that was 24%). In Russia today even a simple articulation of such a question is impossible since any reference to the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement is criminalized.

oekraine oeman 28 april 23 7 doden in oeman7 people killed by Russian missiles on 28 april in Uman

The decoupling of Ukrainian commemorations of WWII from Soviet tradition was, however, complicated. Not only because of the residual impact of Russian/pro-Russian propaganda which instrumentalized the event for Moscow political goals, but also because for many Ukrainians WWII was a very personal issue, part of the family memory, and this attachment often made them susceptible to Moscow’s sly arguments.

Throughout the 1990s, Ukrainian historians and civic activists increasingly pressed the government to shift Victory Day from the 'Soviet' May 9 to 'European' May 8, and to duly replace the Stalinist formula 'Great Patriotic War' with the more precise and non-ideological 'Second World War'. The second proposal has been gradually implemented and, by 2005, the term Second World War became dominant in historical textbooks and official documents.

But to shift Victory Day to May 8 appeared impossible even for Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko (2005-2010), leader of the 'Orange Revolution', who was really preoccupied with the revival of Ukrainian national memory. Everything he could do was to include more 'Ukrainian content' into the WWII narrative that hardly influenced its Soviet essence.

In 2015, after the Russian takeover of Crimea and the invasion of the Donbas, the new Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko faced the same challenge – do get rid of the 'Soviet' holiday and introduce the 'European'. He stopped at a half-measure: kept the habitual Victory Day on May 9, yet on May 8 introduced a new holiday – the Day of Memory and Reconciliation.

victory day in moscow 9 meiAnti-war graffiti about the Victory Parade on May 9 in Moscow. The letters of 9 May turn into 'War' (picture twitter)

As a politician, Poroshenko perfectly understood the strategic need to de-Sovietize/de-colonize the country (he actually signed the controversial laws on decommunization). But he probably felt also the tactical need to take into account the mood and attitudes of the electorate. And opinion surveys clearly indicated that Victory Day remained the most popular non-religious holiday in Ukraine (on a par with International Women Day, see Table 1), and that the support for its shift from May 9 to May 8 remained low.

Invasion was last blow

By 2022, however, the situation changed radically. The Russian war in Ukraine and the venomous labelling of the resisting Ukrainians as 'Nazis' dealt the last blow to Ukrainians’ post-Soviet illusions and residual sentiments. Since the invasion opinion surveys witnessed the most radical ever change of attitudes toward all things Russian but also a notable shift toward other things considered as viable alternatives.

This allowed Volodymyr Zelensky to kill two birds with one stone: to shift the Victory Day to its proper place on May 8, and to make May 9 available for the Day of Europe. The overall decline of the popularity of Victory Day - from 40% in 2013 to 13% as of today - is actually less indicative for Ukraine’s transformation and less significant for Ukraine’s future than the spectacular increase of the popularity of some other holidays: Independence Day (from 12 to 63%), the Day of Ukraine’s Defenders (from 10 to 54%), and Constitution Day (which was virtually unknown until recently – from 4 to 29%).

In his introductory speech that announced the new May 8 national holiday as the Day of Remembrance and Victory over Nazism in World War II (1939-1945) and rescheduled the Europe Day on May 9, Zelensky skillfully wove together two messages: today Ukraine is fighting the same evil it did 80 years ago, and doing it with the same allies – all free nations of Europe and the world. So the May 8 commemoration of European victory over Nazism smoothly moves on to the May 9 commemoration of European unity that Ukraine is part of. In Zelensky's words: the historic unity of the people who 'destroyed Nazism and will defeat russism'. 

'This will be the Day of Europe, that has supported the Ukrainians for all the nine years of aggression and 439 days of the full-scale invasion. This will be the Day of Europe, which helps us fight in all directions: on the battlefield with weapons and on the diplomatic front – with determination, against missile terror and the winter blackout, in the economy and on the legal front. This will be the Day of Europe – our ally. Which gives shelter to Ukrainian women and children. Which does not encroach on our sovereignty and does not call into question our right to choose our own national path. Which never calls Ukraine a 'fictional' or 'artificial' entity. And which gives us its weapons so that we can defend ourselves and our Europe!'

Zelensky has very good speechwriters and this symbolic shifting of historical dates indeed is a watershed. But one only may hope that he has equally good personnel in both military and civil service, for Ukraine’s way to victory and to 'Europe' is likely to be quite long and stony.

tabel oekr poll


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