9 May was a blustery day in Kyiv – hot in the sun, bitingly cold in the shade. A day of sharp contrasts: ‘The kind of weather that makes my joints ache,’ joked Igor Nikolayevich, a local Second World War veteran who turned up in Park Vechnoi Slavy (Park of Eternal Glory) for celebrations commemorating the capitulation of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union.
In post-revolutionary Ukraine, where de-communisation laws were recently passed by parliament, and where a bloody conflict with Russia-backed separatists continues to simmer in the East, many feared that the 9 May celebrations would be tense.
The 9 May holiday – the traditional date when VE Day is marked in the former Soviet Union – was not, contrary to some people’s expectations, cancelled. A new date, 8 May, was instead introduced as the Day of Remembrance, alongside a new remembrance symbol, the poppy.
Flowers and flags left at a monument to the war dead at Park Vechnoi Slavy. (c) Natalia Antonova
The adoption of an additional holiday and a new symbol is seen as the Kyiv government’s deliberate move to create an historical narrative separate from that of the Russian Federation, which, many Ukrainians are keen to point out, is using the Soviet Second World War legacy, in its efforts to destabilise and divide Ukraine.
In Russia, the conflict in eastern Ukraine has been covered almost as a kind of extension of the Russian fight against the Nazis, with Russia-backed separatists presented as fighting a bloodthirsty fascist junta in Kyiv.
Park Vechnoi Slavy
At Park Vechnoi Slavy, I chatted with Igor Nikolayevich, who fought on the side of the Red Army, about Ukraine’s new laws. Particularly, we talked about the fact that the new legislation recognises the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) as ‘fighters for Ukrainian independence.’ These groups have been accused of siding with the Nazis, committing atrocities and participating in ethnic cleansing, as documented by historians such as Timothy Snyder and Niall Ferguson among others.
Academics have strongly criticised the provision in the new legislation that states that any denial of OUN and UPA’s role in the fight for Ukrainian independence is technically criminalised. Critics have pointed out that such politicisation of history could further divide the country, which is already suffering both from armed conflict and a severe economic decline. As of press time, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko had yet to sign the law.
Veterans march to lay flowers at a monument to the dead. (c) Natalia Antonova
For his part, Igor Nikolayevich was surprisingly philosophical about what was happening. ‘The UPA are not my friends – we will never be friends,’ he said with a smile. ‘And I can’t say that I understand this new poppy stuff. But you have to remember – any war involves atrocities, pain, confusion, this aftermath of arguing, it’s like a blanket that people pull in either direction… War is never a pretty story. Maybe if we could all just agree on that …’ He trailed off, bending down to accept a flower from a little girl who, like many other children, came to the park to greet the country’s few remaining veterans.
'Any war involves atrocities, pain, confusion, this aftermath of arguing, it’s like a blanket that people pull in either direction.'
Not everyone adopted Igor Nikolayevich’s stance. At the same event, I spoke to another elderly veteran, Vasyl Petrovich, who asked me to ‘just please [not] mention these stupid laws, and everything else that is happening, especially the accursed war [in the Donbas].’ Vasyl Petrovich was close to tears as he shooed me away, his hands trembling. A middle-aged woman who looked like his daughter – they had the same cornflower blue eyes – wanted to apologise for her father. ‘He’s very tired, I’m sure you understand,’ she said.
Next to the monument where, just half an hour ago, Poroshenko and other members of the ruling elite were laying flowers in commemoration of all those who fought, political arguments were breaking out as they are wont to do in Kyiv these days.
An elderly woman got yelled at by showing up with a portrait of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. ‘This is offensive!’ A middle-aged man in fatigues told her. ‘You make me want to throw up!’ ‘Death to Russian occupants!’ A lone voice called out in the elderly woman’s direction.
A separate group of people was passionately arguing over who was really to blame for both the Donbas conflict and the spate of recent high-profile assassinations, including that of prominent and frequently controversial journalist Oles Buzina. I observed how the arguers switched seamlessly between Russian and Ukrainian, depending on whom they were addressing.
This linguistic duality was always something I have admired about Kyiv, my native city.
This linguistic duality was always something I have admired about Kyiv, my native city, and it made me want to believe that no matter how loud and passionate the argument would grow, these people would never resort to physically hurting each other. Then again, who knows anymore? Violent horror in the Donbas also didn’t seem possible, until it was.
The arguers were briefly shamed into a truce when another group of frail Second World War veterans, flanked by younger and grimmer Afghan War vets, approached the monument to lay flowers.
Political observer and activist Sergei Koshman says he’s ‘not a big fan’ of Ukraine’s de-communisation legislation. ‘At the same time, I can’t come up with a better way for Ukraine to move on, myself,’ he confessed.
Sergei is one of many people in Ukraine who are critical of what he says is a ‘neo-religion’ that Vladimir Putin’s Russia has created around the memories of the Great Patriotic War, as it is more commonly known in Russia.
‘Honouring veterans and creating this passionate cult that has very little to do with the actual war – but is very useful for manipulating and dividing people – these are two separate things,’ Sergei told me. ‘Look at European countries, look at how many different stages of [political] development they have gone through after the war. But the post-Soviet space got stuck in one place.’
Ultimately, Sergei isn’t sure if Ukraine’s de-communisation laws will bring the country closer to the EU. ‘Maybe all of this will result in developing our own [socio-political] context,’ he said. ‘But either way – Ukraine has to emerge from the post-Soviet period somehow.’
Back at Park Vechnoi Slavy, Vladimir Nikolayevich, a veteran who can barely walk anymore, gallantly offered me a cigarette when I approached him for a chat. ‘I keep trying to quit again, but life’s stressful as of late,’ he told me. I asked him if he was worried about the political situation, but he just laughed. ‘I have no energy to worry about the political situation, I just worry about my grandson’s exams.’
We sat together and puffed away, watching two women argue who was to blame for the Donbas conflict. Appropriately, one of the women was wearing a poppy, the new symbol of Ukraine’s Remembrance Day. The other woman had a St George ribbon pinned to her chest – which has come to symbolise both the Great Patriotic War in Russia and the separatist movement in Ukraine’s east.
‘Who started this war, huh?’ The woman with the St George ribbon yelled.
‘You tell me!’ The woman with the poppy retorted.
‘The Jews!’ Ribbon woman bellowed.
‘That’s what I’m telling you! It’s always the Jews!’ Poppy woman replied.
Vladimir Nikolayevich discreetly rolled his eyes and lit another cigarette. Like many veterans, he told me that he missed the Soviet Union.
‘But things around here can always get worse,’ he said, waving his hand in the direction of the Victory Day crowds.
Most of the veterans I spoke to were agreed that cancelling a military parade this year was a smart idea. Showing off hardware as people continue to die in the country’s east is ‘senseless,’ an Afghan vet who shied away from identifying himself told me. The ceremonies in Kyiv may have been small, but there was something appropriately sombre and sincere about them – understatement instead of bombast, sorrow instead of triumphalism.
Showing off hardware as people continue to die in the country’s east is ‘senseless.’
It made me miss my grandfather, Major General Pyotr Nistratov, a Russian who fell in love with Ukraine after being assigned to a post in Kyiv, moving his wife and daughters there, and paving the way for my mother to meet my father eventually.
The author with her grandfather, a career soldier and veteran of the Second World War. (via Natalia Antonova)
Grandpa Pyotr had been a pillar of our family, a tough man who saw many savage battles in the Second World War. He had no love for the UPA, but equally hated empty political rhetoric and posturing. Sometimes, I’m glad he didn’t live long enough to see the current crisis, though this doesn’t make his absence hurt any less.
I was telling Vladimir Nikolayevich about my granddad, dragging on cigarette after cigarette as amused photojournalists snapped pictures of us, and patriotic music played.
‘I feel for you young people,’ He said, reaching out and patting my arm. ‘Our time is over, but what happens next? I can only wish you luck.’