In Ukraine, 9 May is a national holiday. Established in 1965 under Brezhnev, this day used to commemorate the victory in the Great Patriotic War of 1941–45, as it was known in the Soviet Union.
The commemoration day was created to celebrate the unified and heroic fight of the Soviet people against Nazi Germany. The term Great Patriotic War was used only to describe the Soviet Union’s defensive war against Germany from 1941 onwards, and as such it omitted the Soviet Union’s prior involvement in the war.
Until recently, the old quasi-Soviet tradition of war commemoration was still in place in Ukraine. However, this year the meaning of the Victory Day has been re-defined in Ukraine. With the war in the Donbas region and Russia’s involvement in it, political elites in Ukraine have altered the official interpretation of the Second World War.
New laws, new symbols
In March, Ukraine’s current president Petro Poroshenko signed a decree concerning the Victory Day, proposing a number of changes to the commemorative procedures. The purpose was to consolidate the Ukrainian nation.
As the decree’s title ‘On the procedures to commemorate in 2015 the 70th anniversary of Victory over Nazism in Europe and the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII’ suggests, the official war commemoration discourse prompted the Ukrainian public to develop a new way of thinking about the war.
The decree avoids references to the Great Patriotic War, which has been intensively promoted in Russia and some post-Soviet states. Instead, the presidential decree advocates a European perspective to commemorating the victory over Nazism.
Moreover, the focus is on the Ukrainian efforts in bringing down Nazi Germany, which suggests that all nations should acknowledge the independent role of Ukrainians in overcoming Nazism. There is another new law – ‘On the immortalization of the victory over Nazism in WWII in 1939–1945’ – that includes similar changes to the notion of the Victory Day. The Ukrainian parliament adopted it on 9 April 2015, and it currently awaits the president’s approval.
In the law, the Victory Day has been renamed as ‘the Day of victory over Nazism in WWII’, in short ‘the Day of victory’. The use of the lower case ‘victory’ in the new definition avoids any allusion to heroism, and hence lessens the importance of this day as a commemorative event.
Also, the adherence to the timeline of 1939–1945 converges with the Western understanding of the Second World War. The law cancels the previous one ‘On the immortalization of Victory in the Great Patriotic War 1941–1945’, and with it the use of any Soviet symbols during commemorative ceremonies.
No more heroism and sacrifice
Both the president’s decree and the new parliamentary law mean a step towards changing the conceptualisation of the Victory Day. The idea is to establish a new commemorative day, the Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation, which is to be held 8 May. The new commemorative day will not be a national holiday.
The law adheres to the timeframe of 8–9 May, which the United Nations proposed in 2004 and 2010 as a tribute to the victims of the Second World War. With the introduction of the new remembrance day, political elites in Ukraine have re-defined the way in which the war should be remembered.
Heroism and sacrifice have given place to grief and mourning. This official re-interpretation of the war encourages the Ukrainian population to share its historical memory with the European Union rather than with Russia.
As the capitulation of Germany took place late on 8 May 1945, it was already 9 May in Moscow. This means that most Western European countries hold commemorations on a different day than Russia.
Moreover, the focus on remembering the tragic and painful experiences of Nazism, Stalinism, the Holocaust and mass expulsions has become the basis of identity construction in the European Union.
The struggle for statehood
Similarly to the above-mentioned legal documents, the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, coordinated by the Ukrainian government, urged the disassembly of the Soviet war myth.
The renunciation of the Soviet war commemoration tradition has manifested foremost in the choice of vocabulary, most prominent being the institute’s proposal that 8–9 May should be ‘commemorated’ rather than ‘celebrated’. With this re-conceptualisation, it is implicitly suggested that the Ukrainians distance themselves from the Russian war commemoration tradition, along with its glorious military celebrations.
The internationalisation of the Ukrainian Second World War commemoration discourse became increasingly obvious after the institute presented a new logo consisting of a stylised poppy flower, the dates 1939–1945, and the slogan ‘Пам’ятаємо. Перемагаємо’, officially translated as ‘We honor. We prevail’.
As it is known, in the United Kingdom and some Commonwealth countries, the poppy is widely associated with the remembrance of the soldiers who fell in the First World War and other wars. According to the institute, the poppy in the logo, which was already introduced in 2014, is not only similar to flowers which occur in Ukrainian folklore, but also reminds a bleeding bullet wound.
From this perspective, the logo may be interpreted as a reference to Ukraine’s present situation. In combination with the poppy and the dates 1939–1941, the slogan ‘We honor. We prevail’ could be read as an analogy between the fight of the Ukrainian army in the Donbas region and the Ukrainian struggle for statehood in the Second World War.
The future will tell as to what extent the Ukrainian population will embrace the new interpretation of the Second World War. After all, different individuals and groups living in Ukraine have their own war experiences and memories.