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    Supporters of nationalist parties burn red flags during a protest in Lviv, eastern Ukraine, during a Victory day celebration marking the anniversary of the end of WWII on May 9, 2011

    V is for Vacuous: How Kiev is Fighting the Memory of Victory Day

    © AFP 2019 / YURKO DYACHYSHYN
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    Ukraine is prepared to face 'all sorts of provocations' in the course of Victory Day celebrations on Monday. At the same time, journalist Nikolai Podgorny writes, it is the country's current leadership that has systematically escalated societal tensions over the holiday, which marks the defeat of Nazi Germany and its allies in the Second World War.

    Last week, Ukrainian Internal Affairs Minister Arsen Avakov warned of the possibility of 'provocations' in the country Monday during the commemoration of the 71st anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War, the name given to the Soviet Union's war against Nazi Germany between 1941 and 1945.

    "We have a big country. In a big country there is a large population and a lot of fools; therefore all sorts of provocations are possible," Avakov said, according to Ukrainian media.

    At the same time, the minister emphasized that his ministry does "not see any grounds [for thinking] that we will lose control somewhere, or that the situation somewhere will get out of control."

    Commenting on Avakov's talk of 'provocations,' Lenta.ru columnist Nikolai Podgorny recalled that it is the Ukrainian government which is responsible for "for escalating the situation, and for aggravating all sorts of conflicts in society [over the holiday] in recent years."

    Unfortunately, "if in quieter times Victory Day was accompanied by confrontations, this year the holiday may result in serious shocks," the journalist warned.

    It was following Ukraine's first color revolution, in 2004, that Ukrainian authorities began to play down the significance of Victory Day, Podgorny recalls. 

    "Under President Viktor Yushchenko, Victory Day was still celebrated at the official level, but even then Kiev began charting a course toward reducing the holiday's significance and filling it with new meaning. For example, Yushchenko moved the traditional military parade [from May 9] to August 24, Ukraine's Independence Day, and attempted to make the soldiers of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) out to be the main defenders of Ukraine from the Nazis."

    Former President Viktor Yushchenko (in office 2005-2010).
    © RIA Novosti . Grigory Vasilenko
    Former President Viktor Yushchenko (in office 2005-2010).
    Factually, the UPA, which operated in Western Ukraine between 1943 and 1949 and numbered about 100,000 at its peak strength, carried out a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against Poles, Jews, Russians and other Ukrainians, and fought against the Red Army and pro-Soviet partisans (6 million Ukrainians fought in the ranks of the Red Army). 

    During Yushchenko's presidency, Ukraine filed an official request to the German government for information from the Wehrmacht's wartime archives about the UPA's fight against the Nazis. Apart from a few skirmishes and supply raids, nothing was found. In fact, throughout eastern Ukraine and in Russia, the UPA is viewed instead primarily as Nazi collaborators.

    In his time, Yushchenko's efforts to glorify the UPA were met with strong criticism from Red Army veterans and their families.

    "At the same time," Podgorny recalls, despite being "an explicit nationalist, Yushchenko [nevertheless] tried to keep up appearances, and was present at the May 9, 2005 parade in Moscow, and attended the Museum of the Great Patriotic War and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Kiev."

    "Viktor Yanukovych, in contrast to Yushchenko, began his presidency with a large-scale and spectacular celebration of Victory Day. On May 9, 2010, parades were held in major cities across the country, and Kiev saw a parade comparable in scale with Moscow's. In the Ukrainian capital, thousands of people wore the ribbon of St. George, and on Kreshchatyk, Kiev's main street, veterans and ordinary people carried a 142-meter Ribbon of St. George made in Odessa." At that time, the journalist noted, the crowd in Kiev applauded as Russian and Belarusian troops marched alongside the Ukrainian army in the parade.

    ​Unfortunately, Podgorny added, "already then a 'center of resistance' had appeared – in Lviv. It's possible that this occurred with the tacit approval of the Yanukovych administration, which attempted to cultivate 'pocket' nationalists for its own purposes. In 2010, the local court banned any celebrations, and activists from the [neo-fascist] Svoboda Party threatened veterans, trampled and burned the Soviet flag," and the Banner of Victory (the military flag raised over the Reichstag on May 1, 1945).

    "A year later, in 2011, May 9 saw real street fighting in Lviv, with Ukrainian radicals opposed by veterans and the pro-Russian Rodina Party, which, after a series of fights using weapons, rocks and smoke bombs, was able to raise the red Banner of Victory over Glory Hill, Lviv."

    From the video report on the violence presented to Ukraine's parliament.

    "On that day, local police did not allow veterans to lay flowers at the local war memorial, and the Russian Consul General had his wreath taken away and trampled on; Svoboda activists attacked people wearing ribbons of St. George and forced them to take them off, eventually resulting in street battles between nationalists and Berkut riot police."

    Unfortunately, Podgorny notes, "Kiev at the time preferred to hush up the situation and not to draw any conclusions, and today we can only guess to what effect this decision had in untying the hands of the ultranationalists in their frenzied activity, which ended in the coup d'état of the winter of 2014."

    At the same time, the journalist adds, "all these events seem like a mere trifle compared with what is happening on Victory Day in Ukraine under the present government."

    "In April 2015, it was decided to abandon the terms 'Great Patriotic War' and 'Victory Day', and now the holiday is called the 'Victory Day over Nazism in World War II'…According to President Poroshenko, Kiev is now celebrating the holiday 'under a new Ukrainian system of coordinates'."

    "For example, the main activities take place on May 8, the 'Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation', 'as in the civilized world', even though authorities have promised, for now, to leave May 9 as a holiday."

    New symbolism displayed on May 9, 2015 in Kiev. Red and black poppy, dark grey uniforms for commanders, and most importantly, commemoration of the years 1939-1945 (the Second World War as a whole), instead of 1941-1945 (the Great Patriotic War).
    New symbolism displayed on May 9, 2015 in Kiev. Red and black poppy, dark grey uniforms for commanders, and most importantly, commemoration of the years 1939-1945 (the Second World War as a whole), instead of 1941-1945 (the Great Patriotic War).

    The 'new system of coordinates' also includes a new symbol for the holiday: the European red poppy, as well as a new military medal, with red and black stripes (red and black are the traditional colors of the UPA).

    Importantly, the new frame of reference also readily includes placing an emphasis on the 'special role' played by the UPA guerrillas in 'liberating' the country, with Poroshenko somewhat clumsily attempting to reconcile the group with the much more numerous relatives of Red Army veterans by saying that it was "their grandsons and great-grandsons who united them" in the fight against "Russian aggression" in eastern Ukraine (where a civil war has raged since April 2014).

    "Last year," Podgorny recalls, "thanks to the corresponding propaganda and thousands of security officers on the streets of Kiev, the city managed to avoid any confrontations. In the regions things did not go as smoothly. In Dnipropetrovsk, there were reports of terrorist attacks being prevented; Kharkov and Mariupol saw clashes, and Melitopol saw locals booing a Ukrainian military officer who was making a speech about 'invaders' by drowning him out by singing 'The Sacred War'."

    Servicemen marching before the Soviet-era Mother Motherland monument in Kiev, with a Ukrainian and European Union flag fluttering in the background; the monument's head was fitted with a poppy wreath and gold and blue ribbons; May 9, 2015.
    © REUTERS / Mikhail Palinchak
    Servicemen marching before the Soviet-era Mother Motherland monument in Kiev, with a Ukrainian and European Union flag fluttering in the background; the monument's head was fitted with a poppy wreath and gold and blue ribbons; May 9, 2015.

    This year, the journalist noted, "authorities have decided to try a new method: to ignore the holiday as much as possible. A minimum of official events, no guests from overseas, the main emphasis on the Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation and the red and black symbols introduced last year, and the banning of the Victory Banner in accordance with the so-called 'law on decommunization'."

    Furthermore "financial assistance to veterans and their families looks more like a mere handout: the Ministry of Social Policy was instructed to provide 'timely and full payment of one-time assistance' on May 5, and it's clear the payment will not be made in time for the holiday. War veterans and former prisoners of concentration camps, ghettos and other places of detention will be paid 'as much as' 400 hryvnia – about $15 US."

    At the same time, "security services will be on full alert: the government said that in the context of the upcoming holidays, 'the issue of security is the number one issue'. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov reported that the situation is under control, and National Police Chief Khatia Dekanoidze promised that security forces would employ a scheme which saw its pilot run in Odessa on May 2 (where police simply did not allow residents to attend the memorial service in memory of the victims on Kulikovo Field."

    Other regions have been advised to tone down celebrations, with Kharkiv Mayor Hennadiy Kernes urging residents of Ukraine's second-largest city "to congratulate veterans, to give them your full attention, and to spend these days with family and friends, but not to gather at mass events."

    Ultimately, Podgorny notes, "despite all these measures and statements, May 9, in the minds of Ukrainians, has remained a radiant holiday with all its traditional symbols. Ukrainians will undoubtedly express their attitudes toward it; the only question that remains is what price they will pay for clashing with the newly created reality."

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    banner, flag, historical memory, parade, Second World War, Great Patriotic War, World War II, Stepan Bandera, Ukraine, Russia
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