Early in the morning May 9 at the Marshal Konev’s Height Memorial in Solonitsevka there are hundreds of people elderly and young. The young faces prevail though. Many families have brought their little children, who are cheerfully climbing the old battle tank, and their grandfathers with orders and decorations. Also, cadets of military institutions are standing in the guard of honor. Solemn speeches and music, flowers, gun salvos, the minute of silence and treating the guests with “field kasha” – millet gruel with pork fat and vegetables – those are traditional features of this day.
However, many changes have appeared since 2014, when the new war in Ukraine began, now caused by the Russian invasion. Among the guests you can see many actual ATO veterans, the local Museum presents new expositions and displays, dedicated to the actual combats and new fallen heroes of Ukraine. And, of course, people here are wearing a poppy flower with a black middle, similar to a bullet wound, as a symbol of sorrow for all fallen in the past and current wars. It is instead of a striped orange and black George Ribbon, which previously was used as a Victory symbol and became a symbol of Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014.
Celebrating the victory over fascism or grieving for millions of deaths in the 2nd World War and commemorating the fallen – these two attitudes towards May 9 have formed a divide among Ukrainians’ mindsets. The discrepancy appeared after USSR collapse, and it aggravated up to 2014 when on May 9 the third month of the Russian occupation of Crimea was starting, and it was the first month of the anti-terrorist operation, virtually the large-scale war, in the east of Ukraine. Traditional celebrations were limited then in most Ukrainian cities because of the threat of provocations and breathtaking changes in civic society after winter Maidan.
Moreover, “to celebrate or not to celebrate” issue has become critical not only for public discourse but the safety and integrity of Ukraine, as celebrating Victory Day assumed following Russian ideology and supporting it in the war against Ukraine, which was declared a “fascist” state by ominous Russian tradition.
A special place in the battle for minds was spared to symbols as George Ribbon worn by Russian-backed separatists in occupied Donetsk and Luhansk and perceived as sign of deadly hatred towards Ukrainians. Therefore, it was submitted with a red poppy, the ancient symbol of sorrow for fallen soldiers. Designed by Kharkivites in 2014 the red poppy was first worn for May 9 in 2015.
Since 2015, May 8 was introduced as the Day of Memory and Reconciliation, and May 9 turned into Victory Day over Nazism in World War II. More and more people have been arguing there is no ground for celebrations taking into account that 40% of the total casualties of the USSR in the World War II were Ukrainians, every fourth Ukrainian was killed. Moreover for Ukraine, living through a new exhausting war and counting new casualties daily, it is hardly the proper time to exult at the past victory.
“We protected Europe from Hitler Nazism in 1945. And today Ukraine is shielding Europe again! This time from Russian aggression from East. And again our soldiers are the heroes who are fighting bravely against the enemy. Glory to Ukrainian Soldiers! Glory to Ukraine!” exclaims Ihor Malitsky, Nazi concentration camps survivor and World War II veteran, pointing out to the ATO participants, standing at the memorial.
This concept is supported by the Head of Kharkiv region Yulia Svitlychna, who notes that both the grandfathers and grandchildren gathered at the memorial and thus the occasion is important for those who fought against the Third Reich, and who are currently defending Ukraine on Donbas. “This day is uniting soldiers of past and present”, says Svitlychna.
And today at the Marshal Konev’s Height this message has become the important meaning of the controversial Victory day, May 9.
Text, photo: Olena Sokolynska