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Monday, May 10, 2010

Ukraine Needs More Victory Days

Winning the “Great Patriotic War” wasn’t Ukraine’s only or greatest victory

Typical May 9 breakfast in Ukraine would include bread (

Much ado about reconciliation

The same debate hits Ukrainian airwaves every year around May 9. That’s the day the Soviet Union decided would be Victory Day and parades should mark the end of the Great Patriotic War (called the Second World War in the rest of the world). In Ukraine, however, the war did not end in 1945. It lasted well into the 1950s as Moscow sought to establish its rule over the parts of Ukraine where Bolshevik rule was not welcome. The Soviet Union had the Red Army and the NKVD. Liberation-minded Ukrainians had the UPA guerrilla army and support of the local population. Veterans of all these formations live side-by-side in independent Ukraine today. And every year around this time, the question is asked: Is their reconciliation possible?

In the late 1990s, I had the privilege of appearing as a guest on a television talk show that had veterans of the Red Army and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) gather in the same studio to talk about the prospects of reconciliation. In very simple terms, the veterans had different views on victory and defeat. For the Red Army vets, victory meant the defeat of fascism in 1945. For the UPA vets, victory also included Ukrainian Independence following the downfall (defeat) of the USSR in 1991.

The discussion was heated, but much more civil than you will find on Internet forums today. Even ten years ago, there were only a handful of genuine war veterans in the studio. Most of the speakers were “children of the war”, historians, “experts” and politicians. The latter typically exploited the discussion to promote divisions within Ukrainian society, score cheap rhetorical points and thus escalate the tension.

As a “backbencher,” the air was charged by the time my turn to peak came around. I was told by host Anna Bezulyk to keep it short. I made two points: a) the people in the Red Army and UPA (not NKVD) all essentially fought to defend their own villages against foreign invaders, and b) the divisions of fifty years past are being used to continue to divide the country today by the NKVD’s successors. I concluded with a “why can’t we all just get along” appeal which came out more naive than intended.

After the taping, a Red Army veteran stopped and told me (in Russian) that I was both right and wrong. I was right that the vets fought for their own villages and that the war of the past is dividing Ukraine today. But as far as reconciliation was concerned, don’t expect us veterans to make peace, he said. That’s up to your generation, he said.

A few years later, I was in Lviv carrying the coffin of a 1st Ukrainian Division soldier to his final resting place in Lychakiv cemetery. After his division was routed by the Soviets in the 1944 Battle of Brody, Lev fled west, eventually settling in the USA, where he raised a family. In numerous conversations, the machine gunner bore witness to the truth of the “Galizien” division’s history: yes, they wore German uniforms but with Ukrainian insignias and colours; no, they did not swear allegiance to Hitler and no, they did not kill Jews, gypsies and homosexuals. His reasons for enlisting were pro-Ukrainian and anti-Bolshevik – the bloody terror underwent from 1939 to 1941 in Western Ukraine was enough to get many a young man to volunteer in the fight against the Soviets.

Victory came for Lev in 1991 with Ukraine’s declared independence. His family ended up moving back to the homeland where his western “halychanyn” son wed a “slobozhanka” from the east. She, a daughter of Red Army veterans, bore him three grand children. The war veterans shared many cups and raised toasts at weddings, baptisms and holidays never letting the past get in the way of the present or future. When health took a turn for the worse, Lev was admitted to the Red Army veteran hospital in Kyiv. The doctors and nurses saw an aging veteran who required medical attention. They tended to him and extended his time on this earth, never asking “And what side did YOU fight for?”

Fast forward to May 9, 2007. I had worked on the “Ukrainians in Auschwitz” exhibit opened by the president on Victory Day and thus had VIP access when Victor Yushchenko delivered his remarks on the occasion of the defeat of Nazi Germany. Sitting beside me was Bohdan – a member of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and an Auschwitz survivor. We listened as the president called for reconciliation between Red Army and UPA veterans – for Ukraine’s sake – and we both cringed when the president was booed. I saw Red Army veterans also cringe and look around in disgust at the booers – a handful of yahoos waving Soviet flags who’d most likely never seen a day of combat. They stood right beside the pool of cameras, so the boos on TV sounded much louder and numerous than they did in “real life.”

After the formalities, Bohdan joined the other vets for a bowl of kasha from the recreated field kitchens. An Auschwitz survivor and Ukrainian nationalist – he was certainly glad that Nazi Germany had been defeated. But he did not mourn the demise of the Soviet Union like those who claim it was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the last century. He was very glad the USSR fell and that he was able to mark the defeat of the Nazis in a free and democratic Kyiv.

After lunch, Bohdan was walking through Kyiv’s Park Slavy when two little girls – sisters, around 10 years old – ran up. “Z praznikom, dyadechka! Spasiba!” they said handing flowers and hugging him. Bohdan’s eyes swelled with tears. The Ukrainian nationalist didn’t care that the girls spoke in Russian. The girls and their parents did not ask him if he fought in UPA or in the Red Army. They saw a war veteran who needed a hug.

Historian Yaroslav Hrytsak once remarked that “victory days” are celebrated by people and states that are still at war. Nations that have successfully dealt with the past, including reconciliation where necessary, mark “memorial” or “remembrance” days to honour the memories of all the victims of war, be they soldiers, civilians, winners, losers.

WWII continues in Ukraine to this day, fuelled not by the veterans, but by politicians and demagogues who are transforming the myths of the “Great Patriotic War” into a new transnational civic religion for the former Soviet space. They are the ones preventing veterans’ grandchildren from turning the page. They are most interested in keeping Ukraine divided and thus more easily ruled from without.

The Ukraine of today is riddled with losses and losers, bad news and few success stories. Ukraine needs more victories (less Viktors, especially of the Yanukovych kind). For the Soviets, the “great patriotic” was the last war they won, so the nostalgia is somewhat understandable. And thank God the Nazis were defeated. But Ukraine will have arrived as a mature nation state once the country’s 1991 independence from the Soviets is commemorated as a victory just as great and joyful as the defeat of Hitler in 1945. In 1991, that was something all Ukrainians could agree upon. And they did. Victory was secured at the ballot box, not the battlefield, when more than 90% said “yes” to freedom in a referendum. But democracy is not as “sexy” as war... When was the last time you saw a movie about an election?

"We beat one enemy, we'll beat the other enemy too!" Courtesy of Serhiy Pantiuk's blog on Ukrayinska Pravda (

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