What is the future of WWII Commemoration in Ukraine?
This week marked Victory Day in Russia and former Soviet nations. A year on from Russia's invasion, The Red Line's Nate Ostiller looks at how the day has been marked and what the future of remembering the Second World War will look like for Ukraine.
May 9, or Victory Day in Russia and other post-Soviet countries, was not met with feelings of commemoration for Ukrainians in 2022. Rather, it was met with fear about whether the Russian military would choose to mark this holiday by striking Ukrainian cities with missiles. Indeed, missiles hit civilian and tourist infrastructure in Odesa, killing one and injuring others.
2023 has seen similar apprehension, this time spreading to Russia as well, as celebrations and parades are being curtailed or cancelled altogether. Victory Day had for many decades been one of the most important holidays in the USSR and then Russia, commemorating the heroic victory of the Red Army over Nazi Germany. This was a singular event in Soviet history that came to be an integral, foundational part of Soviet identity. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, after years of the new policies of Glasnost that saw previously unimpeachable elements of Soviet history being questioned and reanalysed, the heroic victory in the Great Patriotic War took on an even greater importance for post-Soviet Russia.
However, as Zelensky and other Ukrainian politicians like to point out, the territory of Ukraine was much more directly affected by the war and a higher proportion of Ukrainian citizens died than Russians. Commemoration of the war in post-Soviet Ukraine has been a controversial issue, subject to the policies of the different Western-leaning or more pro-Moscow administrations. Long before the current war, there were contested narratives on how WWII should be remembered, and often these played out based on geographical lines.
Roughly speaking, some in Western Ukraine, with its unique history, felt a closer attachment to the OUN-UPA, Ukrainian insurgents whom at times fought alongside, and then against Nazi Germany, but whom always saw Moscow as their primary enemy. This view was not shared across the country, and as recently as 2021 fewer than 50 per cent of Ukrainians polled had a positive attitude towards the OUN-UPA; only 32 per cent thought largely favourably of the OUN-UPA’s most famous leader, Stepan Bandera.
In general, despite a larger West-oriented shift that accelerated after the 2014 Maidan Revolution, commemoration of the Great Patriotic War, akin to the way it is remembered in Russia, remained the last publicly visible vestige of Soviet history. Even the ‘de-communization’ laws that swept the country in 2014-2015, which saw the nationwide removal of statues of Lenin and other Soviet-era leaders, exempted memorials to the Great Patriotic War (although the name was officially changed to WWII).
"Commemoration of the war in post-Soviet Ukraine has been a controversial issue, subject to the policies of the different Western-leaning or more pro-Moscow administrations."
2022 tells an entirely different story altogether. In the aftermath of the full-scale invasion, there has been a dramatic shift in public opinion about WWII commemoration. Ksenyia Soloduhina, a 27-year old originally from Crimea, who gained prominence from her TikTok videos detailing her perspective on the war and Russian disinformation, said, “I honestly don’t see any possible future for it here, aside from the 8 of May and Holocaust remembrance (bringing us closer to the way Europe does WWII commemorations). Russia caused aversion to the way we used to commemorate, one more thing they’ve stolen from us.”
Opinion polls taken in April 2022 found that the vast majority of respondents thought that Victory Day should be entirely changed to “Remembrance Day”, which is an explicit rejection of the traditional Soviet-era narrative of heroic victory that has been weaponized by the Putin regime. By 2023, only 13 per cent of Ukrainians surveyed thought that Victory Day was “the most important holiday”, down from 58 per cent in 2010.
Much of Moscow’s stated justification for the invasion references the need for the ‘de-Nazification’ of Ukraine, and often references the ‘Banderites’ in charge in Kyiv, which emphasises the emotional reaction in Russia to Ukraine’s shift away from Russia’s narrative of the war. When the main Great Patriotic War monument in Lviv was dismantled and then displayed in the local war museum, some Russian media expressed outrage. These negative feelings weren’t limited to Russia itself; some Ukrainians, especially older generations and those in the east and south, also were unsure about completely tossing aside commemoration of the Great Patriotic War that had been so long been foundational to their identity. Even during the middle of Russia’s full-scale invasion, a vast majority of respondents stated that they “highly appreciate[d] the contribution of the Ukrainian people to the victory over fascism.”
The Ukrainian Perspective of WWII
Despite the changing sentiments about how WWII should be remembered among Ukrainians, remnants of the canonical Soviet (and then Russian) narrative are still ubiquitous around the country. Cities and towns, large and small, regardless of region, largely still have their Soviet era war memorials. Even if there was a consensus that they should all be removed, which is certainly far from being clear, there would be considerable costs associated with their removal, especially at a time when there is much war-related rebuilding that will be the highest priority.
As with all debates about the removal of controversial monuments, it is not simply a black and white issue. The Motherland Monument, or ‘Rodina Mat’ is a towering sculpture that is one of the most recognizable structures in central Kyiv, and is part of sprawling WWII memorial complex that unsurprisingly contains much Soviet iconography. The statue bears an enormous shield, and in its centre, a hammer and sickle is emblazoned to this day, having survived eight years of decommunisation.
Below the 102m tall sculpture lies one of Ukraine’s most visited museums, The Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War, whose layout sheds some more light on what the future might hold in store for the commemoration of this seminal event. It was built in 1981, decades after the war, and originally named the “Great Patriotic War Museum”, keeping in line with standard language and narrative of the time. Amidst the wave of decommunisation, the name was officially changed in 2015, but much of the permanent exhibition about WWII retained an aesthetic and rhetorical resemblance to other Soviet-era war museums, such as St. Petersburg’s “Museum of the Defense and Siege of Leningrad”.
Despite that, the museum’s website stresses that it seeks to display the “the Ukrainian side of the World War II”, emphasising that it was a nation caught “caught between two totalitarian regimes”. Over the years since 2014, the museum has started incorporating exhibits about Ukraine’s current conflict with Russia, implicitly showing the historical continuity of Ukraine’s fight for freedom against outside forces. The overall scope of the museum is an attempt to show a Ukraine-centric perspective on events that have been traditionally focused on Russia or other great powers. For example, a recent exhibit about WWI emphasised that millions of Ukrainians were forcefully mobilised by both the Russian Empire and Austro-Hungary, and often fought “brother to brother, for the interests of foreign states”.
"The Motherland Monument, or ‘Rodina Mat’ is a towering sculpture that is one of the most recognizable structures in central Kyiv, and is part of sprawling WWII memorial complex that unsurprisingly contains much Soviet iconography."
Regarding WWII specifically, temporary exhibitions in the refocused museum demonstrate how much of the Ukrainian perspective was missing from the traditional Soviet-era narrative. “(Not) Forgotten Bridgehead”, an exhibit about the 1943 Battle of Kyiv, in which there were huge casualties among the (largely Ukrainian) Red Army troops when retaking the city, provides a more nuanced look at the battle. The Great Patriotic War has become so sanctified in Russia that to question it or to rethink its memorial is akin to blasphemy, according to some Russian politicians. This exhibit does just that; not discounting the sacrifice of the Red Army in the battle, but rather to examine whether it was truly necessary for so many to die because of the questionable decisions of their higher-ups.
The Future of WWII Commemoration in Ukraine
In a larger sense, recent memorial works about the war in Ukraine seek to fill the gaps that were left when the Soviet Union laid out their one-size-fits all version of WWII history. At Babyn Yar, a ravine in Kyiv where more than 30,000 Ukrainian Jews were murdered over the course of a few days in 1941, the memorial constructed there in the 1970s simply stated that Soviet citizens were killed. A larger memorial project that was more specific that the murders were part of the Holocaust and targeted at Jews specifically began in 2016, its timing indicative of this reframing. The WWII museum in Kyiv has also displayed exhibitions on the Holocaust and the Roma genocide that occurred on the territory of Ukraine.
Shifting away from the Russo-centric way that the war was memorialised, which many Ukrainians feel has been tainted by Russia’s 21st century aggression towards Ukraine, does not mean forgetting the war in total. After all, some 8 million Ukrainians died in the war, and the entirety of the country was occupied and subject to widespread destruction. To be sure, in some places, namely the western part of Ukraine that only became part of the USSR after 1945, there was a push to remove WWII memorials. As in the Baltics, which have also seen such monuments come down in recent years, they are often seen as symbols of occupation, a painful memory of a narrative they feel they were forced to accept.
What will happen after this current war ends is impossible to predict, but if Kyiv’s WWII museum is any indication, it seems that Ukrainians would like to remember the war their way, in a manner that puts their specific experiences front and centre, and not just to cast its commemoration aside altogether.
Written by Nate Ostiller.
Edited by Wade McCagh.