Victory Day: Russia and Ukraine Are Fighting Over Memories of a Previous War as Well

Ukraine’s national war museum has wasted no time in memorializing the current conflict, but painful questions of history and identity haven’t vanished from view either

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
A man walking past a destroyed Russian helicopter from the Ukraine-Russia conflict, at the World War II open-air museum in Kyiv on Sunday with the Motherland Monument in the background.
A man walking past a destroyed Russian helicopter from the Ukraine-Russia conflict, at the World War II open-air museum in Kyiv on Sunday with the Motherland Monument in the background.Credit: ALEKSEY FILIPPOV - AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

KYIV – The world will be watching Monday’s Victory Day parade in Moscow to mark the triumph over Nazi Germany 77 years ago, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech, in which he may finally declare an official “war” on Ukraine. A war that will replace the “special military operation” as the Russians have described their invasion of Ukraine for the past two and a half months.

Military parades will take place in other Russian cities, as well as in destroyed Mariupol and Kherson – the only two large cities Russia has managed to occupy so far in Ukraine.

In the Ukrainian capital, no special events are planned. Putin believed the neighboring country would collapse within days of his army’s invasion. On Sunday in Kyiv, the dress uniform of a Russian soldier went on exhibition. It was to be used at the victory parade the Russians planned to hold in Maidan Square. Instead, the uniform was left behind when the Russians failed to encircle Kyiv and retreated.

On the western bank of the Dnieper River, on a hill overlooking the still-closed Metro Bridge, two exhibitions opened Sunday. In Pechersk Park, hundreds streamed to the annual tulip exhibition, enjoying a sunny weekend walking peacefully among fabulous flower beds. It was May 8, officially the Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation in Ukraine – an attempt to counteract the nationalist message of Russia’s Victory Day on May 9.

The tulip exhibition seemed the furthest thing from any military victory and from the current Russia-Ukraine war, which has moved in recent weeks far away from Kyiv to the Donbas region in the east.

“We’re coming here to breathe a bit,” says Vlodymyr Kuzka, an employee in an international humanitarian organization. “Victory Day had some meaning for us as well, but the Russians have emptied it of its original meaning and now it’s just a day of nationalism. It has nothing to do with us anymore.”

Ukrainian servicemen standing in front of the Motherland Monument in the WWII open-air museum in Kyiv, on Sunday. Credit: ALEKSEY FILIPPOV - AFP

A short walk uphill is the War Museum, and overlooking it the massive Motherland Monument – with Mama-Rodina holding a sword and shield emblazoned with the Soviet hammer and sickle. The museum was opened in 1981 by then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

Every resident of Kyiv was taken there at some point in school, but they’re not eager to return. “I was there 20 years ago. No reason to go back,” says Kuzka.

“I’m not interested in all that Soviet shit,” says someone else. “A lot needs changing there.”

But they’re out of touch. Lots has changed inside the massive museum over the past three decades of Ukrainian independence. The museum’s curators are trying to create a new national narrative, one that includes other periods of history and other aspects of the Great Patriotic War that the museum originally commemorated.

They claim to acknowledge the less comfortable parts of Ukrainian history, and hope to bridge the gaps between the parts of their society who still revere the Soviet Union and those who always saw Russia as an enemy.

The main museum has been closed since the Russian invasion on February 24 and some of the exhibits have been removed. But in the building next door, which is used for changing exhibitions, a new one – on the current war – opened on Sunday.

A visitor walks past the remains of a missile from the Ukraine-Russia war, at the entrance to the World War II open-air museum in Kyiv on Sunday. Credit: ALEKSEY FILIPPOV - AFP

The speed in which the exhibits have been assembled and prepared, with signs in Ukrainian and English, is impressive. The museum’s teams were out in the suburbs and towns near Kyiv and began collecting items just four weeks ago – days after the Russian retreat in early April.

The ground floor features an outline of a Russian military star, filled with dozens of pairs of Russian soldiers’ boots. It refers to the Ukrainian idiom for invasion or occupation: “standing on my land in their boots.”

Around the star are lengthy exhibition cases made out of massive containers that originally held Russian anti-aircraft missiles, from a battery captured near Kyiv. Inside is an array of military equipment and personal effects left behind by the Russians: uniforms, weapons, documents and even maps on which their objectives within Kyiv were marked out.

A television on the wall screens speeches by Putin and other Russian politicians and propagandists. Beneath it is a pile of abandoned Russian army combat rations, large jars of soup and a green military samovar.

The second floor is dedicated to the destruction left behind by the Russians. Inside a white wooden cross are hundreds of unexploded artillery shells from which the explosives have been removed. There are piles of broken glass and a copper spire from a destroyed church, from which a damaged icon of Jesus’ descent from the cross has been salvaged. The icon is also the inspiration for the exhibition’s name: “Ukraine Crucifixion.”

“Yes, it’s a shocking name,” admits Dmytro Hainetdinov, who heads the museum’s education department. “But that is the aim.”

People examining a destroyed Russian helicopter from the Ukraine-Russia conflict, at the World War II open-air museum in Kyiv on Sunday.Credit: ALEKSEY FILIPPOV - AFP

‘Information policy’

One of the main target audiences of the exhibition are those who were not physically close to the war – especially those who left at the beginning of the invasion and have now returned to a more peaceful Kyiv.

“The aim is to primarily remind Ukrainians who are beginning to feel in Kyiv that things are getting back to normal that these things took place very nearby, just 10 kilometers [6 miles] away, and that the war is still ongoing in the east.”

Another audience is foreign diplomats and journalists. “We saw after the invasion in 2014 that the Russian propaganda was working and people were asking whether the Ukrainians really are Nazis. So we’re making sure now that people know what has happened.”

Hainetdinov doesn’t want what the museum is doing to be labeled a “propaganda war,” though. “You can call it information policy,” he smiles.

The juxtaposition between the screen with the Russian leaders and propagandists and the personal items of the Russian soldiers was made to “remind that there is individual responsibility as well,” he says. “Yes, the politicians make propaganda and brainwash, but the soldiers themselves must be held responsible as well. They had a choice not to take part in war crimes. They must not be absolved from responsibility.”

The new exhibition is just the latest stage in the building of the new Ukrainian historic narrative over the past 30 years, and especially since Russia’s first invasion in 2014. It is taking place at thousands of Soviet-era memorial sites across Ukraine.

These are often painful questions of history and identity, and also legal complications. Ukrainian law forbids Soviet-era symbols being presented publicly, but they are allowed to remain on monuments commemorating World War II. Despite that, they have been torn off many monuments.

A man walking past a destroyed Russian helicopter from the Ukraine-Russia conflict, at the World War II open-air museum in Kyiv on Sunday.Credit: ALEKSEY FILIPPOV - AFP

The changing narrative can come at the expense of historic accuracy – for example, the many historic Red Army T-34 tanks positioned at memorials throughout Ukraine have been repainted in the national blue-and-yellow colors. At the war museum in Kyiv they have just been repainted black, without the original Red Army insignia.

And at a military cemetery on the outskirts of Lviv, west of Kyiv, all of the Red Army stars and unit badges, as well as the hammers and sickles, have been removed from the steel fence and the stone columns flanking the ceremonial gate.

The graves themselves are untouched, aside for one grand, brown, marble slab over the final resting place of “Hero of the USSR” Nikolai Ivanovich Kuznetsov, where the plaque of his medal has been prized off.

Kuznetsov’s grave is an especially sensitive site. He was an intelligence officer who commanded a partisan unit behind enemy lines during the war, fighting the Germans but also the Ukrainian nationalists who, according to one version of events, were the ones who killed him in 1944. He remains a hero for the Russians, but for years the Ukrainians wanted to transfer his remains back to Russia.

The Russian government opposed this in the past, claiming that Ukrainian nationalists would start removing more Red Army graves. In more recent years, there has been interest from Russia in receiving him, but now the Ukrainians want any repatriation of his remains to be part of a POW exchange.

The Soviet cemetery is now neglected, but nameless people have lain fresh flowers on some of the graves ahead of Victory Day. Not everyone in Ukraine is willing to let the Soviet traditions go. And there are also those who are anxious to highlight the fact that millions of Ukrainians also fought, and died, as part of the Red Army.

The Soviet coat of arms remains on Mama-Rodina’s shield, for now. Removing it from a 63-meter-high statue would be a major engineering operation anyway. The Ukrainian government is content to wait for a wider public conversation on the future of such landmarks, and for now it has much more pressing priorities.

Not far from the statue is an obelisk standing over the grave of the unknown soldier. There are no national symbols left here of any kind, but nearby a new memorial tower has been erected, commemorating the specific periods in which the Soviets fought and repressed Ukraine: in the early years after the Bolshevik Revolution; in the Holodomor of the 1930s, when millions died in what many historians believe was an intentional famine; and in the years immediately after World War II when the nationalist battalions founded by the antisemitic leader Stepan Bandera kept on fighting the Soviets after Germany surrendered.

The “Bandera battalions” are still popular, mainly in western Ukraine, where their red-and-black flags fly by the national flags.

One of the many changes at the national war museum in Kyiv is a wider display dedicated to the Holocaust, positioning the Jewish victims separately to all the “victims of fascism” as in Soviet times.

There is also an acknowledgement of Ukrainian collaboration with Nazi Germany, as well as a display on the Righteous among the Nations who helped save Jews during the Holocaust. (Israeli historians claim these are overemphasized while the much larger number of collaborators is downplayed.) In 2019, the museum made a major change to its exhibitions, commemorating civilian suffering to a much greater degree and not just the military glory.

Russia and Ukraine are fighting not only over territory but over memory as well. The Russians who embarked on this war to remove the “neo-Nazi junta in Kyiv” will march Monday holding not only Russian Federation flags but replicas of the Soviet flag that was hoisted atop the Reichstag in Berlin – according to the Soviet version by a Russian and a Georgian soldier, and according to other accounts by an 18-year-old Ukrainian soldier from Kyiv. The Russians are clear that, to this day, whoever opposes them is a Nazi.

The Ukrainians are a lot less certain of their historic narrative, but right now their priority is to survive.

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