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Unity replacing victory: Ukraine's new holidays on May 8, 9

Alexander Savitsky
May 9, 2023

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has proposed celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany on May 8, following European tradition, instead of on May 9, following Soviet tradition. Most Ukrainians support the move.

A man and a woman laying down flowers
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Kyiv, where people offer flowers to commemorate the official end of World War II in EuropeImage: Kyodo/picture alliance

"It is on May 8th that most nations of the world commemorate the great victory over Nazism," Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently stated as he proposed a bill to parliament that would make this the date Ukraine celebrated the defeat of Nazism in World War II.

Since 2015, Ukraine has marked May 8 as the Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation and May 9 as Victory Day, following Soviet tradition.

Now, Zelenskyy wants to decree May 9 as Europe Day instead, following the annual date the European Union (EU) celebrates peace and unity in Europe. Tuesday marks the anniversary of the Schuman Declaration, which proposed a new form of political cooperation in Europe that would make war between European nations unthinkable.

Protesters wave Ukrainian and EU flags
Ukraine will follow European tradition and celebrate Europe Day on May 9Image: Andreas Franke/picture alliance

"We will commemorate our historical unity, the unity of all European peoples who destroyed Nazism and will defeat ruscism," Zelenskyy said. The term "ruscism" is a portmanteau, or blend, of the words "Russia" and "fascism," and is used to describe the totalitarian ideology employed by Russian President Putin. As such, it can be understood as a symbiosis between fascism and Stalinism. The term is often employed when speaking of Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

No mass gatherings

Like in 2022, due to Russia's full-scale attack, there won't be any massive events to celebrate the day in Ukraine's capital city, Kyiv. Citing security concerns, authorities have asked citizens to avoid crowds. Law enforcement is patrolling streets, parks, and plazas, devoting particular attention to places where flowers are customarily laid down in remembrance. The Ukrainian government has also warned of possible provocations and likely Russian attacks on May 9.

DW asked passersby on the streets near Kyiv's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier what they thought of Zelenskyy's new proposal. Most held neutral or positive attitudes. Artur, 35, said he was thrilled when he heard that May's remembrance days would be changed. "To me, this Russian 'Victory Day' on May 9 seems to be the most cynical of all holidays. What are they even celebrating?" he asked.

"The defeat of Nazism cost Ukraine 10 million lives — that's what we should be remembering. Instead of celebrating, we should be commemorating the victims," Artur added.

"Who can stop us from celebrating May 9th the way we are accustomed to? We will celebrate May 8th and May 9th," said Tatiana, a middle-aged woman.

The pensioner Mykola Trokhymovych was a bit more skeptical. "I am 84 years old, and I collect welfare just like all 'war children' do," he said. "May 9 used to be a grand holiday, but now, everything is changing. We have yet to see if it will work out."

Russian servicemen lined up on Moscow's Red Square
Russia traditionally celebrates Victory Day with a parade in the Red SquareImage: Mikhail Metzel/TASS/imago images

A new kind of remembrance

"Many nations celebrate Victory Day on May 8 because it is a historical truth," Anton Drobovych, the head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, told DW. He said it was the political will of the leadership of the Soviet Union and the countries under its influence that May 9 be marked as Victory Day, which displaced factual accounts of historical events. Now, Dobrovych concluded, "historical justice is being restored" in Ukraine.

He added that each year, the percentage of Ukrainians who observed May 8 as the Day of Remembrance and Reconcilliation has steadily risen.

"Since 2015, this European tradition has been recommended, discussed, and gradually introduced into the historical context in Ukraine. Every year, we prepare training material for young people and tell them about it," the director said. "But we are a democratic country and nobody is prohibiting people from continuing to lay down flowers at Soviet memorials on May 9. But at a state level, it makes no sense to defend propagandistic and historically false dates."

Studies have confirmed that Russia's war in Ukraine has influenced Ukrainian attitudes toward World War II remembrance. In January 2023, a survey conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) found that 62% of Ukrainian respondents preferred to observe May 8 as the Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation, while only 22% supported commemorating the defeat of Nazism on May 9.

Meanwhile, 85% of the respondents believed the Soviet Union was partially responsible for the outbreak of World War II, and 68% admitted that Russia's invasion of Ukraine had significantly changed the way they viewed their own past and Ukraine's history.

Serhii Plokhii, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, said he believes Ukraine's reluctance to celebrate Victory Day on May 9 is linked to the way Russia took advantage of this holiday.

"Russian propaganda has exploited, and continues to exploit, this highly politicized myth of the great patriotic war to justify today's war," he told DW.

Lilia Rzheutska and Danilo Bilek contributed to this article.

This article was translated from German.