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East: Victory Day Continues To Stir Debate

  • Salome Asatiani

Russian soldiers in World War II uniforms march in a parade on Red Square in November 2006 (epa) May 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- This year's Victory Day celebrations on May 9 in Russia and the former Soviet Union will have a particular poignancy.


The recent removal of a World War II monument in Estonia sparked violent protests from Estonia's ethnic-Russian population and has soured relations between Tallinn and Moscow.


For millions, May 9, 1945, was a day of joy -- but for others, the date marked the beginning of new hardships.


For people in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, May 9 marked their reincorporation into the Soviet Union, into which they were initially absorbed in 1940. For the countries of Eastern Europe, the end of World War II meant the beginning of decades of Soviet domination.

Many countries continue to celebrate May 9, but there have been debates about what this day means -- and how it should be marked.

The End Or The Beginning?


Now, the Soviet Union is gone and the Baltic states are members of NATO and the European Union. But World War II is far from forgotten.


The removal of the war memorial from central Tallinn has fiercely divided the Russian and Estonian governments and their peoples. Russia accuses Estonia of disrespecting the millions of Soviet soldiers who died fighting Nazi Germany, and who, they say, liberated Estonia. For Estonians, the Soviet liberation was overshadowed by five decades of postwar Soviet occupation.


"The problem is -- or was, actually -- that we had a suspicion that the war graves, or graves, were under a trolleybus stop," Estonian Defense Ministry spokesperson Madis Mikko told RFE/RL. "On the other hand, the statue -- or the gravestone -- was used [for the] last two or three years by some radical groups as a symbol of Soviet occupation of Estonian territory. And all these circumstances, together, forced the government to make that kind of decision."


For many historians and analysts, the reaction that followed the removal of the monument is an inevitable process -- a clash between conflicting interpretations of history.


Richard Mole, a historian specializing in the Baltic states at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, says in many ways such clashes are inevitable.


A Soviet war memorial in Belarus (TASS file photo)

"[Because of] the failure of successive Russian leaders since 1991 to acknowledge that it was, in fact, an occupation; that the Russians living in the Baltic states now are perceived as descendants of occupiers, this was inevitable that there was going to be clashes over history," Mole says. "They are just working with two completely different understandings of the events surrounding the incorporation of Estonia into the USSR."


"On September 22, 1944, the Red Army 'liberated' Tallinn not from German forces, who were nearly gone, but from a legitimate Estonian government," former Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar wrote in a May 3 article in "The Wall Street Journal." "The Estonian flag, not the German swastika, was taken down from the government buildings that day. The swastika had been removed by Estonian soldiers, some of whom died in the fighting."


But Mole says that Laar isn't being completely fair.


"I think it is fair to say that the Germans retreated because of the Soviet advance," Mole says. "The Germans did not retreat as a result of any Estonian army. So in this sense, it's slightly unfair. But Mart Laar is right to point out that you can not talk about the Soviets liberating Estonia, if they then stayed for 50 years, killed tens of thousands of Estonians, and occupied the country."


A Cover For Contemporary Agendas


Estonia is not the only country from the former Soviet Union where Victory Day has become controversial.


Many countries continue to celebrate May 9, but there have been debates about what this day means -- and how it should be marked. In these countries, contemporary politics often affect the interpretation of history.


In Ukraine, the debate has focused on the divisions between veterans of the nationalist militias, which fought against both the Soviets and Nazis during the war, and veterans of the Soviet Army.


In Soviet times, the militias were harshly punished after the war. Last year on May 9 , Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko called for reconciliation, saying that nationalist veterans should enjoy the same social benefits as Soviet veterans.


In Georgia, a museum of Soviet occupation was recently opened in Tbilisi. When discussing the Georgian people's involvement in World War II, many intellectuals and public figures have increasingly characterized the Georgians as patriots caught between the two "evils" of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.


The Latvian version of recent history is well reflected in the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, which stands in the center of Riga. The exhibits include a copy of secret protocols attached to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which signaled the end of Latvian independence.


In Belarus, however, the significance of Victory Day is rarely discussed outside the frameworks established during Soviet times.


Ukrainian nationalist-militia veterans march in Kyiv in October 2005 (TASS)

Robert Bidelux, a historian of Eastern Europe from Swansea University in Wales, says that across the region, historical events are often used to advance contemporary agendas.


"All the inhabitants of the Baltic States, Russia, and east-central Europe need to be aware of the degree to which nationalist politicians exploit ethnicity as a divisive tool, and as means of advancing their own narrow agenda, to the detriment, ultimately, of everyone in the region," Bidelux says.


"Because, actually the inhabitants of the region have, I think, more in common, than has separated them," he adds. "They've suffered from various forms of tyranny, police states, which have been detrimental to everybody, irrespective of the ethnicity."


Moving Into The Future


Historians say that a thorough revaluation of history could help -- one that is free from nationalist bias, involving historians, other academics, and representatives of different nationalities.


However, according to Mole, such discussion is not likely to happen in the near future with a resurgent Russia.


"A lot of the non-Russian republics of the former Soviet Union are seeking to reinterpret their history, and present a different side," Mole says. "There are similar museums [of occupation] in Latvia, Georgia, etc."


"But again, there seems to be no willingness on the Russian side to do the same," he adds. "And therefore, I think there is always going to be this conflict. And, given that Russia is clearly this large, powerful state, and its power is increasing on the back of its natural resources, I think we could possibly see a new Cold War -- not just between Russia and the states of former Soviet Union, but with the West more generally."

World War II: 60 Years On

A microsite devoted to RFE/RL's coverage of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in May 2005.

See also:

60 Years Later, Nagasaki Bomb Witness Is Finally Heard

For One Hiroshima Survivor, A Journey From Hate To Reconciliation

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