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Why I Did Not Celebrate “Victory Day” Yesterday
I first celebrated День Победы (“Day of Victory”) on May 9th as a student in Moscow in 1985. In Russia, this holiday marks the defeat of Hitler on May 9, 1945. Celebrating it for the first time decades ago left a big impression on me. It changed the way I thought about World War II. Of course, as an undergraduate student at Stanford back then, I had taken courses on Soviet history and knew that Soviet losses towered above all other countries shattered by that war. But it’s one thing to read numbers in a textbook; it’s another to see, feel, and witness the significance of this war to people in real life. There is no family in the post-Soviet world (or Europe, for that matter) that was left untouched by this horrific war. Stories of great-grandparents serving on the frontlines or grandparents hiding in shelters as kids live in every family to this day. Soldiers and civilians of the Soviet Union paid tremendous sacrifices to defeat Hitler.
As the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, I had the honor of meeting many veterans of what they called the Great Patriotic War. One of the most moving events I attended as ambassador was a dinner with veterans in Volgograd in 2013 to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad. I listened to their stories of struggle and courage for hours that day and night. By the way, I met both Russians and Ukrainians on that trip. You don’t get to meet too many heroes in life. I did in Volgograd.
I also represented my country twice at the May 9th military parades on Red Square commemorating Victory Day. I listened to Putin’s speeches. I don’t recall them being offensive.
But in my words at those events and at any other event celebrating veterans – and we organized many at Spaso House, the ambassador’s residence in Moscow – I always celebrated the individual soldiers and civilians, never Stalin or the Soviet Union.
Stalin, after all, signed the Nazi-Soviet pact with Hitler in 1939 that authorized a joint invasion of Poland, which ultimately triggered World War II. The Nazi-Soviet Pact, also known as Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, had two components to it, a public one and a secret one. Publicly, the agreement established a 10-year non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union. Secretly, Hitler and Stalin divided control over Eastern Europe, with Estonia, Latvia, eastern Poland, Finland, and Bessarabia (today’s Moldova and Ukraine’s Odesa region) falling under the Soviet sphere of influence and the western part of Poland falling under Hitler’s control. Over the next two years, Hitler and Stalin collaborated to determine who exerted control over which Baltic and Eastern European states. By 1941, Stalin militarily annexed eastern Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and parts of Romania, and extorted territorial concessions from Finland. Stalin’s collaboration with Hitler ended when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. So, as the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, I felt comfortable honoring the heroism of former Soviet soldiers and civilians – Ukrainian, Russian, Belorussian, Georgian, Uzbek, Kazakh, Armenian, Jewish, Tatar, etc. soldiers – without celebrating the achievements of Stalin or the USSR. Ukrainian sacrifices in World War II are especially worth noting. As Yale historian Timothy Snyder wrote on Twitter yesterday:
“To recall the end of the Second World War in Europe means remembering that more Ukrainian civilians were killed than were Russians, and that more Ukrainian soldiers died fighting the Wehrmacht than Americans, British, and Frenchmen — taken together. See numbers in #Bloodlands”
Yesterday, however, I did not celebrate May 9th. I did not write to anyone. I did not tweet out congratulatory messages. It just felt wrong to celebrate the end of the war in 1945 as Russian soldiers were fighting another war in Ukraine in 2023. It felt especially inappropriate because of Putin’s grotesque twisting of history. Putin claims that Russia’s barbaric, illegal, senseless war in Ukraine is a replay of the Great Patriotic War. As he said yesterday, “A real war has been unleashed against our motherland again…” That is not true. Ukraine did not attack Russia. NATO did not invade Russia. And contrary to what Putin claimed, the United States, NATO, and Ukraine are not seeking to dismantle the Russian Federation. That’s nonsense. Putin’s framing of his invasion of Ukraine as similar to World War II is also disgusting as this distortion of facts dishonors the heroism of those who fought valiantly in the “Great Patriotic War.” What an insult it is to veterans to compare these contemporary Russian soldiers to those who fought to defeat Hitler. And it gets even worse when you remember how Russian invaders and occupiers are fighting today – bombing civilian targets, killing innocent civilians, raping women, and kidnapping children. For Putin’s false analogy, there is a perfect word in Russian– позор, which roughly translates as “shame on you.”
So, I still want to respect the sacrifice of those who defeated Hitler. Thank you. But as long as Putin continues to use May 9th for propagandistic purposes to justify his savage invasion of Ukraine, I can no longer participate in celebrating Victory Day. I look forward to the future – after Putin is defeated in Ukraine and there is victory and peace once again in Europe – when I can join these celebrations once more.