Ainārs Lerhis: May 8 or May 9 – Celebration or Commemoration?


There exists an opinion in Russian political elite that a “coordinated history” – a joint view on the course and results of the World War II – should be achieved in the whole space of the former USSR, similar to that which existed during the Soviet period, and it has to be the opinion expressed exclusively by Russian political leadership. Any different position is called the falsifying of history. Russia has returned to the official view on the World War II created during the USSR era. This historical view is aggressively imposed on the part of the former USSR Republics (also Latvia) which condemn similarly both the Nazi and Communist regimes. The different interpretations of the history of the World War II cause split also in Latvia’s society.

Politicizing of May 9

Due to the last year’s events in Ukraine, this year the evaluation of May 9 is of additional timeliness. The differences between Russia’s and the other former USSR Republics’ positions on the issues of these countries’ history have become pronounced to a higher degree. Differences in assessments of history of the 20th century have become particularly great between Russia and Ukraine. Recently condemnation of totalitarian regimes – the Communist and Nazi ones – as the unlawful regimes has been adopted on legislative level in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Parliament passed the Law “On Glorifying the Victory over the Nazi in the World War II in 1939 – 1945”. According to the new Law, May 8 has become the Commemoration and Reconciliation Day, but May 9 – the Victory Day. Ukrainian competent institutions were tasked with investigation of the crimes, perpetrated by these totalitarian regimes, as well as publicizing information on their crimes.

Even 70 years after the end of the war, Russians are increasingly involved in politicizing the war history, including May 9. That is the result of a long-term development. In 1990-s, Russia did not venture drastic braking its ties with the legacy of the Soviet period, but several other attempts to find a new “post-Soviet” identity, oriented to the future, so far have been unsuccessful. The “People’s Unity Day” (November 4) has been taken over by the organizers of the nationalist “Russian March”. Evaluation of the war’s tragic pages faces great difficulties in Russia, for many war-related archive documents are still inaccessible even for Russian researchers. A number of issues are considered as embarrassing ones. There exists wish to avoid “ripping up old wounds” because of the huge number of the victims.

Privatized Victory – Basis for Identity?

Now the theme of May 9 has become the element of Russia’s information influence. The opinion is quite popular that Russia has “privatized” the victory in the World War II in order to make it the basis for its modern identity. The opened in Crimea monument to the leaders of the anti-Hitler coalition superpowers Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt is the first “trial signal” with the aim to create a precedent and clarify Russian citizens’ opinion on whether opening of more monuments dedicated to Stalin would be possible in the future. Gradual revival and glorifying of Stalin’s cult is ongoing, historical events and their significance are interpreted one-sidedly and used in politics.

Russia’s new attempts to create its identity are rather “pushing off” the increasing number of CIS member states from a joint conception of marking May 9, hampering Russia’s efforts to regain its influence in the post-Soviet space. Especially after the annexation of Crimea, the opinion has become popular that George’s ribbons reflect Russia’s expansionism (the idea of “Russian World”). Therefore a number of CIS member countries do not wish to support on political level the use of the ribbons any more, and they are going to replace them with ribbons of the other colours, according to the local national traditions (for example, in Belarus, Kirghizstan, etc.), and an initiative group is calling to support similar action in Kazakhstan.

Leaders of a number of the world countries have already announced their visits to Moscow for commemoration of the war victims, but some of them are not going to attend the Russian Army’s military parade. These countries divert the accent to commemoration of the war victims, not celebration of the military victory. A part of the CIS member states have amended their traditional agendas of marking the victory over the Nazi. For example, Kirghizstan has earlirized the celebration to May 7.

The importance of the victory has been considerably expanded in Russia – the superpower’s might is stressed. The May 9 is now symbolizing not only the victory in the World War II, but the victory over the West in general. This process is mainly carried out on the basis of legacy of the Communist regime and the justification of it. But any other approach can also become useful if it can help to create the basis for the status of superpower. Thereby, the modern celebration of the victory joins the previous absolutely incompatible ideas, gathering supporters of all Russia’s historical periods – monarchist time (Tsarist), Soviet period (Lenin and Stalin time with the following decade) and post-Soviet era ideology and practice supporters, as well as the Russian Orthodox Church position and imperial reconstruction initiators.

Between Two Millstones: Latvia’s Situation during the War Time

It should be reminded that during the war time, those Latvian Ambassadors to the Western countries who were expressing the state’s official position, wished to participate in anti-Hitler coalition on the Western democratic superpowers’ side against the Nazi Germany and its allied “core” countries (Latvian Ambassador to the US A.Bīlmanis’ petition submitted to the US Government in January, 1942), but the Western countries did not support that because of the eventual objections on the part of the USSR. Latvian trading ships were delivered at the disposal of the US and UK, and that was a kind of participation of the Republic of Latvia in the war on the side of the anti-Hitler coalition, although officially Latvia did not become the coalition member state. Even in 1941, Latvian Ambassadors to the Western countries were confident and their position was that the Baltic countries’ official representatives would have to cooperate with the Western superpowers and that the Nazi Germany would be the failure in the war. While supporting the defeat of the Nazi Germany, Latvia wished to join the anti-Hitler coalition, disregarding the participation in it of the USSR which had destroyed Latvia’s state independence.

The fighting superpowers, violating international conventions, enlisted most of the Latvian males of the age of service in the army either in the armed forces of the USSR or Germany. Although, because of the occupation of Latvia by the USSR in 1940 there existed unsolvable differences of interests between the Republic of Latvia and the USSR on the issue of Latvia’s future after the defeat of the Nazi Germany, nevertheless the historical fact is significant that a part of Latvians joined the ranks of the Red Army fighting within anti-Hitler coalition against fascism. A part of Latvian citizens were motivated to involve in the fight against Germany (the inhuman behaviour of the Landeswehr and Bermont troops in Latvia was still alive in the people’s memory). But joining the ranks of the Red Army inevitably meant the promotion of the interests, influence and expansion of the USSR in Eastern Europe (also the repeated occupation of Latvia by the Soviets).

Similarly to that, the other part of Latvians were motivated to join the fight against the Soviet Union (for it was the USSR which had liquidated the state independence of Latvia). Each of them was right. Latvian population were divided in two opposite camps which was followed by great human losses and tragedy for the people.

In the context of Latvian history, it is necessary to stress that during the World War II, Latvian people were fighting against both totalitarian regimes. In the international context, it is notable that the Republic of Latvia, while delivering its trading ships for the use of military convoys of the US and UK, and Latvian citizens within the Red Army of the USSR made their contribution to the fight against the Nazi.

Under the conditions of repeated change of foreign occupation authorities (double occupation) in Easter Europe, the Baltics and also Latvia, defeat of one of the fighting parties or totalitarian regime (Nazi) did not automatically secure regaining of freedom and independence, for the other totalitarian (Communist) regime maintained. One cannot deny the huge number of victims and contribution of the USSR and the whole anti-Hitler coalition in the defeat of the Nazi. However, it is still difficult for many Russian citizens to accept the fact that the Red Army brought new suffers to the population of the East European countries.

Commemorate and Not to Conceal

One of the inconvenient for Russia issues which has been concealed for a long time and evidences of which have been gradually appearing, is the Red Army soldiers’ crimes against civil persons in Germany, Central Europe and Eastern Europe. Victory in the World War II can exonerate no one who has perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity. Such crimes have no prescription. Any totalitarian regime is condemnable, and the status of victor in the war cannot protect from responsibility in such case. Crimes of one of the totalitarian regimes may not be justified by the crimes of the other totalitarian regime. And it does not also promote reconciliation between the former fighting parties’ military persons.

The commemoration of the military and civil persons who died during the World War II is the duty of those who stay alive, and it is honouring the war victims. Similar to several other countries in the post-Soviet space, Latvia has to separate the commemoration events from politicizing of history and celebration of victory. It is important not to use the tragic war history facts for politicizing the history. The victory over the Nazi Germany did not prevent the repeated occupation of Latvia and its consequences – repression and the regime’s crimes against citizens. Therefore there is no official celebration in the Baltic countries, but they are following the tradition of the European Union, marking May 8 as the Nazi Defeat Day and Commemoration of the Victims of the World War II.

Ainārs Lerhis
Chairman of the Board of the Centre for East European Policy Studies,
Senior researcher at the Institute of Latvian History at the University of Latvia