The legacy of the Second World War is stronger nowhere than in the former Soviet Union. Indeed, Russians refer to the Eastern Front, where the lion’s share of the fighting and dying took place in Europe, not as “World War II,” but as the “Great Patriotic War.” The USSR’s victory over fascism was the nation’s crowning achievement. For many today, the war remains a sacred event—a testament to the Soviet peoples’ strength and endurance.
Yesterday, on the 69th anniversary of Victory Day, the governor of a region in southeastern Ukraine enraged a crowd when he compared the Soviet military to Nazi Germany, saying that both Stalin and Hitler feigned a commitment to liberating the captive Ukrainian nation. The governor, Kherson’s Yuri Odarchenko, also implied that Russia entertains similar methods today when the Kremlin courts separatists in Ukraine’s southeast.
Here is a translation of the Governor’s main comments:
Today, celebrating Victory Day, we remember the turbulent events that occurred during the Great Patriotic War. We remember that people fought against aggressors who tried to take our land.
Those aggressors [Soviet troops] were motivated not just by the desire to take our land and enslave our people, but they also propagated slogans about the supposed liberation of nations of people who were living on the lands that Hitler was trying to seize. If you study history, we see that it was [Hitler] who was the first to propagate the slogans “liberating people from the Communist yoke” and “liberating people from the tyrant Stalin.”
This was Hitler’s first motivation, when he tried to take territory. But our people came together in our willingness to defend our native Ukraine, and presented a united front, showing [Hitler] that people can and will win back their territory. Today, the same thing is happening on Ukraine’s borders.
As Odarchenko spoke of “the tyrant Stalin,” many in the crowd began booing and whistling. According to local news website Khersonskie Vesti, supporters of Ukraine’s Communist Party led the effort to interrupt the speech. Before long, a woman carrying a young child forced her way to the stage, grabbed the microphone from Odarchenko, and threw it to the ground. When the Governor moved to another podium several yards away, somebody else from the crowd approached and ripped away the microphone stand. Someone captured the entire spectacle on camera, and soon posted it on YouTube, where the video has attracted over 300 thousand views in less than 24 hours.
What was Odarchenko trying to say about the Nazis and the Soviets? The Russian media is portraying the speech as pro-Hitler. A more accurate reading is perhaps that the Governor was equating Communist Russia and Fascist Germany, implying that both foreign powers swept through Ukraine with promises of self-determination, though in reality they delivered only subjugation. Odarchenko gave his speech surrounded by elderly veterans—men who presumably fought in the Red Army, under Stalin’s command. The Governor doesn’t linger on this fact, instead recasting Ukraine’s war effort as a purely Ukrainian triumph. It doesn’t make much sense, except in the modern context of an independent Ukraine threatened by its Russian neighbor.
On a holiday that honors the millions who battled and sacrificed ostensibly to preserve the Soviet Union, lo and behold, Odarchenko offended people with his remarks.
As the feud between Moscow and Kiev escalates, Odarchenko’s Victory Day speech will likely become another episode that Russia’s supporters believe encapsulates Ukrainians’ betrayal of a shared past. Because it was captured on camera and uploaded to YouTube, hundreds of thousands of people will witness the affront in living color. The Communists in Kherson are mad, and so are many of the 143 million Russians next door.