Victory day: mourning the dead turned into a spectacle

Grandfather of Serhii Kariuk, (also called Serhii), who fought in WWII. (Credit: family archives)

9 May is Victory day for some. Celebrated in Russia, in Ukraine it remains a day of memory and loss. Journalist, writer and historian Serhii Kariuk reflects on how the appalling human cost of WWII, a quarter of Ukraine’s population, is felt in every Ukrainian village.


Word has it that this year's Victory Day over Nazism on 9 May will be celebrated more modestly than usual in Moscow. The parade will not be so crowded, there will be no distinguished guests on Red Square, just as there will be no splendour or pomp. Others predict otherwise, believing that Russian President Vladimir Putin may announce a general mobilisation in Russia and stop hiding behind the phrase “special operation in Ukraine”. Dictators have always loved symbolism, and given little thought to human lives.

On 9 May 1945, my grandfather, also Serhii Kariuk, found himself near the Czech capital of Prague. That night, the 20-year-old sergeant was woken by the sound of heavy fighting. Grabbing his weapon, he jumped out of his tent and met dozens of soldiers shouting “Victory!” and firing into the night air. Many cried with happiness. My grandfather relived that night over and over again and every time he told us the story he wiped tears from his eyes with his fist.

The list of the dead on our village’s war memorial, right in the centre, is a stark reminder of the war there. My grandfather's village was hidden in the middle of the ravines of the Ukrainian steppe, flat fields in the central Cherkasy region. The memorial shows that 491 locals went to the front; 231 did not return.

The death toll and the remains of trenches around the village were not forgotten, just  as the metal ribs of tanks sunk in ponds and fragments of artillery shells densely scattered on my grandfather's land. World War II’s juggernaut ploughed through here twice – in 1941, during the German offensive, and again in 1944, during the Soviet offensive. The shelling, bombing, famine, mass deaths and fear are etched in the memory of the locals forever. For as long as I can remember, my grandmother's favourite saying was “we will survive everything so that there is no war”.

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Serhii Kariuk’s village, Cherkasy region, Ukraine. (Credit: family archives)

Victory Day in my grandfather's village was celebrated together with the ”commemorations”. On this day, Ukrainians traditionally gather and visit their relatives’ graves. My grandfather would wear his jacket bearing orders and medals and walk the old road to the cemetery, solemnly greeting people. In the cemetery, he would stand for a long time near the cross of his father, with whom he was drafted into the army in 1944. The crippled and shredded great-grandfather returned to the village from hospital and died a few years after the war. His name was not on the list of the dead in the monument in the centre of the village – the war took his life after the victory.

While the horrors of those years were truly remembered, 9 May was quietly celebrated. It was a day of quiet mourning and remembrance of the dead. In the meantime, in the wider world, things were constantly changing. Loud celebration of Victory Day in the Soviet Union began in the 60's. Gradually, the holiday in big cities became more solemn. By the 80's, columns of soldiers marched through the streets, military equipment rolled, crowds of people watched everything from the sidewalks, and the air vibrated with patriotic songs. After the collapse of the Union, this whole spectacle evolved so strangely that the 90's, Victory Day resembled something between a carnival, a music festival and a mediaeval dance of the dead.

9 May was especially celebrated in Russia. Under Putin, the date was finally turned into a propaganda tool. They declared ownership of the victory. Among other things, they said they would have won without the help of seven million Ukrainians who fought in World War II, claiming that Russia is a “country of winners”.

Owning Victory Day was important. Everything was easily explained with it: poverty, dictatorship, dislike of the collective “West”. And the Russians were told that because of the millions of victims, their relatives have the right to hate. Hatred has become fashionable. Chanting “we can do it again!” and “let's go to Berlin!” has become popular. So says the  Russian state controlled television, which has covered up all the horrors of the war with heroic and patriotic slogans. Now war is considered entertainment. Its propaganda can be found everywhere, from sports championships to Russian cinema.

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Serhii Kariuk’s family, Cherkasy region, Ukraine (Credit: family archives)

On the morning of 10 May, 1945, my grandfather found himself near Prague. After a night in which his military base was rocked by shouts of "Victory!" and the sky was torn by salutes from tracer bullets, his infantry battalion was loaded onto a train. Everyone was happy. The war had ended,  and they were going home. But only when they passed Moscow did everyone understand. The train took them to Manchuria, where the war with Japan still raged. Stalin's Soviet Union continued to fight. My grandfather's 53rd Soviet Army, which fought in Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, was forced to continue to carry out the Soviet dictator's plans to fight. Echelon cars full of 20-year veterans of one war, who were going to die in another, were desperately silent. My grandfather said that many had tears in their eyes.