On May 9, the shell-shocked Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk celebrated. It was Victory Day, the annual commemoration of Germany’s surrender to the Soviet Union in 1945. Kiev, which is struggling to escape its Soviet past, no longer treats the day as a festive occasion; for the People’s Republic of Donetsk, or DNR, the holiday was yet another opportunity to side with Russia and the Soviet Union, and against Kiev. It had been a year since the DNR had declared its independence from Kiev, following the Maidan protests—which began with then-president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision not to sign an EU Association Agreement and ended with him fleeing the country after a series of armed clashes in the center of Kiev—and a year since Kiev’s prosecutor general had classified the DNR as a terrorist organization. Thousands of people have since been killed: fighters on both sides, and civilians caught in the middle. More than a million people have been displaced, in a horrible echo of the Second World War’s mass evacuations.
Prime Minister Aleksandr Zakharchenko, who was wounded in the battle of Debaltseve last winter, stood in the rain and made a speech. There were dark circles under his eyes, and he slurred his words; pro-Ukrainians later accused him of being drunk, but maybe he was just tired. Seventy years ago, Soviet heroes had defeated the fascists, he declared, and now their children and grandchildren were fighting fascists once again; the generation of victors had raised a generation of heroes. The past bled into the present, as the victories and losses of the Second World War mingled with those of the most recent war—or “antiterrorist operation,” as Kiev calls it.
Onlookers stood under umbrellas, cheering “Thank you!” and throwing flowers at the stony-faced new heroes of Donbass, the region that became Eastern Ukraine after the Russian Revolution. Men with fighting names like Givi and Motorola held their white-gloved hands in fixed salutes as they rode by on tanks painted with orange-and-black St. George ribbons, a mark of Russian patriotism. In the evening, there were fireworks, as is customary on Victory Day, though one might have expected the residents of Donetsk to be tired of explosions after nearly a year of intermittent shelling.
It didn’t rain on Moscow’s Victory Day parade. The Kremlin spent millions of dollars to make sure of it: A few days before the holiday, a spokesman at Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency announced that a group of planes would be ready to “attack” any rain clouds with cement particles and silver iodide. When Vladimir Putin made his speech on Red Square, he was surrounded by veterans and foreign dignitaries from China, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Zimbabwe, Cuba, and Egypt, as well as Winston Churchill’s grandson, a Tory MP. Most European leaders skipped the parade to protest Russia’s actions in Ukraine. For many Russians, it looked as though the once-Allied nations had forgotten that it was the Soviet Union that rescued them from Nazism, at the cost of tens of millions of Soviet lives. Putin thanked the Allied countries graciously for their help winning the Great Patriotic War, as it is known in Russia, but had harsh words for those who were violating the postwar principles of international cooperation. Intercontinental ballistic-missile carriers rolled through the streets, and fighter jets formed a huge “70” in the sky.
Seventy Years of Victory! posters all over Russia cried, as if Victory were not a historical event but a permanent state of exaltation. The St. George ribbon snaked across walls, windows, cars, trains, lounge chairs, bread loaves, dog collars, vodka bottles, flip-flops, fingernails, and even sex toys. On nearly every Moscow street corner, a Russian flag waved beside the red Soviet Banner of Victory, the one raised over the Reichstag in 1945. Kiosks around the city sold T-shirts showing Putin dressed as a Soviet soldier.