Ukraine divided as WWII commemorated

For the first time in 65 years, official celebrations are being held to mark the freeing of Ukraine from Nazis by Soviet forces. Yet two weeks ago, thousands honored the insurgent army which fought on the fascists’ side.

In 1944 Ivan Avramenko was among several million Soviet soldiers liberating Ukraine from the Nazi invasion. With death and devastation around him, Ivan was relentlessly fighting to free the land where he was born.

“After we liberated Odessa I was seriously wounded. It took me two months to recover from all the shrapnel wounds,” Ivan recalled.

“But when I did I immediately rushed to the frontline. I, just like everyone else around me, was driven by the need to save my homeland,” he added.

Until 1944 Ukraine was a Nazi outpost. Up to 70 % of Germany’s Eastern Front divisions were stationed there. As a result, this made it especially hard to liberate: several million soldiers died there, as well as almost 10 million civilians.

The 15th and final special operation of the Soviet Forces in Ukraine ended on October 28, 1944. The land was finally free of Nazi occupation.

On this day millions have gathered across Ukraine to mark the occasion, including on Kiev’s historic Independence Square. However, just two weeks ago on that very spot there was a festivity of a different kind – one Great Patriotic War veterans would never have imagined six decades ago.

It was a celebration of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army’s birthday. “Stepan Bandera is our hero” said a banner on the stage, glorifying the founding father of these forces.

It was created in the 1940s, initially designed to counter the Nazi onslaught, but later aligned itself with the invaders, turning its arms against Soviet troops. Fotiy Volodimirsky is a war veteran who supported these forces:

“Most of the Russians living in Ukraine call themselves liberators,” he explained.

“Liberators are those who liberated and were gone. We, in western Ukraine do not approve of such liberation. It was an occupation, far worse than the German one,” he asserted.

Seen as fascists in their own country for decades, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) fighters tried to find acts of valor in their treachery. Nowadays there are some forces in Ukraine who are willing to help them with it.

President Yushchenko awarded several UPA generals with the “Hero of Ukraine” title, infuriating millions of those who fought for the country on the Red Army side, including Ivan Avramenko:

“They shot us in the back. My sister went to Western Ukraine to teach children in a school. And those nationalist forces killed her. They were, and are, fascists,” he maintained.

Iosif Diskin from the Council for National Strategy thinks that there are specific reasons for the Ukrainian government to take such a controversial stance:

“The political forces in Ukraine are trying to create a different history, one of permanent fighting with Russia,” he said.

“But they won’t succeed. That’s because the two countries are closely connected and it’s impossible to turn relatives within one family across the border into enemies.”

Importantly, it was Yushchenko who declared October 28 an official state holiday for the first time. He believes it can keep the country united.

The question is whether this can apply to contemporary Ukraine, which remains torn apart in its perception of the past.

Moscow honors veterans

Those killed freeing Ukraine from Nazi occupation have also been remembered in Moscow. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov laid wreaths next to the Eternal Flame and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev has congratulated the war veterans and the Ukrainian people, saying the unity and fraternity of both nations determined the final outcome of battle.

He said that the centuries-old friendship between Russians and Ukrainians cannot be broken due to the common history the countries share.

“All the attempts to sow mistrust between our two nations, using history as a pretext, are doomed to failure,” Medvedev’s congratulatory message reads.

He said the Russian and Ukrainian nations “will overcome all temporary difficulties and will work together, like good neighbors, for the sake of progress and prosperity of our countries.”

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