Commentary: Victory Day – Why remembrance is not exclusively about the past

An Armenian war veteran speaks with a young child during Victory Day celebrations in Yerevan (Karen Minasyan/Getty Images).

An Armenian war veteran speaks with a young child during Victory Day celebrations in Yerevan. (Getty / Karen Minasyan)

On 9 May, people throughout the former Soviet Union, from Russia to Armenia to Kyrgyzstan, commemorated the most well-known and celebrated day of the region – the victory over fascism and Nazism in the Great Patriotic War.

The celebration of the 70-year jubilee of the 1945 victory in Moscow was simply exceptional.  In fact, it was the most massive and astonishing parade in the Russia’s modern history.  It included the presentation of the most modern Russian armaments and military vehicles, such as already famous Armata tank.  It also included a peace march comprised of roughly a half a million peace to commemorate all combatants of the war, known in Russian as the “Bessmertniy Polk” (Бессмертный Полк), or “Immortal Regiment”.

The parade occurred amid a highly volatile international situation, filled with anxiety and uncertainty over the current state of affairs in world politics and the former USSR specifically.  The Ukrainian crisis, which evolved from a domestic issue into a major international conflict, led to a sharp deterioration in Russia-US and Russia-EU relations to the extent that some commentators, including former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, are now calling it a “new Cold War”. Under such conditions, a number of primarily European and American leaders refused to join Russia in celebrating Victory Day as they had in the past.

Additionally, controversial “de-communization” laws were recently put forward in Ukraine.  The laws, passed by parliament but not yet ratified by President Poroshenko, ban Communist symbols and praise Ukrainian nationalists who collaborated with Nazi Germany during the war.  They have been condemned by the Russian government as well as by Western academics and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The Ukrainian government also adopted the red-and-black memorial poppy as a symbol of remembrance.  The poppy was selected because it matched the colors of Ukrainian nationalist flags favored by national extremists in Kiev.  Such changes have created controversy in Ukraine, especially among wartime veterans in the Central and Southeastern parts of the country.  Needless to say, this year, the commemorations in Ukraine proceeded in a much different environment than in previous years, amid rising anti-Russianism and nationalist extremism.

The worst aspect of international relations today is that political myopia and conjuncture influence the historical perception and attitude to the facts that, in reality, must be kept changeless.  A danger comes when fancy political tendencies are valued higher than the necessity to preserve historical memory.  In its turn, such tendencies usually trigger attempts to re-write the history itself, giving the past dangerously new evaluations. Today’s international volatility proves that such scenario may not be too far off.

The memory of past experience – mistakes, loses, attempts, achievements, victories – must be consciously preserved by each and all who strive to achieve new heights. Proper education of new generations plays a key role in this respect.

There is a good example of people who, despite political and temporal trends, have always treated the legacy of their ancestors with respect and dignity, and endeavor to preserve national traditions and self-consciousness without any chauvinistic nationalism.  This is perhaps the Armenians.

As in the rest of the former USSR, there is perhaps no Armenian family untouched by the war.  By a margin between the number of the population and combatants who were honored with the highest awards for defending their homeland, Armenians occupy one of the highest positions among all former Soviet peoples. The names of Armenian heroes, Marshal Bagramyan, Marshal Babadzanyan, Admiral Isakov, Marshal Khudyakov (Khanferyants), and Marshal Aganov, together with thousands of other brave Armenians, men and women, are deeply rooted in the consciousness and memory of the Armenian people. They came from different regions of the country but all of them, from Gyumri, Yerevan, Syunik to Gyulistan, Getashen, Mardakert, Chardakhlu, and Shushi (note that Karabakh Armenians made a special contribution in the victory), were united by a single desire to put all their efforts for the victory of their homeland.

Today, Armenians worthily preserve the memory of those heroes but the reality of current times seems to dictate its own rules.

Indeed, it is difficult to understand, even with the current crisis, why Western leaders did not show solidarity by attending Victory Day in Moscow in a desire to commemorate the victory over the evil of Nazism.  In fact, the very commemoration is a sign of inalienable togetherness against the remaking of history.  As always, it seems like the clarions of history become silent when the current politics roar.

In this respect, it is essential that Victory Day is not solely a day to honor the glory of the wartime victory, but also a creative edification directed to future generations.  It is a warning to the world about the inadmissibility of extremism, fascism, and racism.  The more years pass and the more humanity moves further from history, the more obscured and blurred the latter becomes.  The memory of the victory of World War II gradually changes from direct reminiscence to a sort of a legend about the past happenings. When the last witness of those days passes away, our memory will store information about the war in a more naïve and sentimental way.

We will face a problem of precise interpretation and evaluation of those events.  This is already happening today.  It gives Nazi movements and far-right radicals – not only in Europe, but also in other states, including those of the former Soviet Union – favorable ground to enroot their extremist ideas.

Therefore, Victory Day, and everything that is factually related to it, are a reminder to all of us that the unity of the entire world aimed at strongly defending the heritage of the past should not be doubted by any political conjuncture.

This is the only way forward and the only way to avoid a repeat of the past.

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