This speech was delivered at the Vimy Ridge Park, Winnipeg on May 8th, 2015. May 8 and the End of WW2 Commemoration Ceremony.
This year May 8 has been designated the day on which Ukraine marks the end of World War Two and the 70th anniversary of the victory over Nazism in Europe. This is a break from the Soviet tradition, in which May 9 was “Victory Day” .
Why the change? And what does the commemoration of May 8 represent? Firstly, it is a day that shifts the focus to remembering the victims – all those who died, suffered, were injured and displaced during the war. The poppy has been adopted in Ukraine as the commemorative symbol for this event. This is an appropriate way of linking WW2 to WW1, and focusing attention on the war dead and civilian suffering. In Ukraine alone it has been estimated that over six million soldiers and civilians died as a result of the war, a number that includes close to one and a half million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. 
The figure of twenty-five million Soviet fatalities is often used, but this covers all deaths within the post-1945 borders of the Soviet Union. It is clear, however, that the Baltic countries, Belarus and Ukraine lost a disproportionate number of citizens. Belarus, for example, lost a quarter of its population.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has seen fit to denigrated Ukraine’s wartime sacrifices. In 2010 he said: “We would have won anyway, because we are a country of winners, […] the war was won – I do not want to offend anyone – mainly due to the human and industrial resources of the Russian Federation.” On April 10 of this year, when Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko took part in celebrations dedicated to the liberation of Odesa, he addressed Putin’s criticisms in the following way: “Such words are the desecration of the memory of the slain soldiers and abuse of the feelings of living veterans.” Poroshenko commented: “They would not have won this war without Ukrainians [..] and one could argue whether the war would have started if the Kremlin had not signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.”
Secondly, today is an opportunity to reflect upon the reasons for the conflict – one that drew into it almost the entire world. World War Two began in 1939 with the invasion of Poland after the secret agreement (the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) signed between Hitler and Stalin to divide Eastern Europe. In the next twenty-two months two aggressive totalitarian states, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, divided between themselves first Poland and then the rest of Europe. Hitler’s war machine was supplied by Stalin with the food and raw materials needed to circumvent the blockade imposed by the Allies. Stalin, as his part of the secret deal, invaded the Baltic states, Western Belarus, Finland, Northern Bukovyna and Bessarabia. These two powers broke all existing treaties, redrew state boundaries, and overturning the European order. It should not be forgotten that it was the Nazi-Soviet pact that allowed Hitler to invade France and conquer Western Europe. By 1941 all Europe found itself under totalitarian rule. We should therefore not lose sight of the fact that the war began in 1939 as a struggle against totalitarian rule.
For many in the West 1945 marked the war’s end. In ensuing years the UN was created, as was the UN charter of rights and freedoms. International awareness spread concerning the genocide we now know as the Holocaust. Horror at the wartime devastation led to a reconciliation between European states, notably between France and Germany, one that eventually enabled the creation of the European Union. But for many countries there could be no “simple” victory. In Eastern Europe neither the war, nor the suffering under totalitarian rule ended in 1945. Most of these countries found themselves dominated by rulers who were directed by the Kremlin and who accepted a totalitarian creed. It would take another forty-four years before a break out of this cul-de-sac was possible. That is why commemorating WW2 is a more complex matter in Eastern Europe. For example, armed struggle in Ukraine against the imposition, or reimposition, of Soviet rule continued into the 1950s, with partisans fighting in the underground. Revolutions took place in East Germany in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and in Poland in the seventies.
Many Ukrainians died fighting against Soviet rule, but many more — over a million — died fighting against Nazi Germany. Many also found themselves among the more than three million prisoners-of-war who were starved to death by Hitler’s forces in the first months of the war. The terrible suffering of ordinary civilians has also sometimes been overlooked. Over two million Ukrainians were captured by the Nazis and sent to Germany to work as slave labourers. Between 1939 and 1945 hundreds of thousands of Poles, Ukrainian and Tatars were deported by the Soviet Union, and thousands of Russian soldiers who escaped German imprisonment or encirclement on the battlefield were shipped off to Siberia merely for having found themselves behind enemy lines.
This is therefore a complex history and one that is still contested in the cultural memory of Eastern Europe. The population’s victimization came in waves, as first one then another power swept through these lands. But whether people fought against Nazi or Soviet totalitarianism, whether they were victims of pro-Nazi or pro-Soviet regimes, they all hoped that their struggle would lead to a better life, to freedom from oppression and to a world in which peace reigned. May 8 exists to honour the memory and the sacrifices of this generation — not to celebrate a “simple” victory (there was no such thing in Eastern Europe), nor to glorify military action, but to recall the terrible reality of war and the difficult choices people must make in times of conflict. It is not for nothing that survivors of war vow to “never forget.” We need to listen to this plea, to strive to understand the past, and to learn from it.
Tomorrow is May 9, and will be marked in Moscow as a day of victory with a parade of military hardware and marching columns. Some celebrations on this day will carry portraits of Stalin, who is once again being glorified by some in Russia and Russian-occupied territories. The Moscow parade will celebrate strength rather than commemorate suffering and loss. But it will not be attended by Western leaders, who find the display of militarism deplorable at a time when Russia is engaged in a war in Eastern Ukraine. Make no mistake, the conflict in the Donbas is financed and organized by Russia, which is sending its tanks, weapons and soldiers, and secret service personnel to oversee operations.
It is worth remembering in this context that Ukraine is the only country on the planet to voluntarily give up its nuclear arsenal. When it did so, three countries signed the so-called Budapest Memorandum of 1994 that offered to guarantee Ukraine’s borders. One of them, ironically, was Russia. The other two were the USA and Britain. But broken international agreements and the conflict in the Donbas is an issue not only for Ukraine; today many Eastern European countries again live in fear of an aggressive power with expansionist aims. So, of course, do those Russians who struggle for civil rights and democratic norms. It is important therefore to avoid turning the commemoration of a past war into an opportunity for jingoism or for justifying renewed military conflict. It is for this reason that many have turned to marking May 8 rather than May 9.
Today’s event initiates a new tradition — one that rejects the mythology of war developed by Soviet leaders (and now adopted by Vladimir Putin). The organizers of May 8 events in Ukraine refuse to deny that World War Two began in 1939. They affirm a shared grief for all the conflict’s victims – the dead, the injured, the traumatized, and the displaced. They recognize the many sacrifices made by many nations during the war, and understand that each of these nations, like each individual, has its stories to tell. Today, it is appropriate to recall, as we have done, some stories from Eastern Europe that are not well-known in the West. And it is fitting that here in Vimy Ridge Park, at a spot between two Canadian monuments, one dedicated to the First World War and one to the Second, we take a few moments out of our own lives to remember the suffering of all peoples who were victims of the Second World War and its aftermath.