In Soviet times, the day of victory over Nazi Germany was marked with a level of reverence that seemed to make May 9 the only religious holiday on the Soviet calendar.
The reason is clear.
Study the family tree of almost any Russian, and you will find branches that abruptly ended at the war years. Soviet authorities calculated that 26 million citizen perished in the war.
Fast forward to last Monday.
In Lviv, Western Ukraine, a crowd of young nationalists, enraged at the site of a red banner, attacked the Russian Consul, and trampled and stomped the memorial wreath he was carrying to the city’s Hill of Glory.
In contrast, in Kirkenes, Norway, red and white balloons floated into the Arctic air as school children, town officials, and the Russian Consul gathered with bouquets at the foot of a bronze statue of a Red Army soldier.
The difference revolves about what happened after the defeat of the Nazis.
In Northern Norway, Soviet soldiers liberated, and then went home. By the end of the summer of 1945, they had all pulled back to Murmansk.
In Western Ukraine and the Baltics, Soviet troops liberated and stayed. And stayed. And stayed.
To non-Russian populations on Russia’s western edge, liberators became occupiers.
“Russian soldiers never liberated Estonia. For us, one occupation regime was replaced by another,” the Estonian Nationalist Movement said in a statement distributed on Monday during a demonstration held in front of the Russian Embassy in Tallinn. Some picketers held photos of a Soviet-era war memorial, with the inscription: “This soldier occupied our country. He never liberated Estonia.”
In 2007, Estonian authorities moved this bronze statue of a Soviet soldier from a prominent place in the national capital to a suburban war memorial cemetery. In response, Kremlin-backed youth groups camped for two weeks outside the Estonian embassy in Moscow.
In December 2009, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili earned the undying enmity of the Kremlin by blowing up a massive Soviet era World War II monument in Kutaisi. He said the site was needed for a parliament building.
On Monday, President Medvedev pointedly sent his Victory Day congratulations to the Georgian people, omitting any mention of the nation’s president. In response, Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze said the Russian leader’s Victory Day message was unacceptable: “I don’t think that the Georgian people have accepted the Russian president’s greetings. The buffoonery has no limit.”
Faced with these Victory Day controversies, President Medvedev told young parliamentarians of the ruling United Russia party on Friday: “As for Estonia, Georgia and Ukraine, it saddens me as much as you. It was unpleasant and painful to watch that. It is an indication of the immaturity of the political systems in those countries.”
The bad blood goes back to different perceptions of history.
To the dismay of many Russians, museums of the Soviet occupation have opened in Georgia, the Baltics and in Ukraine.
These diverging views of history remind me of Japan and Korea where I worked as a reporter in the early 2000s. Young Japanese would watch TV reports of anti-Japanese demonstrations in China and South Korea, and then complain naively: “Why do they hate us so?”
Although the Chinese and South Korean governments had their own interests in stirring up nationalism, real animosities revolved around this question: Do you know what your grandfather did to my grandfather and grandmother?
But in Japanese schools, Japanese history instruction usually stops around 1930, the time when Japanese militarism embarked on its most lethal rampages. Colonialism of Korea was treated lightly. Looking at the world through the lens of their own hierarchical society, Japanese believed the history problem could be addressed with politely worded apologies and carefully calibrated bows by a series of prime ministers.
In contrast, Germans confronted their war history head on, debating it frankly, deeply and incessantly. Here is the fruit: today, there is little animosity between Germans and Russians.
But, Russia, like Japan, takes the path of defensive denial. Stung by losing the Cold War, Russians do not want to tarnish the one undeniable victory of the Soviet era. Wary of division and discord, Russians do not do self-criticism.
And so Victory Day, the region’s unifying day for the last half of the 20th century, is now a source of division for the 21st.
Without a frank dialog over Soviet history, Russia and several former Soviet republics seem fated to become increasingly distant neighbors.