Ukraine celebrates Victory Day moderately and optimistically

People near the World War II memorial in downtown Irpin, Ukraine, on Monday.
People near the World War II memorial in downtown Irpin, Ukraine, on Monday. (Kasia Strek/Panos Pictures/FTWP)

KYIV, Ukraine – The day many here feared Russia would step up its assault on Ukraine turned out to be very different.

Instead of formally declaring war, annexing occupied areas or increasing bombardment, as many expected, Russian President Vladimir Putin did not even mention Ukraine by name in his Monday speech. commemorating the triumph of the Allies over Nazi Germany in World War II.

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Victory Day – when Russians and Ukrainians remember the millions of Soviet soldiers who lost their lives in this fight – was observed in a darker and more subdued way both in Moscow’s Red Square and across much of Ukraine, where it was the calmest day of the war so far.

On Monday morning, Kharkiv – Ukraine’s second most populous city – saw the fewest shellings since the conflict began 75 days ago, according to regional governor Oleh Synyehubov.

Ukrainian troops have pushed back Russian battalions in Kharkiv over the past two weeks as Moscow redirects its invasion to focus on areas further east.

Russia’s withdrawal from areas around kyiv more than a month ago, and from Kharkiv more recently, has given many Ukrainians cause for hope, even as Russia consolidates control of large parts of the regions. eastern and southern Donetsk, Lugansk and Kherson. In Kharkiv, restaurants were open, though their backdrop was a city center where most businesses are damaged by more than two months of near-constant shelling.

“This day is even more symbolic for us because we are waiting for our own victory – and not just the victory of our ancestors,” Synyehubov said.

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Closer to the front lines in the Donetsk region, relative calm also reigned – at least until the morning hours.

Few cities sounded their anti-aircraft sirens at night. In the town of Lyman, where fighting has raged in recent weeks, civilians took advantage of the relative calm to rush frantically towards armored evacuation buses organized by the regional government.

“We’ve been waiting for this for weeks,” said 70-year-old Volodymyr Yutin. He was evacuated to a hospital in the Donbass region with his 94-year-old mother, Katerina, her small build wrapped in a blanket on a stretcher.

But their escape brought them little joy. They hadn’t heard from Yutin’s daughter, Daria, since April 24.

“Her husband’s last text message said they were in a basement and had food,” Yutin said. He turned away for a moment as his eyes filled with tears. “I hope they are alive.”

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As the day progressed, fighting broke out again. On the road between Kramatorsk and Lyman, reporters saw thick plumes of smoke and rescue workers said it was becoming increasingly difficult to enter the city.

“There are a lot of civilian casualties in there,” said Vitaly Verona, who heads Lyman’s rescue service. “Russia just wants to flatten everything.”

Among the victims were Ukrainians of Russian descent who had stayed at home because they did not believe the forces in Moscow would harm them.

Lying in anguish in a hospital bed in Donbass, Ludmila Krivanos, 67, said she had ignored her children’s pleas to leave the Lyman area, telling them she could go on with her normal life when the shelling erupted. would be calmed down.

On Monday morning, she was thrown into her kitchen by an explosion. When she heard her husband, Nikolai, cry out for help, she found that her legs weren’t moving under her.

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“I crawled over to him and all I could see was blood,” she said. “We are Russians, we speak Russian. We never thought the Russians could do something like this to us.

Kharkiv is also a predominantly Russian-speaking region.

In a nearby town, Nikolai Manailo, a 99-year-old World War II veteran, opened a bottle of champagne for Victory Day. Originally from Kharkiv, he once fought alongside the Russians.

“Who would have thought this could happen? Manailo said softly. He wished the two countries could just sit down at a table and settle their differences over alcohol.

There were also VE Day events in Russian-occupied areas, but they were muted. Rumors have been swirling for days that the Kremlin would hold major events such as a triumphal parade in Mariupol, where Russian troops have taken near total control, or announce the annexation of more of Ukraine.

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Russian news outlets published images of mostly civilians marching with flags of the defunct Soviet Union and laying flowers at local World War II memorials. Crowds ranged from a few dozen to a few hundred.

“I hope this misunderstanding will end soon,” an unidentified veteran in Vovchansk, near Kharkiv, told the RIA Novosti news agency, his blue uniform covered in medals.

Commemorations in Ukraine were restricted by martial law, which prohibits large gatherings.

At Kharkiv’s main World War II memorial – the grieving “Mother of the Fatherland” statue – police checked the passports of everyone who arrived to lay red flowers.

City officials warned residents against visiting World War II monuments on Monday due to the higher risk of Russian attack, but did not ban it. Officers told the few visitors to hurry — no more than five minutes. Similar restrictions were in place in Kyiv and cities across the country.

The Kharkiv memorial was damaged by Russian artillery shelling early in the war, leaving craters in front of the statue and facial damage to a sculpture in front of the park complex. A nearby Holocaust memorial was littered with cluster munitions.

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Ukraine was devastated by World War II. Kharkiv was occupied by the Nazis for over two years. In his Victory Day speech, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that 8 million Ukrainians perished during the war, about 20% of the population at the time.

Zelensky compared Putin to Adolf Hitler, saying the Russian leader “follows Nazi philosophy, copying everything they do.” He predicted that Ukraine would prevail in the current conflict.

“Very soon there will be two Victory Days in Ukraine,” he said. And someone won’t even have one anymore.

This optimism is reflected in the outskirts of kyiv, where residents are beginning to rebuild after spending a hellish march under the occupation of a particularly brutal Russian regiment.

In Bucha, workers were restoring WiFi service to untouched areas of an apartment complex on Pushkin Street that had been shelled by a Russian tank early in the war, killing a woman. Residents of an apartment complex where an eight-story tower was punctured by an artillery blast were carrying their belongings home.

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At a bullet-riddled Ukrainian Orthodox church whose yard was temporarily used as a mass grave, Reverend Andriy Halavin said that so far VE Day had passed like any other.

“We don’t have this cult of victory like they do in Russia,” Halavin said. “They, for some reason, believe that everything great and important happened a long time ago, and now they are moving forward but their head is always turned back.”

Ukrainians are marking the end of World War II in Europe with a solemnity worthy of a tragedy that struck many peoples around the world, without glorifying the outcome, Halavin said.

“When we remember the past,” he said, “we pray for all those people who died, whether in this war or in World War II.”

Khurshudyan reported from Kharkiv, Loveluck from Kramatorsk, Stern from Mukachevo and Kunkle from Bucha.