08 Mai 2023

World War 2 Memories in Lithuania and Ukraine

Political and Legal Symbolism of May 9 in the New Era of War

On May 8, 2023, Lithuania and Ukraine, along with other European countries, meet the annual anniversaries of the end of World War 2 in Europe in 1945. Meanwhile, Russia holds a national holiday tomorrow on May 9 to commemorate the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, which is the most important holiday in Russia and became a cult practice for uniting Russians after 2000. The anniversary finds Ukraine in the midst of fighting off present-day Russian aggression. Lithuania finds itself worrying about its defense, dealing with memory incidents and among the biggest supporters of Ukraine. Russia, however, finds itself more isolated than ever and scaling back the celebration: According to Moscow because of expected ‘drone strikes’, but more likely due to ‘fear of popular protests.’ This blog entry takes stock of legal measures by two nations to countervail Russia’s decades-long mnemo-political aggressiveness.

Political and legal symbolism of May 9

Sharing a set of mnemo-political characteristics, both nations make a good case for a comparison. Erroneously, both nations are considered by the West to be ‘post-Soviet’ nations in a sense that implies that Ukraine and Lithuania both joined USSR voluntarily (while both were conquered and incorporated in the Soviet state). On the one hand, indeed, the Soviet experiences shaped immediate trajectories of legal transition in both nations. In the wake of national independence of 1990, Lithuania has adopted a legal restorationist paradigm to claim historical continuity of its statehood. As in other Baltic nations, the idea of restoring a historical Lithuanian state that existed between 1918-1940 prevailed and became a backbone of the post-1991 constitutional legal order in Lithuania. To the contrary, Ukraine had experienced a prolonged legacy of Soviet state-building even before World War 2. Therefore, enjoying less of political (and national) consensus about its Soviet past, Ukraine’s political elite chose to proclaim the country a legal heir of Ukrainian SSR in 1991. While some symbolic measures to claim continuity between Ukrainian People’s Republic of 1917-1918 and post-Soviet Ukraine were attempted, these never amounted to becoming a constitutional law doctrine. Nevertheless, for both nations the issue of legal qualification and engaging with the Soviet past form a focal point of memory politics dynamics since the break-up of the Soviet Union.

When it comes to the intensity of World War 2, both countries became the main place of Nazi-Soviet combat as well as the main scene of the Holocaust perpetration. Moreover, the prolonged Soviet rule over both nations reverberated through present-day memory politics and legal controversies on how and whether to qualify ‘Soviet genocide’. In Lithuania, the post-WW2 crackdown on the national resistance invigorated the claims that genocide was committed against Lithuanians. In Ukraine, legal and political efforts were concerned with recognizing Stalin’s regime-perpetrated famine of 1932-1933 as genocide. Moreover, following the expulsion of Nazi troops from Eastern Europe, both nations had nationalist anti-Soviet insurgencies in immediate post-war years. These war experiences add complexity to contemporary political and legal attempts of engaging with the past. In particular, the issues related to legal rehabilitation of ‘freedom fighters’, prosecuted during the Soviet crackdown on the insurgency movements (but who, on the other hand, might have been involved in the Holocaust themselves), were at the cruxes of political competition in post-independence Seimas of Lithuania and Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine.

Finally, Russia’s resurgent memory politics to condescend Soviet-era historical narratives and project Soviet war memory on neighbours is a common geopolitical denominator for the region. In this sense, the Putin-era has been influencing much of the domestic dynamics in Lithuania and Ukraine already since the 2000s. Celebrating May 9, an epitome of the Soviet war memory narrative, remains the reason for protracted public and political controversies in a region of Russia’s mnemo-political aggressiveness.

For the Baltic nations, the symbolic date is a reminder that the victory over Nazism by the Soviet Union led to half a century of occupation. Since 2005, the 60th anniversary, Lithuania has been refusing to celebrate the pompous Moscow’s 9 May commemoration, which contrasted with the representation of more than 150 foreign dignitaries, including 50 heads of state. Back at home, May 9 was always a day of tension among Lithuanian society, as Victory Day commemorations were organized every year in various Lithuanian cities and towns by Russian diplomats together with Russian expatriates. In 2022, for the first time the rallies at a memorial for Soviet soldiers killed in World War 2 in Antakalnis Cemetery in Vilnius were not allowed by the municipality due to fear of provocations. In 2023, the tensions are still obvious, as the statue of Lithuanian partisan leader was attacked on the eve of May 8. Similarly, Ukraine’s approach progressed from tacit reception of Soviet war memory in the 1990s towards memorialization of Soviet-era abuses. In Ukraine, rethinking the Soviet war memory since the mid-2000s led to taking definite legal steps in the aftermath of Russia’s intrusion of 2014.

With the counter offensive of Ukraine at hand, which is promoted even by Russian media to show the dangers for the ‘fortress’, this year’s celebrations in Moscow look gloomy. Avoiding to show the scale of losses military power, some parades were cancelled. Even last year the mood was better as the whole world was expecting to hear what is next for Ukraine and the world. This year, instead of military parade or historical speeches, the international and domestic audiences are diverted by allegations of the ‘assignation of Putin’ attempt.

War symbols legislation before 2022

Among Baltic nations, Lithuania was the first to ban Soviet symbols in 2008 under the ‘Lithuanian Code of Administrative Offences’ together with Nazi symbols. In addition, the ‘Assembly Law’ prohibited the display of Nazi Germany’s, USSR or Lithuanian SSR flags, coats of arms, uniforms, symbols of Nazi or communist organizations, and the performance of the German, the USSR or the Lithuanian SSR’s anthems.

In comparison to Lithuania, whose path towards legal qualification of the Soviet past was more even, Ukraine had deferred the ban on Soviet (and Nazi symbols) only by 2015. Having emerged as a nation with a ‘divided memory’, Ukraine’s political elites spent considerable time to develop a consistent legal approach to the Soviet past. In 2015, Ukraine’s parliament has adopted a batch of so-called de-communization laws pursuing a range of legal and commemorative goals with regard to Ukraine’s Soviet legacy. In a move to ‘Europeanize’ Ukraine’s approach to war memory, the Law on commemoration of World War 2 diversified the country’s commemorative calendar. The new legislation established May 8 as the Day of Memory and Reconciliation, thus marking Ukraine’s ‘switch’ to common European understanding of the end of World War 2 and May 9 as the Victory Day – that is the Soviet-times Memorial Day reinterpreted as the day of Ukrainian contribution to the victory over Nazism rather than as of ‘Soviet people’ in the ‘Great Patriotic War’. As the recent survey data shows, the devotion of Ukrainians to May 9 fell drastically after the Russian invasion in February 2022 with only 13%  still considering it the ‘most important’ national holiday (in 2010, 58% said the same).

Along with the de-communization laws, Ukraine has adopted an East-Central European memory paradigm of ‘two totalitarianism’ in its interpretation of the Soviet past. This interpretation argues equal criminality of Soviet and Nazi regimes in Ukraine’s history. Epitomizing this historical narrative, the Soviet and Nazi Symbols Law of 2015 aimed to reform the Soviet legacy in public space of Ukraine. By amending criminal code, the law forbade the “production, distribution, and public use of symbols of communist, national socialist (Nazi) totalitarian regimes, including such as souvenirs, public performance of anthems of the USSR, Ukrainian SSR, other union and autonomous Soviet republics or their fragments throughout the territory of Ukraine” as criminal offence. Following the adoption of the laws, the Ukrainian government supervised the process of ‘de-communization’ of public space by getting rid of Soviet-era symbols.

War symbols legislation after 2022

Russian aggression against Ukraine in February 2022 further spiraled the mnemonic conflict between Ukraine and Baltic states on the one hand and Russia on the other (joined by the latter’s mnemo-political ally). On April 21st, 2022, Lithuania was among the first in the region to explicitly ban new symbols of Russian war in Ukraine by amending the ‘Lithuanian Code of Administrative Offences’ and the ‘Law on Assemblies.’ Accordingly, ‘symbols of totalitarian or authoritarian regimes used or used by these regimes to promote military aggression, ongoing or past crimes against humanity and war crimes’ are prohibited in Lithuania. The regulation specified that such symbols ‘shall in all cases be considered to be a two-colored (black and orange) Georgian (St. George’s) ribbon.’ Moreover, the ban also covers other symbols currently used by Russia to promote its war – the letters ‘Z,’ ’V,’, and others.

In Ukraine, the public usage of the St. George’s ribbon was an administrative offence since 2017. On May 22, 2022, Ukraine’s parliament recognized the ‘Z’ and the ‘V’ as symbols of Russian military aggression and proclaimed Russia a ‘terrorist state’ with a separate law. Moreover, the parliamentarians amended the criminal code instituting the responsibility for public propaganda or justification of the Russian aggression in Ukraine. The new Article 258-6 of the Criminal Code forbade the usage of these symbols ‘Z’ and ‘V’ seen being equal to public propaganda of the aggression and being punished by restriction or deprivation of liberty for up to 5 years.

Why May 9 matters during the ongoing war

May 9 is a divisive reference point for the East European ‘region of memory’. For Russia, its interpretation of Soviet war memoryprovided a backdrop to exert very real aggressiveness towards the neighbors. In modern Russia, May 9 – the Victory Day – became not only the source of patriotic pride, but also of tangible imperial ambitions. Met with this uneasy geopolitical reality, Lithuania and Ukraine, both post-colonial and post-genocidal nations, have enacted war symbols legislation to countervail Russia mnemonically. After 2022, the Victory Day indicates the biggest fears of the Russia’s regime: to prevent showing vulnerability to the Russian society amidst ongoing war in Ukraine. For Lithuania and Ukraine, the future rests on the prospect of how the current war ends. The Ukrainian victory would have a profound liberating effect on mnemonic affairs across the region and, thus, should be thrived for and actively assisted.