The complicated mess of Victory Day

When you think of awkward holidays, doesn’t your mind usually go to Thanksgiving, when extended families gather around a large table? Not always, but often we spend the time either painfully avoiding all topics political/controversial OR we dive straight into those topics and everyone leaves feeling upset?

While Moldova doesn’t have Thanksgiving, it does have something much much more complicated: Victory Day. Victory Day marks the end of WWII. I must admit that WWII has changed in significance for me after living in Europe. As an American, it was something of the past – a dark cloud that consumed the world between the 1930s and 1940s. The war’s effects on American seem relegated to history books and the memories of survivors; and while it is interesting to read historical or fictions books from that time period, it isn’t entirely relevant to daily life.

Being in Europe, though, I am facing the reality of how this war devastated this continent. The psychological, economical, and physical tolls remain present to this day. In Germany, I sense that the government and the people actively fight to remember…to remain vigilant against future travesties. In Moldova, I feel that the people have never been given the chance to forget.

Let me explain.

The V Day surrender (as I understand it)

Thank God for the internet. The longer I live in Moldova, the more desperate I become for a reliable history book on this country. I already have one picked out from Amazon for whenever we are next in the United States. Until I get the book, though, my Romanian language teacher and Wikipedia are my sources of information. In fact, this whole blog post was inspired be a conversation I had with my Romanian teacher following the V Day holiday. But more to come on that.

Back to the facts. Victory Day occurs in Western Europe on May 8 and in post-Soviet nations on May 9. Apparently, Germany signed a surrender twice. The first time was in Reims, France on May 7, 1945. However, the Soviet High Command argued that they had not agreed to all the terms and that their officer who signed was too low ranking. Therefore, another surrender was signed in Berlin on May 8. By the time the surrender went into effect on May 8 at 23:01, it was already May 9 in Soviet countries. This explains the split day nature of this holiday.

The progression of V Day celebrations (according to a brief internet search)

From what I have read, many Europeans celebrated V Day in 1945. The British people gathered en mass (like literally a million of them) out on the streets around Trafalger Square. However, many countries have not continued to celebrate in the following decades. Today, Victory Day is not a national holiday in England. From what I can find, only France and the Czech Republic continue to celebrate this day.

On the other hand, it sounds like the USSR always celebrated Victory Day, though not always in its present form. In Russia, it first became a non-working holiday in 1965. Prior to that it was a remembrance but not a national holiday. And it has only been since Putin’s rise to power that the Russian government has encouraged public pride in national holidays, political history, and military power. All this to say, Victory Day in Russia now usually entails military parades.

Side note here: I strongly wish I knew more of the Soviet contribution in WWII. I realize yet again that the history I learned in school had an American-centric viewpoint. Of course, I know that there are not enough hours in the day for a school child to learn detailed history of every country across the world throughout all time. And yet I am embarrassed of how little I know of the soviet perspective of WWII.

If you want a pretty devastating summary of WWII’s toll on the Soviet Union, please read the “Aftermath and damages” section of this Wikipedia page.

So what to make of all this?

Okay, so the Soviet Union sacrificed unbelievable amounts in their contributions in WWII. This is clear. But they also did horrible things themselves. On the same Wikipedia page as above, you can read the “Soviet War Crimes” section if you care to know some of the atrocities.

And what is more, the atrocities didn’t end with the signing of the German surrender. The big elephant in the room? The Soviet Union annexed and occupied independent countries during and after WWII. Various countries, including Moldova, found themselves passed from Nazi German occupation straight to communist Soviet occupation. In fact, many Moldovans speak of grandparents who fought first for the Romanian/German army and then for the Soviet Army. IN THE SAME WAR. Though some people do look back fondly upon communist rule, one can not deny that it was full of its own sort of atrocities.

Where does this leave Moldova?

Okay, so back to our little country of Moldova after that brief history lesson. This knowledge of the aftermath of WWII makes me feel even more conflicted about the divisions in Moldova. I already knew there are divisions here between East and West. There are people who want to be aligned more closely with Russia: they may have family there; perhaps they speak only Russian; and in fact, they might consider themselves Russian despite being born in Moldova.

These Russian-aligned Moldovans were the ones marching in parades on Victory Day, wearing military uniforms and carrying the orange and black flag that is a Russian military symbol. And as I mentioned above, the Soviet Union sacrificed immeasurable amounts in WWII – they have much to memorialize from that time.

This is the Ribbon of Saint George – the Russian military symbol

But then there are the Europe-aligned Moldovans. These people might still be carrying EU flags for Europe Day (did I mention that Europeans celebrate “Europe Day” on May 9 as well??). The pro-Europe people despise the military shows of power in Russia and Moldova on Victory Day. And who can blame them? Having another’s country’s military flag on demonstration in your own independent country on a national holiday?

In fact, some call the orange and black flag a “ghândac de Colorado.” The “ghandac de Colorado” is the Colorado potato beetle – an invasive bug with brown and orange stripes that destroys potato crops. Which is to say that for Europe-loving Moldovans, the military flag of Russia is like an invasive species in their country that destroys something very important to them.

The takeaway message for me

One group views Victory Day as a day of liberation. The other group views it as the transition from one period of oppression to another. Can you see how this celebration is complicated?!? And yet it remains an official holiday in this country despite all its complexity.

As I learn about this hot mess of history (is not all of history mostly a hot mess??), I am continually impressed by the tenacity of this people. It is easy to see how Moldova could devolve into civil war, but it has not. These people are peaceful. They are beaten down but not totally destroyed. Unfortunately, I see them continuing to struggle with hope, upward mobility, and pride in their country. But I am thrilled to meet people who love their country in its simplicity (like students who are proud of traditional Moldovan music or food) as well as those who love their country despite all its complicated history (like my super educated Romanian teacher.)