Hitler, Mister Bean, Stalin, Lenin, Vladimir Putin, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump, Queen Elizabeth of England… The faces of a hilarious Macedonian character surprise the visitor in the heart of kyiv, Independence Square, better known as Maidan (square in Ukrainian). Some souvenir stalls, where bracelets and other trinkets with the national colors are also offered, have fake driving licenses for all of them for sale for 50 hryvnias (1.5 euros). This is the same place, almost sacred to the natives and the site of the most important protests, that President Volodímir Zelenski has chosen to record his last message, made public on Monday. In it he assures that “soon there will be two Victory Days in Ukraine”, the traditional day that commemorates the triumph of World War II and the one that faces the current Russian occupation.
The video has been recorded precisely on the occasion of the celebration of Victory Day, May 9, which both Ukrainians and Russians commemorate for the end of that world war and the defeat of the Nazis in 1945. Under this argument of the opposition to Hitler’s regime, the two presidents, Putin and Zelensky, one in Moscow’s Red Square and the other in kyiv’s Independence Square, one invader and the other invaded, have defended their positions in two messages.
“Today we celebrate the Day of Victory over Nazism,” says the Ukrainian president in a firm tone to counter Putin’s argument, which insists that Ukraine must be “denazified”. Faced with this new victory that they yearn for, “the road” is “complicated”, but “we have no doubts that we will achieve it”, he points out in the video while walking in front of a garden area of the Plaza de la Independencia in which tribute is paid in kyiv with small Ukrainian flags to locals and foreigners who have lost their lives in the war.
The president, a former comedian with Jewish roots, once again took care of the staging and drew on epics and history in his speech lasting just over five minutes as he advanced on the asphalt along the elegant and symbolic Jreschatik street towards Maidan. Zelensky, dressed in the usual khaki color that he has worn since the war began, recalls, in the name of the “freedom” and “independence” achieved by his “ancestors”, that all the wars in which his country has been involved they have had “the same ending”, victory. “No enemy has managed to take root here” and “there is no enemy that can impose itself on our free people. Sooner or later, we will win.” Only a “madman” could want to repeat a conflict like World War II with some 50 million dead, the same one that “today repeats the horrible crimes of the Hitler regime,” says the president in his message.
Join EL PAÍS to follow all the news and read without limits.
The Government of Ukraine feared from the first moment of the offensive launched by Russia on February 24 that the Russian flag would end up flying on Maidan. The Kremlin troops came very close to kyiv, but ended up failing in their attempt to storm the capital. Military checkpoints and obstacles to stop tanks and armor remained even when the local military’s counteroffensive pushed them away tens of kilometers in early April. That is why Zelenskiy has chosen this scenario for his message on May 9, because it represents for kyiv the failure of the war waged by Putin.
The square now looks more like it did just before the Russian invasion. The local authorities celebrate that the enemy troops are far away, at least for now. All lanes are open to traffic on Khreschatik Street, along which Zelensky advances alone and without traffic to record his video. On the sides are piled up the metallic masses of the barricades that had been set up at the beginning of the war. They are a memory, still not very distant, of the days when an entry into blood and fire by the Russian military was feared. The sandbags have also been set aside on the sidewalk, some of which are already frayed by the weeks spent outdoors. Citizens have returned to wander on rental scooters, the catering establishments reopen little by little, also the coffee kiosks and flower vendors… life. At the tables that offer souvenirs, including those joke driving licenses, two women, Ira and Lida, laugh nonstop as they try to protect themselves from the water from the sprinklers in the square where they have stood in recent days tulips of different colors.
But this day of victory that Zelensky has proclaimed so much is still not fully reflected on the street, despite the fact that the tension in the capital is much lower than it was a few weeks ago. Many of the big businesses on Jreschatik Street, such as international fast food franchises or Spanish fashion giants, remain with their doors closed in a city from which hundreds of thousands of inhabitants have left. On the door of Mango there is a poster of a mask that is a reminder of the pandemic, hardly a pre-war concern. On the facade of Zara there are two graffiti with the legend “Ukrainian resistance” next to the shadow of soldiers on the battlefront.
Under this climate of contained euphoria, local stores try to recover normality. On that same avenue, a shopping center located in an elegant building from 1952 has reopened its doors last weekend. But among the clothes from the dozens of local fashion brands present, barely a handful of customers can be seen. One of the workers, Andrei, 24, comments hopefully that it is necessary to restore the “economic” and “psychological” normality of the country. Large messages in Ukrainian and English can be read in the shop windows as a claim on the yellow and blue colors of the country’s flag: “Bravery made in Ukraine”.
Longings for the Soviet past in eastern Ukraine: “Nothing was easy, but we had peace”
Maria R. Sahuquillo (Kramatorsk)
In an almost ghostly Kramatorsk —considered the military capital of the Donbas region—, the monument in honor of the fallen in World War II and the memorial of the eternal flame has received a handful of spaced visits. Some are afraid of the bombing and the escalation of the war launched by Russia on a day that many have seen as a turning point and escalation of the battles. But in a depressed region, badly battered by war since 2014 and where the kyiv government does not have an ardent majority of supporters among those who have stayed, some visitors are also wary that there will be no big celebrations.
Katia and Andrei, who have come to lay flowers in memory of two of their grandparents, who fought in the Red Army. “It is sad and uncomfortable to see how some are now trying to rewrite history,” says the woman. However, for the couple, talking about Russia’s war against Ukraine is a taboo subject.
For Leonid, a 65-year-old pensioner, both the Ukrainian government and the Russian president “lie”. He carries a photograph of his father, Ivan, who fought against Nazism. “Putin and Zelensky should have had a cool head to negotiate,” he laments. He misses Soviet times, he says. “Nothing was easy, but we had peace. We were together like brothers”, he affirms before placing a bouquet of flowers on the grave of his father.
Leonid is not particularly scared by the noise of the explosions that have resounded loudly throughout the Kramatorsk and Sloviansk area on Monday. Russian forces are pushing hard from the north and east to push into Donbas, the main focus of the second phase of what Vladimir Putin calls a “special military operation.” This Monday, in his Victory Day speech, the Russian leader spoke of the Donbas area (which includes the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, part controlled by the Kremlin through the pro-Russian separatists), and announced that soldiers who had come directly from the area were parading in Moscow’s Red Square.
The Kremlin is cracking down on eastern Ukraine and after weeks of minimal gains it is seizing territory in the Luhansk region, where it has intensified bombing. On Saturday night, some 60 people were trapped under the rubble of a school in Bilohorivka, in the cellars of what was already the last shelter in an almost empty town. Russian troops are now fighting there street to street and the Ukrainian authorities have been unable to launch a rescue operation. No sign of survivors. The Ukrainian president, Volodímir Zelenski, assumed on Sunday night that they had died.
Exclusive content for subscribers
read without limits