Vladimir Putin’s Victory Day speech on Monday was a solemn affair. Surrounded by a cadre of top generals and with Red Square closed to the public, Putin used the anniversary of the defeat of the Third Reich to double down on his rhetoric against Ukraine. Many have died, he conceded, but only “so that there is no place in the world for butchers, murderers and Nazis.” The fact it is his troops that are doing the butchering was left unsaid.
More than 700 miles away, residents of Chișinău, the capital of the former Soviet Republic of Moldova, took to the streets for the march of the Immortal Regiment, honouring those who lost their lives in the Second World War. “Fascists will not pass,” the crowd chanted.
“Victory! Hurrah!” Waving the hammer and sickle flag of the USSR, some dressed up as Red Army soldiers, others wearing their old uniforms and medals, thousands joined the procession as it made its way jubilantly up to the eternal flame monument. As they did, a barrage of rockets was falling on the city of Odesa, just across the border.
“It is important for us to remember the war,” Pyotr, an 86-year-old veteran of the Soviet Navy told me. He had served with the Black Sea fleet – the same armada that is now bombing Ukrainian cities. “This is about the past,” he insists, “not whatever is going on today.”
While the Moldovan government has publicly announced its support for Kyiv, it has pointed to its constitutional status of neutrality to explain why it is refusing to hand over weapons or introduce sanctions on Russian businesses.
With 1,500 of Moscow’s troops deployed to guard the breakaway region of Transnistria and a large proportion of the public sympathising with Putin’s pretext for war, critics say the government, under pro-EU President Maia Sandu, is afraid of provoking the Kremlin.
Ahead of the 9 May celebrations, local authorities announced a ban on symbols showing support for the war, including the ominous “Z” sign, publishing guidance on what is legitimate Soviet imagery and what has been appropriated by Russian nationalists.
A Harvard-educated former World Bank economist, Sandu did not join the march and had warned that those falling foul of the rules would face fines. However, her pro-Moscow predecessor, Igor Dodon, was in attendance and pictured sporting the prohibited orange and black St. George’s ribbon, the same one Putin was wearing on his lapel.
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Others wave EU flags, celebrating the government’s decision just a few weeks ago to apply for membership of the bloc after the start of the war. Alexander and Vasily are among them, volunteering for a group called “Moldovans for Peace”. “Ukrainians are our brothers,” Alexander says, adding that “Victory Day isn’t a sign of support for Russia, it’s just about remembrance.”
The two sides marching together in the same event is just one sign of the deep divide in the former Soviet Republic about relations with Moscow. An unpublished poll by local research agency CBS-AXA and seen by POLITICO this week, found that almost half of Moldovans believe the invasion of Ukraine is either a “liberation from Nazism” or simply the defence of the Russian-held Donbass from “aggression,” while the other half brand it an “unjustified attack.”
Despite the split, those seeking to press a wider point were in a clear minority and, with the mood more like Notting Hill Carnival than Remembrance Day, politics was the last thing on the minds of most Moldovans. As in Moscow, many bring flowers, as well as pictures of their family members who fought to defend their homeland. Elena Golikova, a pensioner from Chișinău, was one of them. “My father, Anton Romanov, was a collective farm worker before the war,” she said, “it is him I am remembering today.”
She adds: “Politicians are politicians, but people are people – we don’t hate anyone here.” While she doesn’t take a view on who is responsible for the war in Ukraine, she has taken in her two sisters and their families after they fled from the besieged city of Mariupol, where some of the worst atrocities have been documented.
In the West, the lesson learned from the Second World War was, by and large, “never again.” In Russia, however, a more common slogan is “we did it before and we can do it again,” sometimes emblazoned on bumper stickers along with a depiction of a Soviet figure sodomising a Nazi one. At school, children learn about the war in terms of heroes and victories, rather than loss and sacrifice, and those who died for their country are exalted far more than they are mourned.
It is this triumphalism that Putin has sought to tap into to shore up support for his failing war in Ukraine, saying those filling the coffins coming back home died in a “sacred” fight. While some in Moldova undoubtedly believe him, theirs is an example of how the countries of the former Soviet Union can honour their past without being entirely overshadowed by the conflicts of the present – for now at least.