Russia’s Invasion Upends Shared Victory Day History With Ukraine

She carried a simple bouquet of white lilacs as explosions reverberated through the bright spring air. Tears streaked her weathered face, which was framed by a blue head scarf.

Nina Mikhailovna came on Monday, as she does every year on May 9, to the eternal flame in a city park that commemorates the allied victory in World War II. She came to honor the memory of her father, who was killed in 1943, and to remember those who died liberating her native Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine from the Nazis, whom she remembers forcing her into the fields as a child to cut and gather wheat.

At nearly 89, Ms. Mikhailovna thought she would never witness anything as bad as that war with the Germans. But the current war with the Russians is worse, she said.

At least the Germans were enemies.

“These are our people,” she said of the Russian forces, invoking the intertwined history, and the family ties, that link Russia and Ukraine. As she spoke, Russian rockets landed close enough to rumble the ground where she stood.

“My niece lives in Moscow but was born in Slovyansk,” she said, referring to a Ukrainian city a few miles away from Kramatorsk. “And now they’re sending her husband to fight. What’s he supposed to do, kill his mother-in-law?”

“That’s what is so hard to endure,” she said.

For decades, Ukrainians and Russians were bound by their shared experience in World War II. Together they died by the millions under German fire, and together they drove the Nazis from their lands. And each year on May 9, when the Soviet Union marked Victory Day, they marched in parades and laid flowers at monuments, always together.

But this year, as President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia used the holiday to defend his invasion, praising Russian troops for “fighting for the Motherland,” Ukrainians hid in bomb shelters and fought in trenches and died in air raids, the way their grandparents did so many years go.

The eastern region of Donbas, which the Kremlin is trying to seize in this war, has traditionally looked to Moscow as a center of political and cultural gravity, and many residents have close family ties to Russia. The war has complicated this relationship. After Mr. Putin annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and instigated a separatist war in Donbas in 2014, the government in Kyiv stripped away the Soviet symbolism from Victory Day. Ukraine celebrates it simply as a victory over fascism, which some Ukrainians now associate with Mr. Putin’s government as well.

“We have beat fascism and we will defeat Ruscism,” said Pavel Kirilenko, the governor of the Donetsk Region, who arrived with heavily armed guards to lay flowers at the monument.

Mr. Kirilenko spoke Ukrainian, but most people arriving at the monument spoke Russian, and expressed discomfort with the changes the Ukrainians made to what they called “our holiday,” even as they criticized the war and hoped for its end.

“Would you deny the memory of your grandfather?” said Sergei Porokhnya, 60, when asked why he had come to the monument to mark the holiday. “Why should I deny the memory of my grandfather, who died after going missing?”

All Monday morning in Kramatorsk, sirens wailed and the thump of bombs and rockets shook the city as Russian forces pushed nearer from the north and the east. They are not moving as quickly as Mr. Putin might have liked, but they are now close enough to Kramatorsk, a large industrial hub in the Donetsk region, to keep all but the most intrepid, like Ms. Mikhailovna, away from the park that holds the World War II monument.

At a hospital on Monday, ambulances arrived carrying civilians and soldiers wounded from the day’s shelling. A 28-year-old soldier named Andriy, pale and shivering in a hospital cot, described a hellish round of bombing that morning, which culminated for him when shrapnel flayed open his upper thigh and shattered his femur.

“It was obvious that on the 9th of May this would happen,” said Andriy, who was working on a milk farm in Denmark when the war started and came back home to fight. “We were ready for this.”

Another soldier at the hospital, a staff sergeant named Aleskandr, showed video on his phone of intense fighting in the city of Rubizhne, about 50 miles away. In one, he launches a rocket-propelled grenade at a Russian armored vehicle, which bursts into flames. Like Andriy, he was comfortable providing only his first name, for security reasons.

He said he and his comrades were nearly overrun as they fired grenades and machine guns out of the windows of an apartment building. He escaped with a contusion and is ready to return into the fight as soon as doctors sign off.

“We’re no longer brothers,” he said of the two sides. “Of course it is painful. What did my grandfather fight for?”

While some soldiers insisted the break between Russia and Ukraine was now final, there is an ambivalence about the war among residents in this part of Ukraine that can be difficult for outsiders to comprehend.

In Barvinkove, west of Kramatorsk, the rockets have rained down day and night, destroying homes and forcing all but the most stalwart, or stubborn, to flee. But some people there are less than enthusiastic about the ubiquitous Ukrainian troops defending their town from Russian forces moving in from the north, said Bohdan Krynychnyi, a 20-year-old volunteer soldier.

“Here we have problems with locals,” said Mr. Krynychnyi while taking a break from the fighting to buy groceries at the town’s one working market. His call sign is Monk because he left his training at a Ukrainian monastery to join the war. “They are waiting for the Russians here,” he added.

He described entering a house that morning that had been bombed by Russian forces. Inside, he said, he found a Soviet flag and an orange-and-black St. George ribbon, which has been turned into a nationalist symbol by Mr. Putin’s government and is worn by many soldiers now fighting against Ukraine.

Outside of town the soldiers of Ukraine’s 93rd Mechanized Brigade were having a victory celebration of their own. They had recently acquired a nearly new self-propelled artillery piece with modern Russian firing and targeting technology and were learning how to use it. The large armored vehicle, which can shoot rounds with high precision up to 20 kilometers away, had been abandoned by its Russian crew during a Ukrainian attack, said Major Serhii Krutikov, the deputy commander.

“We’re using their weapons against them,” Major Krutikov said. “We don’t have this kind of equipment in Ukraine.”

For Maria Mefodyevna, a 93-year-old Barvinkove resident who also remembers the Nazi arrival in World War II, all that matters is that the shooting stops. Her home on a residential street is pockmarked with shrapnel damage. Her husband and sons are dead, and she is alone.

“I just want the war to end,” she said, standing uneasily in her living room dressed in a blue flower dress and head scarf. “I only have a little while left to live, and of course I want to see who wins.”

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