Memories of World War II reverberate in Ukraine as Russia attacks its cities

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Kyiv, Ukraine—Billboards on the streets of Kyiv today project the opening verse of a 1942 Soviet song about the German invasion.

“On June 22, at exactly 4 a.m., Kyiv was bombed and we were told that the war had begun,” it said.

Russia’s war against Ukraine also began bombing Kyiv just after 4 a.m., a parallel not lost on its residents. Around 8 million Ukrainians died in World War II, a conflict that devastated the country and, like in Russia, is etched into collective memory.

Now that Ukrainian cities are being hit by deadly Russian artillery and airstrikes, an attack not seen in Europe since the 1940s, the memory of that pain offers many Ukrainians a frame of reference.

Streets that until two weeks ago were crowded with fashion shops, fusion restaurants and bustling pubs now have anti-tank obstacles, trenches and sandbags. Residents say the city’s new face reminds them of what it looked like in the black-and-white newsreels of the 1940s. But now it’s in color and real.

“The war that Russia is waging here is not a 21st-century war, but a 20th-century war,” said Ukrainian writer Andrei Kurkov, who writes in Russian. “Tanks, bombardments, the destruction of cities. The style of warfare is the same as in WWII and so it is logical that people started using the same terms. Today the Russians are the fascists and we are the ones defending our homeland.”

So far, at least, the casualties are nothing like the horrors of the 1940s, when the Nazi conquests were followed by the Holocaust. But President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a Jewish grandson of a Soviet World War II veteran, has already revived the old Soviet practice of bestowing the title of hero city on cities and towns that put up fierce resistance to foreign invaders. That weekend he gave the title to Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Mariupol, Kherson, Volnovakha and Hostomel, whose mayors were executed by the Russians.

A victim of shelling in Irpin on Sunday.


Photo:

Manu Brabo for the Wall Street Journal

He has also started referring to the Soviet term for World War II, the Great Patriotic War. “For us Ukrainians it is now a patriotic war. We know how these wars begin – and how they end for the invaders,” Zelenskyy said in a speech last week.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is also trying to use Russia’s collective memory of World War II as a justification for the invasion. He has repeatedly claimed without evidence that Mr. Zelensky’s government is Nazi controlled. Russian television presents the war as a campaign to liberate the Ukrainian people from fascist oppression.

Celebrating Soviet victories in World War II has long been a form of state religion under Putin. Families march with photos of their long-serving ancestors in parades of the so-called Immortal Regiment.

The history of the Second World War, of course, is equally complicated in Ukraine and Russia. Moscow was a co-war partner with Nazi Germany in the dismemberment of Poland in 1939 as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. While most Russians and Ukrainians fought the Nazis, Germany was able to recruit entire divisions of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers. In western Ukraine, a powerful nationalist insurgency first sided with the Germans, then fought the Germans and the Soviets alike, and continued to attack the Soviet regime into the early 1950s.

Ukrainian reserve forces guarded central Kyiv on Sunday.


Photo:

sergei supinsky/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The language of war is alive today in the propaganda on Russian television screens. Civilians killed by Russian shelling in cities like Kharkiv are instead portrayed as victims of Ukrainian fascists who stage their own attacks to paint Russia in a bad light. Mr Putin has repeatedly denied that his forces are targeting Ukrainian civilians.

Marina, a 50-year-old Russian-born accountant from Kyiv who didn’t want her last name used, said she has given up trying to convince her relatives in Russia that residential areas of the Ukrainian capital are under Russian attack.

“I tell them we’re being bombed and they just don’t believe me,” she said at the Kyiv train station as she tried to find a train ticket to get to her daughter in Germany on Monday. “They keep telling me it’s impossible that the Russians would do that and that it has to be the Nazis.”

Many in the crowd nearby were refugees from towns northwest of Kyiv already occupied by Russian troops.

“It’s even scarier than World War II,” said Serhiy Zhuravliov, a construction worker from the city of Vyshgorod who tried to put his pregnant daughter on a train bound for western Ukraine. “This time it’s our brothers, our relatives, who stab us in the back.”

Ukrainian residents fled when Russia shelled an evacuation route in a Kyiv suburb. Protests erupted in the Russian-held city of Kherson this weekend, including a man standing on a Russian military vehicle and waving the Ukrainian flag. Photo: Markus Schreiber/Associated Press

write to Yaroslav Trofimov at [email protected]

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