Soviet Uniforms

8 or 9

by Tamar Haupt-Khutsishvili and Ila Sikharulidze
Soviet Uniforms
Image: Tamar Haupt-Khutsishvili

The month of May is always an eventful one in Georgia as public holidays and commemoration days are strung together in a seemingly endless chain of celebration and remembrance.

The focus of our blog is one day in particular - Victory Day (VE Day) over fascism.  Georgia’s ruling party and the opposition are feuding over two different dates for the commemoration of Victory Day: May the 8th or the 9th.

As such, our discussion is centred on the question: What are the common views on the VE Day celebrations in Georgia? The blog assesses comments made on Facebook posts and TV programmes dedicated to the Victory day celebration.

The question of which date should mark the occasion has been one of controversy since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and has thus gained additional political significance. Following the Russian aggression against Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Georgia’s official political stance has been mired in uncertainty. At the start of the war, the Georgian government attempted to maintain a neutral position in the conflict. Instead of expressing its support for Ukraine, the Georgian government emphasised how crucial it was to prevent a “second front” in Georgia. Meantime in May, the well-worn dilemma of whether we should be celebrating Victory Day on May 9 or on May 8 has re-emerged. The Georgian government chose to follow already existing tradition and celebrated the victory day on May 9th with the WWII veterans in Kikvidze Park in Tbilisi. This drew widespread criticism from the opposition parties in Georgia.

In interviews on this subjectExternal link, representatives of the oppositional parties argued that Victory Day should be celebrated with the “civilised” world and together with the European Union on May 8.

A common view of the opposition is captured in the following statement shared in this interviewExternal link: “Where do we stand? Do we stand with Putin’s Russia and with the Soviet past?  Russians are the only ones celebrating Victory Day on May 9th. Or, do we stand with the international community? With the European civilisation, who also experienced fascism on its skin and also lost a lot? They celebrate the defeat of fascism on May 8. Georgia has to stand closer to civilisation.” 

Another TV programme External link“Droeba” outlined three main points to support celebrating Victory Day on May 8th as opposed to May 9th. Firstly, fascism and the Soviet Union are merely two sides of the same coin. Second, the Soviet Union would have lost the war without the active support of the West. Third, it is of vital importance to talk about the significance of celebrating Victory Day on May 8th, as the war in Ukraine is nothing but another demonstration of fascism against humanity.

Representatives from the major opposition parties have adopted a very clear position in favour of celebrating victory day on May 8th. On the other hand, Georgian Dream party members have been conspicuously silent on the issue so far, although their party leadership did host a victory day event on May 9th.

The discussion about celebrating Victory Day over fascism has been the cause of a heated dispute among the Georgian population on Facebook as well.

Georgians have expressed their ideas in the comments of various Facebook posts concerning whether to commemorate the win over Nazi Germany on May 8th or 9th (for illustration, consider the comments from these various TV media, news agency reports, and party statements: TV ImediExternal link, TV Mtavari ArkhiExternal link, RadiotavisuplebaExternal link, TVFormulaExternal link, PublikaExternal link, Batumelebi.geExternal link, Qartli.geExternal link, NetgazetiExternal link, TabulaExternal link, Girchi-more freedomExternal link, European GeorgiaExternal link). The general trend on Facebook showed that a great number of users were upset because of the proposal to shift Victory Day, and justified their opinion with the following arguments.

Most people noted that Victory Day has always been celebrated on May 9th and believe that we must follow this tradition. For them, it is an occasion that goes back generations. This is a day that their grandparents, some of whom were witnesses to the war, and parents celebrated for decades, and for them the proposal to shift Victory Day is motivated by one of two factors. Either the proponents of this change are unaware of their own history or these ‘pro-Europeans’ or ‘liberals’ wish to snatch away an important part of their heritage.

However, it is not only the celebration of Victory Day that has come under increasing scrutiny, but also the whole idea of which countries contributed the most to defeating Nazi Germany. For the proponents of celebrating on May 9th, the Soviet Union was responsible for winning the war and not the West because western European countries welcomed Hitler in their homeland and the US became involved in the war when it was almost over.

Interestingly, there is a radical sub-group that argues that the victory over Nazi Germany belongs not just to the Soviet Union but also to Georgia. They justify this due to the involvement of Georgians such as Stalin and Beria, and further solidify their reasoning with the symbolic hoisting of a Soviet flag over the Reichstag by Georgian soldier, Meliton KantariaExternal link. For many Facebook users the maxim ‘history is written by the victors’ holds great sway, and as such, they reject the right of the Western European countries along with the US to shift Victory Day from May 9th to May 8th.

Some comments noted that it is not about the West vs the Soviet Union divide, but just an act of gratitude towards our ancestors who sacrificed their lives in the fight against Nazis. Since all of the Georgian war veterans commemorate the biggest achievement of their life on this particular day, we should appreciate their contribution and continue the tradition. Furthermore, the situation is all the more sensitive as some war veterans are still alive and their wishes and opinions must be respected.

Several comments tried to retain the symbolic meaning of the day while viewing it from a historical perspective. Although the end of the war was declared on May 8th, it was already May 9th in the Soviet Union.  Therefore, it is not entirely a falsification of history to celebrate on May 9th.

There were also several comments questioning the relevance of such a discussion, as there are more pressing issues to discuss. Some stated that we should not celebrate any of these days since thousands of Georgians died in this war, and therefore a day of mourning might be more apt.

The proponents of moving Victory Day to May 8th decided to argue not from history but rather focus on the symbolic meaning behind May 8th as a victory day.  They agree with the arguments of the opposition parties and media, and claim that if we want to be a part of the European family, then we have to disentangle ourselves from the propagandist influence of Russia. They further state that while there is Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, fascism is still alive.

War commemoration days play a great role in nation-building and creating a national identity. Questions such as who we are, where our roots lie, and where we belong are answered by the way we remember our own history. Georgia is at a crossroads when it comes to celebrating and commemorating its own heritage. Many believe it is time to forge a new identity.

Part of constructing a new identity involves dealing with thorny topics such as whether we should celebrate Victory Day on May 8th or 9th and with whom – the West or Russia?

Supporters of May 8th build their argument on one main point: ‘we need to get rid of the Russian narrative’. However, this argument neglects the concerns of people celebrating Victory Day on May 9th, especially as they may not necessarily be in support of Russian imperialism.

For most of this latter group, celebrating Victory Day on May 9th is a way to honour the achievements of their great-grandparents and to take pride in the actions of their family members who fought in WWII against the scourge of Nazi Germany.

The narratives about the victory over fascism have partially shaped their identity, which is why the change of date is viewed with distrust. They believe that the minor change to the date could lead to the role their ancestors played in the victory over fascism being forgotten or devalued.



Authors Bio:
Dr. des. Tamar Haupt-Khutsishvili is a research fellow at the Institute for Caucasus Studies, Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena.
Ila Sikharulidze is a master’s student of Social and Cultural Anthropology at KU Leuven

Peer Reviewed by:
Prof. Dr. Tornike Turmanidze, Tbilisi State University