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    VICTORY DAY. 9 MAY 2017-2018

    MINSK, BELARUS   





Minsk. A tall obelisk stands proud above the crowd. The people have gathered around the Victory Monument to commemorate the soldiers of the Soviet front who died fighting Nazism, to celebrate those who lived to bring the victory home. It’s a triumph that came at great cost - the Eastern Front was one the biggest and most life-costly battlegrounds - and the veterans are highly respected in that regard. Although with every year the history becomes more distant and the number of those who participated in creating it is decreasing, it’s resonating with the ex USSR populace more than ever. A subject that affected the course of history on such a large scale is the perfect medium for shaping it to fit a political agenda.

Peeking through the grandeur of parades, speeches and ceremonies, seems to be an ulterior motive. A motive that's undermining the integrity of commemorative processes with its sources found coming from the neighbour to the North.

Russia, which pursues to be perceived as a continuation of the power that USSR once held, takes up the role of being the trendsetter for the Soviet-created narrative of war. It’s a glorifying account of an ideology that was victorious, of the prestige that war brings and the power that one shouldn’t stand in the way of. Using significant investments, this is channelled through mass media, formal education, lavish celebrations and symbols such as red flags, Stalin portraits and most notably the ribbon of Saint George. This narration of events and their implementation is meant both for Russians and USSR successors, especially those who still follow to support it. Those who do, have been accordingly translating it to their local population, including Belarus.

In its black and bright orange coloured stripes, the ribbon of Saint George is hard to miss. It’s a symbol of remembrance that is worn on Victory Day with pride by those following its ideals. Nevertheless, its use is relatively new. Initially, it held significance only as a military attribute. That was until a move by Russia in 2005 when it introduced the ribbon to the general public in time for the 60th anniversary of Victory Day. Despite some allegations that, in fact, it originated as a reaction to the 2004 Orange Revolution during which protesters used ribbons in orange, it was equally to become a component of Belarusian Victory Day celebrations, a result of coordinated ribbon distribution organised by Russia. With a strong start and praise as one of the most successful post-Soviet symbols, nine years on, the countries that assisted it in becoming well-established, started to question it. The beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in 2014 turned the ribbon into a widely controversial subject due to its associated ties with Russian separatist movements. The open aggression made Belarus cautious using the ribbon any further, but to act boldly against a Russian supported symbol would have been a risk for the valued relationship between the two neighbours.
The ribbon of Saint George isn't the first of dilemmas arising for Belarus when it comes to Russian-Belarusian relations, from which both countries have a lot to gain. Mostly in agreement, the occasional tension partially stems from Belarus being well aware of Kremlin influencing the cultural shifts for its gains, despite both countries sharing parts of cultural memory and collective consciousness. This realisation has made Belarus not only keen to strengthen its relations with the West but also ties with its own national identity, for instance stressing the importance of Belarusian language when the majority is still using Russian. Thus it seemed only right, that the vision of a stronger identity should be implemented when dealing with the ribbon in dispute.

That same year, in 2014, the Belarusian Republic Youth Union proposed to redesign the ribbon using the colours of the national flag. The new design was seen favourably, catching on quickly amongst the general Belarusian public and mostly replacing the ribbon of Saint George, as it is evident four years later. As much as it is a success, it has encouraged those favouring tradition to voice their discontent. The ribbon of Saint George is one of the main attributes of the “Immortal Regiment”, a public march that has become uniform with Victory Day. Like the ribbon of Saint George, it originated in Russia as an act of commemoration, a procession during which people bear portraits of the relatives who participated in the Eastern Front. The rejection of changes protects the view of a wider victory, one that unites Belarus and Russia and honours the power in unity that the Soviet Union held. For the celebrations of 2018, an effort was made to prevent the march in Minsk from happening, with the pretext that it overlapped the state-organised event “Belarus Remembers”. A strong outcry by the supporters and organisers of the “Immortal Regiment” put pressure on the authorities, transpiring in a last minute decision by city officials to permit the march after all. The president of Belarus Alexander Lukashenka asked not to politicise the matter, stating, “No one has ever forbidden what is sacred.” Nonetheless, if there is a vision for gradual change, the lack of it in this years' Victory Day, despite the efforts, has further exposed the dangerous territory that Belarus treads into when it comes to it examining its allegiances and the limits of its national identity.

The core of a memorial celebration is essential to a countries' identity. That core, coming to terms with your history and the losses along its way, whether it's soldiers, civilians or unfitting to one doctrine ethnic groups, has become entrapped in its usefulness for the new ideological battles being fought, even when they physically do not cross your borders. In the end, are there winners between the victims caught in a war of ideas?  
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© 2018 Jānis Žguts