Ukrainians once celebrated Victory Day on May 9, in the Russian tradition. But now, as they piece through the rubble of their homes and mourn lost friends and relatives, many pointedly mark the occasion a day earlier.
“This house, I have lived here for 40 years. Both my kids were born here,” Olga Teterska, a 48-year-old accountant from Borodianka, near Kyiv, told CNN as she looked at her destroyed home. “It is impossible to describe with words how I feel being back here and seeing what has happened.”
“The flower garden is still growing,” she added. “We’ll save the ones we can.”
“We celebrated May 9 until 2014,” Teterska said. “Now I will only observe May 8 as a day to remember the soldiers who fought and also as a way to be closer to Europe.”
The surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945 marked the end of the largest land war in Europe until this February, when Russian forces launched an all-out assault on Ukraine.
But the timing of that surrender — late in the evening in Germany, and after midnight in Russia — symbolically split Europe in two, creating separate commemoration days on the continent.
Most of Europe marks VE Day (Victory in Europe Day) on May 8. But in Russia and a clutch of ex-Soviet states, the anniversary falls on the 9th. In Moscow, it is celebrated with an extravagant military parade and a speech by President Vladimir Putin.
“Now May 8 is more important,” Valentina Torghunshko, from Borodianka, told CNN. “May 9 for me is Russia’s day now. It used to be Victory Day but everything has changed now. The Russians want us on our knees.”
“When the building was shelled, I was in the bunker,” the 68-year-old added, describing the day Russian forces struck her home. “Everything I had is destroyed. I was able to save my cat after. She was without food or water but she is alive.”
This year, there are fears the Russian leader will use his Victory Day parade speech to formally declare war on Ukraine. Until now, the Kremlin has euphemistically referred to their invasion as a “special military operation.”
That could bring yet more destruction for many in Ukraine’s east, and around the country. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko has urged citizens to stay inside from Sunday into Monday, and Western officials have warned the Russian invasion may be ramped up.
Vladim Bozhko, a farmer from the village of Andriivka, said his house was occupied by Russians, then destroyed in shelling as he and his wife hid in the cellar.
His son was fighting in Ukraine’s military and was killed in April near Hostomel, he told CNN.
“I feel nothing now,” he said, reflecting on the significance of May 9.
“It used to be about celebrating the victory of our grandparents. This year there is nothing to celebrate.”
“I will always remember what my grandparents did in World War II,” he added. “But with what the Russians have done to my son, to my house, I will not celebrate Victory Day.”
“To the Russians: Don’t bring your sons here,” he warned. “We have nothing left to lose anymore. We will fight you.”