Uncertain Defenders of the Motherland Day

27.02.2012 | By Evan Ostryzniuk

What February 23 does and does not represent

Commonly known as Mens Day, February 23 is officially called the Day of Defenders of the Motherland and was a respected holiday in the former Soviet Union. However, it fits poorly in contemporary culture, since the very nature of its celebration is problematic for the new post-Soviet countries, which are in the throes of defining themselves. The problem lies in the pronouncedly Soviet nature of the holiday, the shrinking armed forces in Ukraine, myths of questionable origin and debatable manner of celebration

Kyiv has no shortage of venues celebrating Defenders Day. Several upscale night clubs and restaurants are putting on special mens events, irrespective of the audiences nature of military service, and in offices around the country women will be presenting their male colleagues with flowers, candy and a glass of spirits. Privately, veterans and active service personnel will be toasting each other, but no official state events are planned for February 23. Ukraine is unsure what to do about this day, since like many of the more benign aspects of the Soviet legacy, February 23 is fondly remembered, and so the tradition of celebrating it remains widespread. However, this very ambiguity is a prime example of the complex, contradictory and transitional nature of contemporary Ukrainian culture.


Inauspicious and dubious origins

Victory in the civil war and the consolidation of power on the shattered remnants of the Russian Empire meant that for the Bolsheviks (that later became known as Soviet Communist Party), the time had come for state-building, and the creation of a specifically Soviet culture was a key part of fashioning the first communist country. Since the Red Army had played the main role in securing that victory in 1921, its celebration and glorification headed the list of organizations deserving their own mythology. Notionally, February 23, 1918 was the day of the first-ever victory of the Red Army, as the newly created force threw back the Germans at the gates of the empires capital. However, there is much exaggeration in this claim. In fact, what happened on that day was largely forgotten in subsequent years. It was only in 1922 when the head of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky, decided to recognize that day as some how significant, holding a military parade on Red Square, thus establishing the tradition of an annual nationwide celebration.

So what really happened on February 23, 1918? The truth is, not much and a lot. Two weeks before that fateful day Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, had suspended peace negotiations with Germany, with whom Russia was still at war, leaving the situation on the Eastern Front unstable. At the same time, he disbanded the Russian Army, which had all but disintegrated anyway, and instead ordered the creation of a Worker-Peasant Red Army to defend the Revolution. The first recruits were invited to join on February 23. In the meantime, the Bolsheviks were relying in volunteer Red Guards and revolutionary enthusiasts to defend them.

With nothing to oppose them and hoping to force the Bolsheviks back to the negotiating table, the Germans ordered an advance on the capital. After capturing several important cities without a fight, the Germans met a detachment of Red Guards at the historical town Pskov on February 23 and were halted - briefly. On the following day, the Germans renewed the attack and forced the Red Guards out. However, that very morning Lenin agreed to resume peace talks, and so the German High Command suspended the offensive. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed on March 3, ending the war with Germany.


From Soviet myth into uncertain holiday

After the collapse of the USSR, the holiday fell into abeyance for a few years, but post-Soviet states attempted to adapt February 23 to the new national circumstances. In 1995 the Russian Duma decided to rename it Defenders of the Motherland Day. Ukraines government designated December 6 as Armed Forces Day, but in 1999 recognized February 23 as Defenders of the Motherland Day. In 2008, President Yushchenko attempted to move the holiday to January 29 to honor the defeat of the Ukrainian National Republic in a battle against a band of Red Guards in 1918, but it never got traction. None are official state holidays.

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