travelling

Hero city remains proud of its legacy

11.05.2012 | By Mykola Polishchuk

Kyivites celebrate Victory Day on former battlefields

Victory Day, which commemorates the capitulation of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union on May 9 to end the Second World War, has been a politically and emotionally charged time since the end of the USSR over twenty years ago. In recent years, the day has been used by politicians for self-promotion or by radical movements, both right and left, to promote their revisionist agendas (read: cause trouble), yet despite the ongoing controversies, Victory Day remains one of a favorite holiday among Ukrainians

Kyiv was pivotal in that great struggle, hosting numerous battles and many tragedies. Almost every street or building has a connection to this history, to the point that even in the spaces between residential and office buildings one can find memorials to those who fell defending or recapturing the city. For this reason, some people celebrate Victory Day in the most unexpected places.

Koncha-Zaspa and peoples memorials

Official celebrations involving high-ranking officials are traditionally held on Kyivs main thoroughfare, Khreshchatyk, and war veterans gather mostly around the military museum. However, amateur historians, military history buffs and those who like historical reenactment prefer to gather in the forest not far from the exclusive village of Koncha-Zaspa south of Kyiv. In these woods lie the remains of fortified lines along which in September 1941 Soviet troops repelled German forces from directly approaching the Ukrainian capital, thereby helping to spoil their plans to conquer Moscow by the end of that year. Hundreds of thousands of troops, many of whom are still listed as missing-in-action, fell in the engagements around Kyiv. In fact, volunteers from all over Ukraine and neighboring countries continue to look for remains of the gallant defenders. Moreover, the defensive system build around Kyiv is interesting as fortifications. Curved lines of reinforced concrete bunkers interconnected with trenches and tunnels defend the approaches from the west. They stretched through forests, and crossed roads and rivers. Fire points in the middle of the lakes that helped form the system can be still found behind a mask of railway embankments. As strange as it may seem, in Soviet times these points were abandoned and filled with trash, largely because the Soviet leadership preferred to forget these early disastrous defeats and failures of the Red Army. It should be noted that the Battle of Kyiv was the single greatest defeat of Soviet arms during the war, losing over half a million men in a grand encirclement.

Today, the remnants of this fortification system is protected by law and holds the status of a historical monument, but even so, that does not prevent dozens of enthusiasts belonging to many military and historical associations from taking it upon themselves to work for its preservation. They hold excursions and gather to celebrate Victory Day on the old battlements. Occasionally, as part of the commemoration they bury the remains of soldiers found by search groups. To note such mass graves, people have put up their own non-state memorials in the forest, from small chapels to mock bunkers decorated with the soldiers helmets. Such peoples memorials have no official status and are constructed without permission, but city authorities would not dare oppose their creation.

Springboard in Bukryn

While Koncha Zaspa is a symbol of the 1941 battles, the Bukryn base (70 km south from the city, almost on the border with Cherkasy oblast) is a symbol of the 1943 battles for the liberation of Kyiv. This riverside base saw the Red Army ford the Dnipro River to grab a foothold on its right bank in October-November, but the attempted landing was repelled with the loss of almost 20,000 men on the Soviet side alone from that small 11 km wide-4 km deep area. Historians argue about whether operation was rational or necessary (Kyiv was liberated from the northern Lyutizh base instead) and dispute the qualifications of the commanders involved.

Regardless, Bukryn has become a symbol of the battle for liberation of Kyiv. Nearby Balyko-Shchuchynska village holds a grand memorial complex dedicated to the men and women who fought there, and on holidays local authorities allocate special buses to transport visitors to the sites of that bloody battle. Every year on May 9 local residents lay a kilometer-long table with food and drink, and local military units often take part in the celebrations. Among the visitors to the memorial complex are descendents of veteran officer Viktor Vasylyovych Bilodid, who fought at Bukryn next to his father, infantry divisional commander Vasyl Isidorovych Bilodid. Their outstanding personal qualities and heroic deeds were immortalized on the local monument in a unique way. On the bas-relief depicting the deployment of units and formations at the crossing, Viktor Bilodids son Vitaly showed the place where father and son Bilodid stood during the battle. The architects and designers inscribed the letters VI and VV into the monument to denote the contribution of the outstanding father and son team to victory.

Naval Victory Day

Even though Kyiv is far from any sea, veterans and sailors still have their favorite place for meeting each other in the city - Sailors Park on Rybalsky (Fishermans) Island, not far from Kontraktova Square in the Podil. Retired sailors form solemn ranks around the memorial vessel Zheleznyakov, which once belonged to the Dnipro River Naval Flotilla. The ship fought along the Dnipro, Don and Danube, and now is maintained by several generations of retired sailors. Regardless of the ongoing conflict caused by the stationing of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, Crimea, which overshadows relations between Kyiv and Moscow, naval veterans from Russia and Ukraine always find common language there. Moreover, Soviet river fleets do not exist anymore, remaining only in the misty memories of veterans, the oldest of whom, submarine commander Mikhail Safronov, will soon celebrate his 100th birthday. They perform the flag ceremony, after which the veterans find their honored placed at festive tables. For civilian guests, on these days a period vessel does guided tours, showing and lecturing about local combat history. One of these guides is Viketa Marinushkina, daughter of the vessels first captain and author of numerous research works on the history of the Dnipro fleet.

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