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The Meanings of May 9th (2010)

If you check Wikipedia you will find that at least 58 important things have happened on May 9, dating back to 1457 BC. They include a solar eclipse in 1012 BC, a Christopher Columbus voyage in 1502 and the convening of the first Australian parliament in 1927. For many in the world it is also Mother’s Day.

But for most people on the northern half of the land mass between the Pacific Ocean in the east and the Atlantic Ocean in the west, it means one of two things, and both are celebrations.

For members of the European Union it is Europe Day, because on this day in 1950, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman proposed the Schuman Declaration which led to the creation of the European Union. They first called it the European Coal and Steel Community, and it’s gone through various other names as well, but today we know and love it as the EU and we celebrate it’s birthday on May 9. Thank you Robert Schuman!

In countries like Latvia, which joined the EU in 2004, Europe Day is an increasingly noticed event because we hold a Europe Day garden party in VÄ“rmanes Park in the heart of RÄ«ga. Thousands participate to celebrate and learn more about the EU. Most EU countries celebrate Europe Day, and so does Turkey, even though it is still waiting to join.

While Europeans will be celebrating Europe Day on May 9, many in Russia and its neighbouring countries will celebrate it as Victory Day. For them this marks the capitulation of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union on May 9, 1945. As EU citizens celebrate the beginning of the EU, the people of Russia celebrate the end of The Great Patriotic War.

In countries like Latvia, that serve as home to EU citizens as well as Russians, both meanings of May 9 are celebrated. There are some who believe this is divisive, but it shouldn’t be. Both events are worthy of celebration, regardless of your ethnicity or citizenship. The creation of the EU has brought peace to Europe and strives to promote unity. The end of Russia’s Great Patriotic War ended a bloody conflict in which over 23 million Russians and other Soviets died fighting Nazi Germany.

Some Latvians resent the celebration of Victory Day because the end of the Nazi invasion of Russia meant the re-establishment of the Soviet occupation of Latvia. Russians resent the fact that Latvians won’t recognize their suffering in the Great Patriotic War. This resentment comes from two different interpretations of what is perceived as the same war.

But what if it wasn’t the same war? What if there were actually two different wars going on concurrently?

The explanation goes like this: World War II began in September 1939 when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland. During this war, the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, by Nazi Germany in 1941 and again by the USSR in 1944. That occupation continued until 1991.

The Great Patriotic War, on the other hand, began with Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and brought tremendous destruction and suffering to the Russian people. Leningrad was put under siege and bloody battles were fought from Moscow to Kursk to Stalingrad. The Great Patriotic War was fought in the heart of Russia and it was Russian people who suffered in huge numbers.

The end of any war is worth celebrating, and there is no reason why Latvians cannot join their Russian neighbours in celebrating the end of this bloody Nazi attack on Russia and its people. Tragically, the end of the Great Patriotic War did not end suffering in the Baltic States, and there is no reason why Russians can’t join their Baltic neighbours in acknowledging this as well.

As long as we look at the conflict between 1939 and 1945 as one war, there will be endless interpretations (and thus arguments) of what is true. But if you look at it as Two Wars, it is a lot easier to agree on one truth.

The truth is, we all suffered. For different reasons, at the hands of different governments, and in the name of different ideologies. None of these exist anymore. We are Latvians, Russians and Europeans, this is the 21st century, and May 9th gives us all an opportunity to reflect on the past, respect each other’s histories, and work together to ensure a better future. And also tell our moms how much we love them.

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