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Kyiv marks victory over Nazis under shadow of Russian invasion

Ukrainians whose ancestors fought in World War II shrug off effort by Putin to link invasion to war by casting authorities in Kyiv as neo-Nazis

Ukrainian servicemen walk past the sandbagged monument to World War II hero Air Marshal of Soviet Army Ivan Kozhedub, in Kyiv on May 9, 2022, during Victory Day, the 77th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany by the forces of the Soviet Union. (Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP)
Ukrainian servicemen walk past the sandbagged monument to World War II hero Air Marshal of Soviet Army Ivan Kozhedub, in Kyiv on May 9, 2022, during Victory Day, the 77th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany by the forces of the Soviet Union. (Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP)

KYIV, Ukraine (AFP) — As Lera Nelyub walked with her grandfather, Nikolai, she admitted it was difficult to find a way to talk about the ongoing Russian invasion with the 97-year-old World War II veteran.

At Kyiv’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Monday, she held on to him as he bent to lay a bouquet of flowers to honor the memory of his friends and comrades from the Soviet Army who died fighting the Nazis in World War II.

“It is difficult for him to talk about it. At first, when he was watching the news, he couldn’t believe what was happening,” said Nelyub when asked how her grandfather felt about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ongoing war to “de-Nazify” Ukraine.

“It is completely idiotic what’s happening… Putin has an alternative history,” she said.

As Ukrainians flocked to the city’s World War II monument, Putin was in Moscow’s Red Square giving a speech for Russia’s Victory Day celebrations, where he derided Ukraine and sought to justify his invasion as an extension of Moscow’s war against the Nazis in the 1940s.

But the argument held little water in Kyiv, where a steady stream of relatives of those who fought and died fighting the Nazi invasion paid their respects to the fallen.

A man walks with his son at open air museum of World War II in Kyiv on May 9, 2022, during Victory Day, the 77th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany by the forces of the Soviet Union. (Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP)

Tetyana Levchenko, 65, bristled at Putin’s diatribes as she laid her own flowers at the monument.

“This is a holiday for me — a big, bright holiday. It’s the day of victory over fascist Germany,” said Levchenko.

“This concerns me personally and my family… We are not Nazis,” she insisted.

Between eight and 10 million Ukrainians are believed to have died in the brutal fighting of World War II that saw the Soviet Union repel the Nazi invasion of its territory that helped defeat Hitler’s Third Reich.

A man walks past a Russian missile at open air museum of WWII in Kyiv on May 9, 2022, during Victory Day, the 77th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany by the forces of the Soviet Union. (Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP)

Honoring the recent dead

Earlier in the day, President Volodymyr Zelensky invoked the ghosts of the war to lambast Russia, saying Ukraine was “proud” of its role in defeating the Nazi forces.

“We will not allow anyone to annex this victory. We will not allow it to be appropriated,” he said in a video address.

For months, Putin has sought to link Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine to the events of World War II, describing the authorities in Kyiv as neo-Nazis.

But Sergiy Marmuzin, a 46-year-old laborer, shrugged off the ongoing political wrangling over the conflict, saying it would not stop him from commemorating what he considers a sacred day.

A woman holds flowers at open air museum of World War II in Kyiv on May 9, 2022, during Victory Day, the 77th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany by the forces of the Soviet Union. (Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP)

“Sure, this holiday is used in political games of some sort, but it remains a holiday to me,” Marmuzin told AFP, saying his great-grandfather died in the war.

Others were visiting Kyiv’s World War II monument to honor Ukraine’s latest martyrs — those killed in the ongoing fight against the Russian invaders.

“I wanted to commemorate our warriors, warriors who defend us,” said retired teacher Nina Mironova, 72.

“I want this war to end so much because it has brought us so much grief.”

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