"(Re)mapping Spaces of Memory in Ukraine after the Euromaidan" by Viktoriya Sereda

February 2, 2017

Viktoriya Sereda, HURI MAPA Project Research Fellow, describes the research she shared in her Seminar in Ukrainian Studies presentation, which was held on January 30, 2017.

Viktoriya Sereda PresentationThe period prior to the Euromaidan can be characterized by the Yanukovych government’s attempts to actively manipulate the past for the purposes of political mobilization. These efforts were focused on two central themes: the “Great Patriotic War” and the Baptism of Rus’. These themes could easily be incorporated into different historical narratives – Ukrainian, Soviet Ukrainian, and Russian (Imperial).

For the last decade, regional elites tried to preserve the status quo or successfully resisted attempts from the side of national government to impose unwanted symbolic alteration of local memoryscapes, while the population took the rather passive position of by-standers.

Urban landscapes were used for different representations of the past (Ukrainian, Soviet, Russian Imperial, minorities’ narratives) which co-exited (often peacefully), but reflected polarity in Ukrainian society. They had little impact on developing an agreement within the society about what the most heroic or shameful pages in the country’s history were. Rather, they led to the segregation of memories.

During the Euromaidan and its aftermath, when public activism reached its peak, new spontaneous, grassroots local initiatives aimed at the creation of a new heroic cult emerged. Support for this cult still would vary in different parts of Ukraine, since the Euromaidan itself did not have an equal degree of support in all oblasts. Very soon, this heroic narrative was complemented by another, more powerful, one, which was associated with the Russian aggression in Donbass, since the ATO (Anti-Terrorist Operation) directly affected much wider circles of Ukrainian society. For the first time, a new cult of heroes commonly accepted in practically all regions Ukraine started to form. However, this cult does have some limitations, excluding people who have an alternative interpretation of events.

In parallel, the Euromaidan, like any political and social upheaval, provoked an active revision of the past in search for the legitimization of one side and de-legitimization of the other. The main tensions arose between the Soviet representation of the past and the Ukrainian nation-centered narrative, especially about the interpretations of the “Second World War” heroic myths, intensified by Yanukovych’s politics of memory. In public spaces this resulted, first of all, in the so-called “Leninfall.”

Great Patriotic WarIn response to those developments, the new Ukrainian government had to make alterations in both its official historical narrative and its politics of memory. In the official historical narrative (presented by the President’s speeches), the main changes resulted in downplaying the Soviet heroic narrative by silencing practically all Soviets holidays (like 23 February, 8 March, 1 May) or diminishing their role (like 9th May). It also resulted in supporting the new heroic cult by introducing new holidays or (re)articulating existing holidays (such as Ukraine Defenders Day, 8 May (Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation), Day of Dignity & Freedom, Heavenly Hundred Day). All historic and heroic narratives were linked to the Euromaidan and the ATO, which were also used to reconcile the disputable past. The main changes were aimed at transforming the Soviet myth of the victory in the “Great Patriotic War.” This myth has been reincorporated by the current Russian political elites as the nodal point and stronghold of national self-identification, and reutilized by the self-proclaimed republics DNR/ LNR for propaganda purposes.

The spontaneous process of symbolic recodification of urban/rural spaces changed its character after the Supreme Council of Ukraine issued the controversial “Decommunization laws” in April 2015. This legislation intensified the process of undoing Soviet symbolic markers, but reversed its character from a bottom-up initiative to a top-down process.

All of those processes coincided with the dislocation of almost three million inhabitants of Ukraine, who fled in different directions from the disputed territories and military conflict, and with the active symbolic recodification of those spaces.

The aforementioned developments provoked the inhabitants of Ukraine to reimagine the past and the symbolic meanings of the urban/rural landscapes, which I analyzed in my HURI seminar presentation, “(Re)mapping Places of Historical Memory in Ukraine After the Euromaidan.”

In my analysis I focused on:

  • the main markers of the past – holidays, events, and figures that experienced the most shifts in Ukrainians’ support for them
  • whether those shift have any regional-specific character, or are happening simultaneously everywhere

The inhabitants of Ukraine more willingly accept the new cult of heroes as well as new holidays, rather than the alteration of the meanings of existing ones. Changes of attitudes to holidays, events, or personalities that are already codified differ in scope. In general, the Soviet and Russian imperial representations of the past are gradually losing their support, and the Ukrainian narrative is gaining, but there are regional variations. The turbulent events of the 20th century and especially the Soviet myth of the “Great Patriotic War” are at the core of remapping spaces of memory.

The attitudes associated with symbolically altering the Soviet myth of the Great Patriotic War and the acceptance of such nationalist-heroic markers as Bandera and UPA, typically limited to Galicia and Volhynia, are now gaining support in Central Ukraine. Growing support for more “neutral” historical markers from the Ukrainian national narrative (Hrushevsky, Chornovil, the Famine) is observed all over Ukraine, although Kharkiv, Donetsk, Odesa, and Mykolaiv regions demonstrate the lowest dynamic.

We also witness the appearance of new commemoration practices and spaces, with the following characteristics:

  • The Euromaidan and ATO “stories” are merged
  • Other narratives of the past are subordinated
  • Official and local historical narratives are mutually reinforcing
  • New practices are more easily accepted than the recodification of older practices

New Commemorative PracticesFor the first time, there is a cult of heroes that is commonly accepted in practically all regions of Ukraine. The support for new commemorative practices is visible in all oblasts of Ukraine, although there is potential to exclude those who did not support the Euromaidan or ATO.

Our research has demonstrated that the process of (re)mapping of spaces of memory in post Euromaidan Ukraine is very intensive. It is happening on all levels of society simultaneously and involves very diverse social actors.

At the same time, the Ukrainian government has to respond to two mutually exclusive tasks: attempts to build an ethnically inclusive narrative for the Ukrainian political nation and efforts to counter anti-Ukrainian Russian propaganda that is focused on ethnicity and includes a lot of historical argumentation.

Under such circumstances, it is important to use all possibilities for an open public discussion about the past and to involve local civil society to moderate it.

VIDEO: Watch a video of the seminar presentation here

Viktoriya SeredaViktoriya Sereda is the current HURI MAPA Project Research Fellow, as well as an associate professor of sociology at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. Her research focuses on urban sociology, memory studies, nationalism and identity studies. Forthcoming publications include: “Shifts in national, regional and local memories and identities in post-Euromaidan Ukraine,” in Nationalities Papers (coming in 2017); “Ukrainian Past and Present: Legacies, Memory and Attitudes” (co-authored with A.Liebich and O.Myshlovska), in Ulrich Schmid, ed. Unity in Diversity: Region and Nation in Ukraine (Budapest: CEU Press, coming in 2017).

At HURI, Sereda is conducting research on national identity and historical memory in contemporary Ukraine. Her data is being integrated into HURI's MAPA: Digital Atlas of Ukraine project.