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1 August, 2019  ▪  Yaroslav Tynchenko

Empty pedestals

What does Ukraine have to offer against the Russian myth of “the glorious victory of Russian military power”?

Ukrainian military history can boast a lot of heroes. Many countries in Europe, mainly Eastern European countries, are proudly singing their own praises, congratulating themselves on much less successful historic campaign or events than Ukraine. Moreover, they managed to turn those events into a national cult. In Ukraine, on the other hand, such historic events are of rare interest even to professional historians. 

If we compare ourselves to Soviet-Russian military historical narrative, Ukraine has much less advantage not only in the amount of available historical figures and heroes, but also in a way the narrative is presented. Russia, as well as some other countries across the world, has learnt to turn its national heroes onto brands. It does not really matter whether from the researchers’ point of view such people as Suvorov, Kutuzov or Zhukov were not much of a heroes Russians claim they are. Russian military brands became a propagandist collection of images, sculptures, statues; they were printed and shared in children’s books, school textbooks or even represented on national currency notes. 

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Russian and Soviet militaristic hero-brands always possess certain distinctive features. Its prototype of a hero is someone in the middle between the God and the Leader. This prototype spends all his life proving that he is worthy of his own nation and deserves the glory, and, most importantly – he always dies from natural causes. He has never been tortured, executed or murdered; this prototype of Russian-Soviet hero has lived a happy life and passed away in the company of his close family and friends. Soviet military order-medals of Suvorov, Kutuzov, Nakhimov, Alexander Nevsky, as well as Bohdan Khmelnytsky are currently one of the most expensive ones for phalerists and collectors due to its unique artistic execution.

Famous monuments to Bohdan Khmelnytskyy or Taras Shevchenko in Ukraine were erected by either Russian or Soviet governments. The question is how many Ukrainian heroes have been commemorated by the Ukrainian governments throughout the whole period of independence? How many of them have had the potential to become Ukraine’s national militaristic brands?

In 2001, during the presidency of Leonid Kuchma, Kyiv received its Independence Monument, erected on Maidan Nezalezhnosti Square (Independence Square) – a tall triumphal column, crowned by a statue of woman, the so-called Berehynia, a woman symbolising hearth mother or protectress of the earth according to pre-Christian Ukrainian beliefs. This, however, is very far from powerful militaristic image. Monuments of the founders of Kyiv, or Cossack Mamay sculpture, placed under the Berehynia’s statue become less noticeable and important. During the Kuchma’s times the monument of Petro Sagaydachnyy, one of the Ukrainian hetmans, was built in Podil district of Kyiv. This monument is, however, situated far from political epicenter of Ukrainian capital and is rarely used for official events or state meetings. Interestingly enough, Russian authorities were earlier trying to include Petro Sahaydachniy into the Russian” military pantheon and the song dedicated to him was even allowed to be sang by the Russian imperial army and was added to their official songbooks. 

Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency was marked by grief and mourning over martyrs and murdered Ukrainian patriots. Ukraine received its national museum dedicated to the horrors of Holodomor named “Holodomor Victims Memorial”, which is indeed an extremely important step on the way to building and strengthening national identity and memory. However, such museum hardly qualifies as a glorious monument and will scarcely boost young men or soldiers fighting spirits. 

Poroshenko’s era should have brought monuments of various Ukrainian military leaders from different historical epochs – from the Kyivan Rus’ princes to the heroes of Russian-Ukrainian war in Donbas. However, such monuments can barely be counted on the fingers of one hand. Moreover, many of those monuments have been built on private citizens’ finds, rather than being financed by the state. Ukrainian politicians and oligarchs preferred to keep quiet and remain indifferent, voluntarily choosing to avoid the issue of glorification of the defenders of Ukrainian state interests. 

Another important matter is to synchronise one’s own military history with the crucial global events – and in this regards Ukraine is similarly far behind. Everyone remembers President Petro Poroshenko’s state visit to Paris, which coincided with the World War One memorial service. Ukrainians were asking themselves – why did President Donald Trump shake hands with Vladimir Putin, but not with Petro Poroshenko? For American leader Russia is the country which was one of the key contributor to Entente victory in the World War One – however, he hardly is aware of that fact that nearly one third of Russian imperial army were ethnic Ukrainians. How would he know this anyways, if Ukraine itself completely ignored the ending of the World War One and failed to hold any official, state supported celebrations?

Ukrainian authorities could have turned this event to their own advantage in order to tell the global community about its valuable contribution to end the war. Ukraine had a chance to tell everyone about its heroes and high casualties. Ukrainian government could have told the public that in 1918 authorities of Ukrainian People’s Republic publicly announced that they were prepared to take on one third of former Russian Empire’s foreign debt. Representatives of Ukraine participated in Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. Surely, it would hardly cause uproar among European politicians, but still many of them could have said to Poroshenko, “So it looks like your ancestors sat here together with ours”?

The only person in Ukraine, who was genuinely interested and made a great effort to celebrate the end of the World War One, was the ambassador of Canada in Ukraine, Roman Vashchuk. He is a grandson of the two veterans of Legion of Ukrainian Sich Riflemen, a Ukrainian unit within Austro-Hungarian army during the World War One. He has spent a lot of time trying to find support among Ukrainian politicians in this matter. 

Sadly, despite big words and generous promises, independent Ukraine has spared itself an effort to build monument to Ukrainian Sich Riflemen, or at least a monument dedicated to everyone, who was protecting Ukraine and its sovereignty throughout the history. Absurdly, Canadian ambassador as well as representatives of the others states were forced to celebrate the end of the one of the bloodiest wars in European and world history in Kyiv’s Park of Eternal Glory, next to the Soviet Tomb of Unknown Soldier, which has little to do with the World War One. 

This theatre of absurd has continued when Petro Poroshenko attended a number of patriotic events organised in the territory of the National Museum of History in Ukraine and dedicated to Ukraine’s role in the World War Two. There were exhibitions of Soviet soldiers statues and Soviet symbols, and Ukrainian president held his speech about Ukraine’s inevitable historic and political victory in the exact same place where once spoke Brezhnev and Shcherbytskiy. 

Ukraine’s World War Two heritage has also been misjudged by the politicians. How more absurd and surreal can it get, when Ukraine has officially joined Europe in commemorating the victory over Nazism celebrated on the 8th of May, called it the day of remembrance and peace, however some people still stubbornly carry the flowers to the Soviet monuments on the 9th of May? Because if this was the day of peace (and it is understood to be the peace between all the Ukrainians who fought on the German side and the Soviet side), then why the flowers are only being put onto the Soviet Tomb of Unknown Soldier?

Andriy Parubiy, speaker of Ukrainian parliament once said in one of his interviews that after a couple of years Ukrainians will forget about inflated living costs or difficult economic situation, but the memory of removing communist symbols form the public sphere will stay. This statement is debatable though. It is true, that over the past five years many Soviet monuments and symbols were destroyed and Soviet names of the streets or cities were changed. However, Ukrainian government has failed to replace those perished Soviet symbols with something new and meaningful and many local communities did not seem to relate to the new street names. 

It turned out that in practice it takes few hours to few days to annul the law that has earlier ordered to rename the street or the city. It is much more difficult to destroy the monument or a memorial, however, but Poroshenko’s administration did not seem to be interested in erecting new statues or monuments either. Kyiv, and other Ukrainian cities are full of empty pedestals, once crowned by the grotesque statues of Lenin or other Soviet leaders – one of them is now situated in one of the Kyiv’s main boulevards, the Taras Shevchenko Boulevard. 

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This is the crucial difference between Russian way to use the history and Ukrainian. If Russians were to start massively destroying the monuments, they would immediately build the new ones – to Suvorov, Zhukov, Kutuzov… Leaders of the possible pro-Russian revenge seekers among Ukrainian politicians will even thank their predecessors, who cleared up Ukrainian public space form the communist symbols - this will leave them an open space for their new political symbols. 

In terms of ideology Ukraine has lost a lot during these five years and has failed to use that unique opportunities it had. From now on, for every empty space left after Lenin, pro-Ukrainian powers will have to stage a fierce fight with the worshippers of the old Soviet symbols.  


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