Merging in Space: The Ongoing War and Previous Wars in Ukraine

By Denys Shatalov

Until recently, when Ukrainians mentioned the ‘pre-war’ or the ‘post-war’ periods or subjects in everyday conversations about the past, no clarification was needed. It was obvious to everyone that this was about World War II, or, rather, a part of it – the German–Soviet War of 1941–1945. War – ‘that war’ – remained one of the main milestones of the past. However, since 24 February 2022, the term ‘pre-war’ refers to another time.

Nevertheless, combat operations in Ukraine have been taking place since the spring of 2014, in the steppes of the Donbas in the form of the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) against local separatists, supported by Russia.[1] It is not yet clear what place these events will take in the memory of Ukrainian society and in the history of the modern Russo-Ukrainian War. Despite the intensity of the fighting, the ATO was not perceived by many as a ‘true’ war,[2] which also affected the immutability of the concept ‘pre-war’. But already since 2014, the ATO began to penetrate memorial spaces, both physical and symbolic, overlapping and interacting with the memory of the Great Patriotic War (GPW)/World War II (WWII).[3]

The National Museum of the Second World War

The memorial of the Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War of 1941–1945, which opened in Kyiv in 1981, was the most monumental physical embodiment of the Soviet myth of the GPW in Ukraine. The symbolic status of the institution was emphasized even by its location – on the hills of Pechersk, next to the Kyiv-Pecherska Lavra, whose bell towers fall under the shadow of the cyclopean figure of the Motherland Monument.

The complex of the National Museum of the Second World War. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

The transformation of this central museum reflects the general changes in the official memory of the GPW/WWII in Ukrainian society in recent decades. After 1991, the museum’s exhibition, created under Brezhnev, underwent cosmetic changes. Rethinking the war from a Ukrainian perspective has increased in the museum space since 2014. Changes in the official Ukrainian discourse on the commemoration of WWII, which intensified at this time, aimed at breaking with the Soviet/Russian tradition, the promotion of which in Ukraine, in the context of the hybrid war with Russia, was interpreted in official discourse as part of the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts to establish an ideological influence on the Ukrainian population.[4] On 16 July 2015, the museum received a new name: The National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War. The German–Soviet Pact of 1939 and the beginning of the war were presented in a new way. The exhibition devoted to the Resistance Movement was supplemented with materials about the activities of Ukrainian nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. And the history of crossing the Dnipro River in 1943 now also included a story about ‘field military enlistment offices’ and the ‘black infantry’ – that is, Ukrainian peasants who were drafted into the Red Army by frontline units just after liberation and were immediately thrown into battle, without military uniforms and sometimes without weapons. But these new themes are still woven into the framework of the old Soviet exhibition.[5] According to my impressions, this situation reflects the general reception of the topic in Ukrainian society.

At the same time, since 2014, the institution joined the museumification of ATO events. Early on, a team of specialists was formed to collect artifacts from and evidence of the Russo-Ukrainian War, and their work continues now in the conditions of the full-scale Russian invasion. Starting at the same time, part of the museum space was allocated for temporary (but long-term) exhibitions dedicated to the ATO. In addition to the military vehicles of the 1940s–1980s, placed in the street exhibition, in 2014 the space around the museum was supplemented with trophy Russian vehicles and equipment from the Armed Forces of Ukraine, which took part in the fighting in the Donbas. Finally, on 8 May 2017, the then President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko officially stated the decision to place the future ATO memorial on the territory of the WWII museum complex: “This entire territory […] should become a single memorial to Ukrainian heroes”.[6] However, as of 24 February 2022, this initiative has not been implemented. Meanwhile, on 8 May 2022, the museum opened the first exhibition in Ukraine dedicated to the full-scale war that began on 24 February.[7] This WWII memorial space is also used for rituals related to the ongoing war. For example, in October 2022, a ceremony of the presentation of battle banners to five brigades of the Territorial Defense Forces took place.[8] As we can see, in the museum – a place for the memory of ‘that war’ – ‘this war’ overlaps it.

The Diorama and the ATO Museum in Dnipro

ATO-related metamorphoses of the museum spaces of WWII also took place in Dnipro, one of the largest cities in Southern Ukraine and the center of the Dnipropetrovsk region. Here, in 1975, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Victory a diorama entitled the “Battle for the Dnieper” was erected near the building of the Dnipropetrovsk Historical Museum. It is one of the largest Soviet objects of its kind. It told a heroized version of the events of the autumn of 1943, when Soviet troops, with almost no preparation, crossed one of the largest rivers in Europe. They suffered huge losses (however, of course, this was not emphasized). An exposition of military equipment was placed on the street in front of the diorama building.

The ATO Museums’ outdoor exhibition, WWII-era equipment, and the Diorama building in Dnipro, shared by the ATO Museum and the “Battle for Dnieper” exhibition. Image source: Valeria Lavrenko at the Dnipro Museum.

For the next 40 years there were no significant changes to this space. But, in 2015, part of the premises of the two-story diorama building, which formerly had an auxiliary purpose (functioning as a lobby and a cinema/lecture and storage hall), was allocated for the creation of the ATO Museum (the official name is The Civic Deed of the Dnipropetrovsk Region during the Events of ATO). Established on the initiative of the Dnipropetrovsk Regional State Administration, it became the first ATO museum in Ukraine. On 25 May 2016, the first part of the museum was opened: an open-air exhibition called By Ways of the Donbas, mounted in the outdoor space near the Diorama.[9] This installation with objects from the new war bordered the space of the Soviet WWII equipment.[10] On 23 January 2017, the main exposition was opened in the diorama building.[11] Although not overlapping in terms of narratives, the two wars were physically side by side. And a visitor, even if they were going only to the WWII diorama, first has to pass the ATO space.

Additionally, soon these changes affected the Diorama itself. In June 2017, its restoration and reconstruction began. The updated Diorama, opened a year later, had an unchanged Soviet backdrop, but a new narrative. Thanks to multimedia projectors and an augmented exhibition, visitors are now presented with a more human-centered story about the price of the crossing the Dnipro River, including the fate of the ‘black infantry’. The old Soviet narrative is overlaid by a new Ukrainian one.

The Victory Monument and Heroes’ Square as a common space of memory

If in the national and regional museums we see a silent neighborhood – that is, the wars share a space, but the narratives themselves do not intersect – the example of Kryvyi Rih is a story of interaction. This example illustrates the transformation of the place of memory at the local level.

Kryvyi Rih is a large industrial city in the Dnipropetrovsk region with a population of 600,000.  Here, after the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, the city government was still represented by politicians previously affiliated the Party of Regions, which was stripped of power during the protests. Like in other cities in Southern and Eastern Ukraine, they were in opposition to the pro-European central government and used the Soviet-sounding theme of ‘protecting the Victory’ to mobilize their own electorate. Accordingly, the efforts of central institutions to transform the myths of WWII/GPW did not find much support here. And at the same time, here, the commemoration of the ATO was entangled with that of WWII.

Victory Monument in Kryvyi Rih. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1968, the Victory Memorial Complex dedicated to the Soviet liberators of the city from the Nazis in February 1944 was erected in Kryvyi Rih. Its central element is a 7-meter figure of a Soviet soldier, placed on a 14-meter pedestal, lunging and raising his left arm. Behind him is a stele with bas-reliefs and ten gas torches that are lit on remembrance days. Further behind this complex, which stands in a triangle between two roads, there is a small square connected to the monument. In Kryvyi Rih, a city that stretches for 60 kilometers along the ore deposits, the Victory Complex gained the informal status as the city’s primary memorial to WWII. The main celebrations take place near it twice a year: on 22 February (the City Liberation Day) and on 8 May (Victory Day).[12] This tradition did not change after the Revolution of Dignity in 2014.

In the fall of 2013, the then nameless square behind the monument began to turn into a commemorative space. The Stele of Heroes – a typical Soviet object with the names of the local Heroes of the Soviet Union and Socialist Labor, supplemented with the names of the Heroes of Ukraine and the Monument to Soviet Soldiers-Internationalists (that is, participants of the war in Afghanistan) – was moved to the square from the park nearby.

Already in the summer of 2014, the ATO commemorative space began to form in the square. On 19 June, at the initiative of the mayor, Yuriy Vilkul, a memorial board dedicated to the local paratroopers of the 25th Brigade who were killed on 14 June[13] was unveiled on an alley between the Stele of Heroes and the Victory Monument. Gradually, new portraits of fallen city citizens supplemented the board, and 14 June became the date of the annual city commemoration of those killed in the ATO, taking place in the square. In 2015, the tradition of commemorating the anniversary of the Ilovaisk tragedy on 29 August[14] also started occurring there. The event is of particular importance for the city because of the heavy losses suffered by the local battalion “Kryvbas”.[15]

The Stele of Heroes and the memorial board with portraits of Kryvyi Rih citizens fallen in the ATO. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

In the spring of 2016, as part of the decommunization process, Dimitrov Street, named after the Bulgarian Communist Georgi Dimitrov and forming one side of the triangle around the monument and the square, was renamed in honor of the ATO Heroes. Since then, the square has been given the name Heroes’ Square.[16] On 14 June 2016, the Square was supplemented with a new object: a memorial cross in honor of the fallen ATO soldiers from Kryvyi Rih.[17] The mayor, Yuriy Vilkul, commented on the choice of the place: “It is very important that it will appear here – next to the monument to the heroes of the Great Patriotic War and the monument to Kryvyi Rih residents who fought in Afghanistan”.[18] On 29 August 2020, another memorial object – the Ilovaisk Cross – was unveiled in the Heroes’ Square. Thus, the tradition of commemorating the city citizens killed in the ATO is physically established in the city’s main place of memory – next to the WWII memorial. However, it is still only nearby. Commemorative actions dedicated to the ATO events did not interact with the neighboring WWII memorials.

The Ilovaisk Cross in Heroes Square in Kryvyi Rih. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Instead, the actions to commemorate WWII included constant references to the ATO, in various forms. Already on 22 June 2014 at 4 a.m., when the traditional practice in honor of the anniversary of the beginning of the German–Soviet War took place near the Victory Monument, the participants also laid flowers on the memorial board to the fallen paratroopers of the ATO.[19] Since then, laying flowers on all the memorials in the park during WWII commemorations became a tradition (the monument to the Afghan soldiers and the monument to the liquidators of Chornobyl, erected on 26 April 2019, are not spared).[20] The celebration announcer also specially emphasizes the participation of units from Kryvyi Rih in the ATO. When ATO participants join the ceremony of the solemn lighting of torches or the flag carrying, this is also highlighted. One year, families of the fallen ATO soldiers were in the central group of spectators and held up their portraits. Since 2017, the participation of separate columns of veterans of the new war in the 9 May marches held in Kryvyi Rih city districts has become noticeable.[21]

Thus, in Kryvyi Rih, WWII and the ATO share not only the physical but also the symbolic space of memory. At the same time, Kryvyi Rih practices within a common commemorative space are fully consistent with Ukrainian vernacular practices. In Ukrainian villages, since 2014, many memorials to the Second World War have been transformed into memorials to all fallen countrymen-soldiers: of WWII, the Soviet–Afghan War, and the ATO.[22]

Questions instead of conclusions

These three examples show us cases of overlap between ATO commemoration and that of WWII during 2014–2022. These practices both merge in physical space and intersect on the symbolic level. At the same time, the objects connected to WWII play a central, integrating role. The ATO falls literally on the margins of the WWII space, as ATO commemoration uses part of the space allocated to the Second World War. Yet the interaction, meanwhile, is one-sided: the ATO is mentioned in the commemoration space and rituals of WWII, but the commemoration of ATO events does not include references to WWII.

But how the ongoing war will interact with the memory spaces of WWII and the ATO is still an open question. We can already say that for the present and several future generations of Ukrainians, this war will be the central object of memory, regardless of its final outcome. The memory of it will need its own place – one that is central for the current generation and equal to the importance the GPW held for their Soviet predecessors. Since 2014, ATO commemoration has occupied a place in physical space, literally leaving no room for the next war (which was not believed as real until the last moment). After February 2022, in Western Ukraine, and more sporadically in other regions, the process of dismantling the remaining Soviet memorials intensified. But I doubt that in other regions, at least in Southern and Eastern Ukraine, a simple dismantling is possible. The topic of WWII is now too rooted in tradition and family memory. One way or another, even the contemporary official discourse of this war contains references to the mythology of the Second World War. But will these two wars overlap in space and memory in the future? And will there be a merger of memorials – or will completely new ones emerge, and will WWII, the ATO, and the current war exist in parallel?


References

[1] The Anti-Terrorist Operation in eastern Ukraine officially started on 14 April 2014. As of 30 April 2018, it was reformatted into the Joint Forces Operation. In the text, for the sake of simplicity, I will use ‘ATO’ to refer to the entire period from April 2014 to 23 February 2022.

[2] One explanation for this, among others, is the fact that it did not correspond to the image of the war formed by the myth of WWII/the Great Patriotic War.

[3] I use two definitions that refer to two models of memory about this war that are widespread in Ukrainian society. They can be conditionally defined as (post)Soviet (for the GPW) and national Ukrainian (for WWII). The first is focused on commemorating the ‘Great Victory’ and the liberation deeds of the Red Army, while the second emphasizes the Ukrainian context of the war and its victims.

[4] Tetiana Pastushenko, Dmytro Tytarenko, and Olena Cheban, “9 travnya 2014 – 2015 rr. v Ukrayini: stari tradytsiyi – novi tseremoniyi vidznachennya”, Ukrayinsʹkyy istorychnyy zhurnal 3 (2016): 111–124.

[5] These observations are based primarily on my impressions from several visits to the exhibition during 2005–2019.

[6] LB.ua, “Ukrayina rozmistyt’ memorial ATO na terytoriyi muzeyu Druhoyi svitovoyi viyny”, accessed 12 December 2022.

[7] Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War, “Ukrayina – rozpʺyattya’. Vidkryttya pershoyi v krayini ta sviti muzeynoyi vystavky pro rosiys’ko-ukrayins’ku viynu”, accessed 12 December 2022.

[8] Syly terytorial’noyi oborony ZSU,P’yat’ bryhad Syl teroborony ZSU otrymaly Boyovi prapory”, Facebook post, accessed 12 December 2022.

[9] Dnipropetrovsʹkyy natsionalʹnyy istorychnyy muzey im. D.I. Yavornyts’koho, “Vidkryttya ekspozytsiyi prosto neba Shlyakhamy Donbasu”, accessed 12 December 2022. For its appearance and concept, see: hromadskeDniproTV, “Pershyy v Ukrayini muzey ATO prosto neba”, YouTube video, 25 May 2016, 5:19.

[10] Interestingly, the 120-mm mortar changed its residence. Previously forming part of the exhibition of Soviet equipment, in 2016 it was used in the street exposition about the events of the ATO.

[11] About the history and concept of the museum, see: Dnipropetrovsʹkyy natsionalʹnyy istorychnyy muzey im. D.I. Yavornyts’koho, “Vidkryttya muzeyu ‘Hromadyans’kyy podvyh Dnipropetrovshchyny v podiyakh ATO’” , accessed December 12, 2022.

[12] The usual date of citywide ceremonies in May does not apply to the orientation to the Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation instead of Victory Day. On 8 May there is a citywide ceremony and on 9 May, large-scale ceremonies with parades in the city districts occur.

[13] At that time, there were seven portraits on it. Six paratroopers were killed on 14 June in a downed plane, and another one was killed in battle earlier. Ofitsiynyy vebsayt Kryvorizʹkoyi misʹkoyi rady ta yiyi vykonavchoho komitetu, “U Kryvomu Rozi za initsiatyvy misʹkoho holovy Yuriya Vilkula vidkryto symvolichnu stellu pamʺyati na chestʹ zahyblykh biytsiv 25-oyi okremoyi Dnipropetrovsʹkoyi povitryano-desantnoyi bryhady”, accessed 12 December 2022.

[14] On this day in 2014, Ukrainian units that were surrounded near Ilovaisk were supposed to withdraw through the ‘green corridor’ agreed on with the enemy; instead, they were attacked by regular Russian army units from pre-arranged positions. 366 people were killed and several hundred were wounded and captured. Ilovaisk remained in the public consciousness as the most painful tragedy for Ukrainian society during all the years of ATO/JFO. For Kryvyi Rih, it has a special resonance because 37 soldiers from the city were killed near Ilovaisk.

[15] In 2017, this day, as well as 14 June a year earlier, were included in the Charter of the Territorial Community of Kryvyi Rih as one of the four memorable dates celebrated by the city. In total, four dates are included in the Charter; one of them is related to WWII and two to the ATO/JFO: “The day of liberation of Kryvyi Rih from Nazi invaders – February 22; City Day – May 8 (celebrated on the last Saturday of May); the day of honoring the participants of the Anti-Terrorist Operation in Eastern Ukraine – June 14; the day of mourning those killed in the area of the Anti-Terrorist Operation – August 29; they are celebrated annually”. Ofitsiynyy vebsayt Kryvorizʹkoyi misʹkoyi rady ta yiyi vykonavchoho komitetu, “Statut terytorialʹnoyi hromady m. Kryvoho Rohu”, accessed 12 December 2022.

[16] Interestingly, I could not find an official decision on the renaming. Nevertheless, this name is now generally accepted in the city and marked on its maps.

[17] LB.ua, “U Kryvomu Rozi vidkryly pam’yatnyk heroyam ATO”, accessed 12 December 2022.

[18] Ofitsiynyy vebsayt Kryvorizʹkoyi misʹkoyi rady ta yiyi vykonavchoho komitetu, “V Krivom Roge v seredine iyunya budet otkryt memorial’nyy krest boytsam ATO”, accessed 12 December 2022.

[19] O. Zakharchenko, “Aleksandr Vilkul: ‘Ogon’pamyati nikogda ne pogasnet v nashikh serdtsakh’”, Chervonyy hirnyk, 24 June 2014, 2.

[20] The only exception was 2021, when under the newly elected mayor Konstantin Pavlov, the laying of flowers on 22 February and 9 May was limited to one ‘Victory’. However, after the death of Pavlov in 2022, there was a return to the usual ceremony.

[21] It seems that their participation is due to two factors. As the generation of WWII veterans passes away, the celebrations have turned from a post-combat format into a kind of carnival. Since the early 2010s, among the participants in Kryvyi Rih we meet both ‘Cossacks’ and uniformed schoolchildren. At the same time, the subconscious perception of Victory Day as a veteran’s holiday has led to the inclusion of other categories, which are usually defined by the term ‘veterans’ – retirees of the Soviet security agencies, participants in the war in Afghanistan, and, since 2015, ATO participants. This replacement, in my opinion, illustrates the flow of ideas around the concept of veteranism and the overlapping of modern ideas with the models learned from the Soviet era. At the same time, red and black flags, a symbol of Ukrainian nationalists, could be seen above the ATO veterans’ column. This symbolism also manifested opposition to the city authorities, which were involved in organizing the participation of the ‘Immortal Regiment’ columns in the same processions.

[22] I thank Mykola Homanyuk and Yulia Soroka for these remarks.


Denys Shatalov obtained his PhD in History in 2016 from Oles Honchar Dnipro National University, Ukraine, with a thesis on Ukrainian Cossacks in public discourse from the second half of the 18th to the first half of the 19th century. From 2015 until 2021, Denys was a Research Fellow at the “Tkuma” Ukrainian Institute for Holocaust Studies and the Jewish Memory and Holocaust in Ukraine Museum; now he is an independent scholar. He has been a Prisma Ukraïna visiting fellow in 2019/20. His current research focuses on representations of WWII in Soviet memoirs published after the war. Along with his engagement in memory and memory politics studies, he also conducts research on the history of the ‘Cossack Myth’. His recent publications include “The City of the One-Eyed Cossack Rih: The Cossack Myth at the Local Level – The Case of Kryvyi Rih” (2021) and “On German Orders: The Volhynian Massacre in Soviet Partisans’ Memoirs” (2019). Denys Shatalov is a 2022/2023 non-resident Prisma Ukraïna Fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien.


Further articles in the TRAFO series War, Migration and Memory:

Viktoriya Sereda, War, Migration and Memory: An Introduction, 10 January 2023


Citation: Denys Shatalov, Merging in Space: The Ongoing War and Previous Wars in Ukraine, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 17.01.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/44335



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2023, 17. Januar). Merging in Space: The Ongoing War and Previous Wars in Ukraine. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 18. April 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/ut5z

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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