Militarised society: memory politics, history and gender in Ukraine

In Ukraine, history could be used to help make sense of the brutal ongoing war, but it can also be instrumentalised for political gains.

Olesya Khromeychuk
12 October 2018
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A Facebook post by the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory marking the reburial of soldiers who fought for the Ukrainian People's Republic, Ternopil region. As I scroll down the Facebook page of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, I come across posts about vandalised graves of fighters in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. This is followed by posts from a regular rubric “The Fallen Heroes of the Russian-Ukrainian War” on the page, which, in turn, is followed by posts about rediscovered battle grounds and burial sites dating back to the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917-1921.

But it’s not only my newsfeed where the bones of the historical dead are mixed with the dead of the ongoing war. In 2014, the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory made recommendations to create sections reserved for military burials in cemeteries. By March 2017, there were 450 of these sections across Ukraine. The Institute stated that these sections should be “structured in such a way that, if necessary, they can become a space for holding appropriate commemorative events, such as commemorative worship, the laying of flowers, standing military guard or visits by official delegations.” It is not surprising that these sections are sometimes created as extensions to existing military burial grounds.

The Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv is a case in point. As well as containing one of the new military sectors, the military cemetery here houses the graves of Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) fighters from the 1940s and 1950s, soldiers of the army of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR, 1917-1920), the Ukrainian Galician Army (UHA, 1918-1920) and a memorial to an unknown soldier of the Waffen SS Galicia Division (active in 1943-1945). In addition, the military pantheon of those presented as fighters for Ukrainian statehood is located close to the burial site of the “Defenders of Lwów”, young Poles who fought for Polish control of Lviv/Lwów in 1918-1919. Turn around and you will see a field that once contained the graves of Russian prisoners captured during the First World War (the graves are no longer there). Another neighbouring field contains the remains of Polish insurgents who died in the “January Uprising” of 1863-1864. A short walk away is the so-called “Field of Mars”, which contains graves of Red Army soldiers killed in the Second World War.

Here, these generations of one-time adversaries are ultimately reconciled in death. However, we, the living, who are tasked with the upkeep of their memory, tend not only to light candles on their graves, but also fan the flames of their wars by the way we construct memories of our war dead.

Bodies of the Lwów Eaglets and a UHA Memorial in Lychakiv cemetery, Lviv. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.One other burial site in the Lychakiv cemetery contains graves of fighters in the Polish November Uprising of 1830-1831. Here, you can find memorial plates with an inscription from Virgil’s The Aeneid, “exoriāre aliquis nostrīs ex ossibus ultor” (“Out of my dust [bones], unknown Avenger, rise!”). Although this inscription is over one hundred years old, it seems to be relevant to the way military burials are perceived today: we are not content to let the dead’s ashes rest, but are continually exhorting those ashes to separate themselves and rise in order to serve our present needs.

But how many people in the wider public participate in this disturbing of the dead? This is questionable, and is a source of anxiety for those who are particularly invested in the politics of memory. In an interview on national television, Volodymyr Viatrovych, the head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, expressed his concern that Ukrainians did not fully realise the importance of military burial sites and still preferred to bury their dead – the casualties of the ongoing conflict – in family graves. He said that, by creating military cemeteries, the most important thing that the UINP wanted to achieve was “to show that the struggle that is currently taking place is one of the links in the chain in the struggle of Ukrainians for independence; to weave it into wider process.” Judging by recent developments at Lychakiv cemetery, the UINP has been successful in their aim, at least in Lviv.

In November 2017, as part of the 99th anniversary of the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic, local authorities in Lviv held a common commemoration of the Sich Sharpshooters, UHA soldiers and soldiers of the “Anti-Terrorist Operation” (ATO) in eastern Ukraine. [1] The Governor of Lviv region, Oleh Syniutka, stated that:

Today we pay tribute to the fallen fighters for the freedom of Ukraine […]. The great mission started by the Sich Riflemen 99 years ago will be accomplished, and in the 21st century, Ukraine will establish itself as a free and independent state with a powerful army and a strong people.

In Syniutka’s statement, the dead ATO soldiers truly look like the avengers who rose up from the dust of their military predecessors. Even their gravestones evoke a sense of continuity, as they resemble the gravestones of fighters from the 1940s Ukrainian Insurgent Army and Ukrainian Galician Army of 1918-1920.

Militarised society

The establishment of continuity between historical wars and the present-day conflict in Ukraine makes more sense if we consider contemporary Ukrainian society as militarised. Defining Ukrainian society in this way will probably raise some readers’ eyebrows. When you find yourself away from the frontline, whether in Lviv, Kyiv or even Kharkiv, you have to be reminded that this country is at war. Among such reminders are political slogans that address the war directly or indirectly. For instance, President Petro Poroshenko’s electoral campaign emphasises the value applied to the armed forces. The three words stressed on the omnipresent posters are “Army! Language! Faith!” In his annual address to the Ukrainian Parliament, Poroshenko stated that this wasn’t just a slogan. “It’s a formula for modern Ukrainian identity. The army protects our land. The language protects our hearts. The Church protects our souls.” Among other reminders that the war is ongoing are adverts for the Armed Forces of Ukraine, who are desperate to find new recruits. One advertising board simply says: “I am the army” (Ia armiia). You might come across someone in a uniform claiming to be an ATO veteran and collecting money, or a café decorated with military insignia. Or you might spot a military funeral procession while walking through the centre of an otherwise peaceful Ukrainian town. Yet, for the most part, Ukraine does not look like a country at war.

Video from "I am the army" public campaign, June 2018.

However, it is important to remember that militarisation can take place far from the frontline. For the purposes of this essay, my understanding of militarisation is based on feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe’s definition of it as a “step-by-step process by which something becomes controlled by, dependent on, or derives its value from the military as an institution or militaristic criteria”. [6] In a country that still conscripts its soldiers, a significant percentage of Ukraine’s population – not only the recruits themselves, but their families too – is controlled by the military. The fact that the borders of the territory controlled by the Ukrainian state continue to shift even in the fifth year of the conflict serves as a reminder that Ukraine’s territorial integrity – and thus the degree to which people in Lviv, Kyiv, Kharkiv, etc. can continue to live their ordinary lives – is dependent on the military.

One of the factors that fuels militarisation, according to Enloe, is a “diffusion of military ideas into popular culture and into social workings”. Referring to the US, Enloe states that an ex-army person would be a favoured candidate for a school principal. A similar situation can be observed in Ukraine. People who have been involved in the war in the Donbas region enjoy a great deal of trust. Political parties are keen to include war veterans on their party lists, as this is likely to boost their ratings. These former combatants and now people’s deputies turn up to parliamentary sessions in army uniforms, displaying their association with the military. Other politicians also enjoy sporting camouflage (Poroshenko is frequently seen in uniform) or stylised military outfits (former Prime Minister and presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko). The choice of military or militarised clothing over civilian indicates that, in the view of these politicians, the military is valued highly by their voters.

In addition, there are paramilitary groups such as the National Militia Units whose declared aim is to “ensure order on the streets of the Ukrainian towns”, but they have also taken part in anti-Roma pogroms. Such groups position themselves as “former participants of combat operations, patriotic youth and concerned citizens”, and they are at least tolerated by the state and parts of Ukrainian society, if not supported or trusted.

Other indicators of a society that derives its value from the military include the huge volunteer movement that enjoys high levels of public trust. It essentially replaced the state in the first years of the war, securing provisions for the army. Since the start of the war, state defence expenditure has increased significantly, but as it is eroded by corruption, the volunteer movement continues to address the needs of the army.


24 August 2018: Independence Day, Kyiv. Photo: Jaap Arriens / SIPA USA / PA Images. All rights reserved. Seeing militarisation as something that is related to the frontline only, and not to the rest of civilian society, is to understand only one fraction of it. To refer to Enloe again, militarisation happens on many levels and occurs away from the obvious places:

“It's happening at the individual level, when a woman who has a son is persuaded that the best way she can be a good mother is to allow the military recruiter to recruit her son so her son will get off the couch. When she is persuaded to let him go, even if reluctantly, she's being militarized. She's not as militarized as somebody who is a Special Forces soldier, but she's being militarized all the same.”

Focusing on soldiers and the frontline, and disregarding how militarisation affects the rest of the population, removes responsibility from society for facilitating or taking part in militarisation – and also from those who actively promote militarisation for their own ends.

Interpreting military history

A particular state-endorsed interpretation of military history can also serve the purpose of militarisation – albeit in more indirect ways. In order to examine these official narratives of past wars, I will employ gender analysis, as it allows us to understand how the construction of war heroism in narratives of past wars facilitates militarisation of society. The way history has been written, as Enloe argues, has helped to create an assumption “that women should feel themselves protected and should act gratefully about being protected, whereas men, and even those who don't want to, should be encouraged – pressured – into thinking that their main role in the world, this dangerous world, is as a protector.” In a country that is engaged in a war, this becomes particularly relevant. War defines manhood, and soldiering is the ultimate expression of masculinity, especially in the imagination of a militarised society.

Anniversaries of famous battles provide excellent opportunities for using the past to explain the present. In January 1918, several hundred Ukrainian cadets met several thousand Bolshevik troops outside of Kyiv in a fight for the capital. Outnumbered, the cadets lost the battle. One hundred years on, what came to be known as the Battle of Kruty, is remembered in Ukraine as a glorious defeat and a valiant sacrifice, and the cadets are held up as role models for contemporary soldiers. In 2018, the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, together with the Ministry of Information Policy, produced posters which called the Kruty cadets “the first cyborgs”, comparing them to the Ukrainian soldiers who fought for control of Donetsk Airport in 2014-2015 and were nicknamed “cyborgs” for their endurance. The symbol of the Battle of Kruty is a young man, a student, who was still a child only yesterday, but who entered his manhood by joining the battle and dying a hero’s death, and this image is being reactivated in the context of the present war.


Mykhailo Hrushevskyi at a military parade in Kyiv, 1917. Source: Wikipedia. Public Domain. Heroic death has been highly valued by Ukrainian state builders in the past. Mykhailo Hrushevskyi, a historian and the head of the Central Rada of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, began his speech at the reburial of the Kruty casualties in 1918 with the words: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori!” This sentiment is also strong in contemporary Ukraine, where a hero’s death is often the highest reward soldiers can get in return for their services. If they died “correctly” (i.e. not from illness or in a drunken fight with their comrades, or somewhere in captivity with no reliable proof of their death, etc.), their families will also receive monetary “compensation”. But the main reward for the soldiers is living on in the myth about the self-sacrifice of heroic warriors. Official delegations can visit their graves, politicians can have their photos taken laying wreath by the memorials, and families – who, as Viatrovych admits, do not always appreciate the importance of militarised funerals – can slowly learn to value the honourable position of their dead.

The image of the noble, heroic, correct death, however, is to a large extent the stuff of romantic mythology. In his short story “Testament”, Ukrainian political prisoner Oleh Sentsov compared the romantic view of a military hero’s death with a more realistic one:

There was once a man who was asked how he would like to die, and he answered: “With a shout of ‘hurrah!’ on my lips, a gun slung over my shoulder and a mouth full of blood.” I’d also like that – it’s beautiful, it’s manly. But that’s not how it works. Heroes only die beautifully in movies and books. In real life, they piss blood into their pants, scream from pain and remember their mothers.

This kind of picture would not make a good poster, nor would it sell a movie.

Defeat on the battlefield or an expression of weakness (remembering your mother or wetting yourself) might merit sympathy but not respect. Accentuating bravery (or manliness, muzhnist’, a popular word in Ukrainian discourse around war specifically and patriotism more generally) rather than fear, the glory of a proper man’s death rather than the tragedy of a lost life, is more conducive to the creation of a palatable portrayal of war. The sort of war that, as Sentsov notes, exists in books and movies.

It is no coincidence that both the Donetsk Airport Battle and the Battle of Kruty have recently been turned into films. Kiborhy (Cyborgs) was released in 2017. Kruty 1918 (translated into English as Winter of the Braves) is to be released on 6 December 2018, the Day of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The tagline for Cyborgs is “Heroes don’t die”, the one for Kruty 1918 is “Bravery. Love. Freedom.” Both films tell heroic tales of male camaraderie, valour, and heroism. Both tell the story of a similar protagonist: a young man who is not a natural warrior, but who, in the course of a war, takes up arms and is ready to sacrifice his life for the country. Cyborgs has an almost entirely male cast with women appearing only in the background as volunteers or wives and daughters whose voices we hear when they call their men at the frontline. One of Kruty 1918’s main characters is a woman, but she is no less symbolic than the women of Cyborgs: she is the object of love of the two brothers (one fighting among the Kruty cadets and the other for the Bolsheviks). As such, she is an embodiment of Ukraine itself.

This trailer for new film Kruty 1918 draws parallels between that battle and the contemporary conflict in Eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine’s Minister of Culture Ievhen Nyshchuk, a professional actor who has cameo parts in both films, said of the Battle of Kruty that “a people, a nation and a country is built on this kind of heroism.” The heroic depiction of war helps society to stomach defeat and restores conventional masculinity that may be discredited by failure on the battlefield. Nyshchuk also stressed that the history of the Battle of Kruty is relevant to the events of the present. Talking about the leaders of the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic, he stated: “They didn’t manage to hold on to it [the Ukrainian state], but it is our task to hold on to it.” Like the Institute of National Memory’s depiction of the Kruty cadets as the “first cyborgs”, the parallels emphasised by Nyshchuk help create an impression of Ukraine being engaged continuously in a just war.

Kruty is one of many examples of historical war narratives playing a powerful part in state-endorsed initiatives to shape the image of the contemporary conflict in the Donbas region. The National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War in Kyiv has drawn parallels between the ATO soldiers and those of the Red Army who fought on the territory of Ukraine during the Second World War.

For instance, on the Day of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in 2017, an ATO veteran, Volodymyr Lahuta, shared his story of fighting for Lysychansk and Savur-mohyla in 2014 with the students of Ivan Bohun Military Lyceum. He told the young people that in 1944 his grandfather also fought for Lysychansk and Savur-mohyla as part of the Red Army. Also in 2017, a different exhibition opened in the same museum. It compared photos of Ukrainian Insurgent Army fighters with those of contemporary fighters in the Donbas region, stressing the similarity and continuity between these two conflicts. The exhibition project (unambiguously entitled “Objective History”) states that it “combined two generations: that of the UPA, which fought for the independence of Ukraine 75 years ago and that which is defending it now in ATO.” The 24 pairs of photos emphasise remarkable similarities between warfare then and now. The photographer and ATO veteran Iurii Velychko stated that when he looked at the archival photos of the UPA he realised that he had already seen all this at the frontline in the battalion where he served.

While the authors’ wish was to emphasise the continuity in the struggle for independence, what struck me in the parallels was that the frontline life of the guerrilla forces of the 1940s and a regular army in the 21st century in a country that spends 5% of its GDP on defence look so similar: poor equipment and weapons (in the early days of the war, ATO soldiers were even known to use weapons issued in the 1940s), mismatched uniforms, makeshift trenches and living quarters, and graves in the middle of fields. Another striking resemblance was in the representation of gender roles: men were armed and tough-looking; the few women that appeared in the photos were mostly civilian and unarmed, posing to look “feminine” and supportive.

War and gender

Other parallels that link past wars with the current one can be found in gender relations within the military itself, which tend to reflect gender norms in society more widely.

In the Ukrainian Insurgent Army during the 1940s, gender roles prevalent in peacetime were exacerbated in the context of war. The place allocated to women both in the social and military hierarchy was unquestionably below that of men. [2] In this context, men, especially of a senior rank, often expected sexual favours from women, in particular those under their command. Marta Havryshko, who researches gender relations in the UPA, argues that this power structure facilitated coercive relationships, often leading to gender-based violence perpetrated by the nationalists against their own women. She states that while “rape was considered a severe criminal offense, which was even punishable by death”, the outcomes of trials for these crimes “depended on the decision of the commander or the court” and could result in the punishment of the (female) victim rather than a (male) perpetrator.


UPA fighters, 1940s. Source: Center for Studies of the Liberation Movement, Ukraine.Havryshko describes a case from 1947 in which a member of the underground, Mykhailo Bodnarchuk, a leader in the Lutsk region in northwest Ukraine, was tried by his command for raping a woman, Anna Kovalchuk. The trial, however, concluded that it was Kovalchuk who was to be punished, not Bodnarchuk. Kovalchuk was executed as a result.

Similar attitudes can be observed today. A man who participates in war is perceived as a hero by default. His military or off-duty conduct might be less than immaculate – he might have taken part in activities that could be classified as war crimes, or he might have taken out his anger on his partner or children, adding to the already dangerously widespread domestic violence in Ukraine – but few will dare criticise his behaviour, because he defends his motherland. [3]

For instance, in 2016, an ATO veteran who raped an underage girl was allowed to walk free from a Kyiv regional courtroom precisely because he was an ATO veteran. The judge stated that “the mitigating circumstance in his case was that he was a participant in the military conflict in the Donbas region and that he had two children of his own.” His only punishment was a penalty of 3,000 hryvnias (around $120). In both this case and in the previous example, we see how militarism, masculinity and heroism are interlinked. Additionally, we see how an emphasis on the continuity of heroic struggle is transposed onto a continuity of perceptions about gender roles – and all the consequences they carry.

The case of Nadiia Morozova, a Ukrainian servicewoman killed at the frontline in 2017, is telling in this regard. As soon as the news of her killing in the ATO zone became public, the media reported it as a “heroic death”. Many outlets based their reports on a Facebook post by the regional administration of Morozova’s native town, which stated that:

Our countrywoman, Nadiia Morozova, died heroically while executing her combat mission. [She] bravely [muzhn’o] and courageously defended our Fatherland from the terrorists in the ATO zone. Under enemy fire, she received fatal injuries.

Morozova was not a combatant. Indeed, because of the legal restrictions that were in place until recently, very few women could be officially registered for combat positions in Ukraine. Morozova worked as a chef, having joined the Armed Forces as a way of earning her living and supporting her young son. Soon after she was buried with full military honours, it turned out that Morozova had died not because she was “executing her combat mission”, but, as was later stated officially, because one of her comrades, “having broken the rules of handling weapons, caused [her] death.” The media moved on to discuss the potential reasons behind her death/murder, and the tone filled with war pathos was replaced by one more suited to a detective story. Morozova’s mother, who was kept poorly notified by the authorities about the details of her daughter’s death, was left confused. Oleksii Bratushchak, one of the few journalists who tried to make sense of the story behind the sensationalist headlines, reported Morozova’s mother’s words:

Her child will grow up. I will tell him: your mother was a hero. And someone else will tell him, no, she was not a hero, she was murdered. How will I explain this to him? What will I say? That his mother was killed by one of her own soldiers?!

Bratushchak states that he tried to interview Morozova’s commanders, but the only person he managed to speak to, one of the deputy commanders of Morozova’s brigade, said: “You’d be better off writing about other people; we have many combat losses here. She didn’t exactly distinguish herself here.” [4] In his view, the loss of a combatant was more newsworthy than that of a (female) chef killed by one of her own men. Others shared this view: once the details of her death started to be revealed, the hailing of her as a heroine on social media gave way to holding her responsible for her own death, because a woman, especially a mother, should not be at the frontline.

Society’s perception of what constitutes heroism is influenced by the popular portrayal of historic heroes. This historical portrayal is, in turn, influenced by other factors, of which gender is one. A servicewoman who joined the war as a combatant – even though this occupation receives more value in a militarised society than that of a chef – is unlikely to receive the same hero’s welcome upon her return as servicemen do.

Some servicewomen have complained that their male partners felt awkward and even ashamed to meet them off the train when they return from the warzone, because, placed in that situation, a man would risk having to openly admit that his masculinity, which militarisation equates with soldiering, has been undermined. In the meantime, men who return from the frontline are greeted with fanfare, regardless of their roles or conduct in the warzone. This type of behaviour has a long tradition: after the Second World War, Red Army men who came back from the frontline were not asked whether they engaged in any heroic acts or, indeed, in atrocities, such as mass rapes, because their very belonging to the military was sufficient to hail them as heroes. The women, however, even those who were decorated, rarely revealed their military experience: the medal for combat services (“za boevye zaslugi”), in the possession of a woman, was often mocked as a reward for sexual favours in a pun on the original phrase (“za polovye uslugi”).

Because women lack visibility in the context of war, other than as symbols representing motherhood or victimhood, stories like that of Anna Kovalchuk in 1947 or Nadiia Morozova in 2017, as well as many servicewomen who are currently suffering from gender-based violence in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, remain untold. When Volodymyr Viatrovych of the Institute of National Memory was asked to comment on the fact that servicewomen who took an active part in the various armies remain underrepresented in official historical memory, he objected to the criticism:

“It seems to me that the accusation that women are seemingly excluded from Ukrainian memory politics is artificial. I am running several projects related to national memory. All of these projects, without exception, contain women’s stories, although we include them not out of political correctness.”

In the same interview, Viatrovych gave the example of the Institute’s project “War makes no exceptions: Female history of the Second World War”. Given that war narratives so often exclude women’s stories, the Institute of National Memory can indeed be commended on dedicating an exhibition specifically to women’s experiences of war. However, what the Institute does not seem to realise is that simply including women’s stories into otherwise unchanged male-centric and mostly heroic narratives of war, without commenting on the gendered nature of these women’s experience of political violence, does not make the history of war truly inclusive.

The uncontextualised inclusion of women’s stories in war histories is sometimes more problematic than their total exclusion because it seems not only tokenistic, but also instrumentalised for the purposes of militarisation, which reinforces traditional gender roles.


“Ukrainian Revolution 1917-1921" is a new board game produced by the Institute of National Memory. Source: Institute of National Memory. One example of this dynamic is the board game “Ukrainian Revolution 1917-1921”, developed for young people by the Institute of National Memory. The cover of the game features photos of three people in uniform. One of them is a woman, Olha Pidvysotska, a lesser-known member of the Ukrainian Sich Sharpshooters (a formation that fought during the First World War on the side of Austria-Hungary and then in the fight for Ukrainian statehood). [5] Her face is on the cover, but her name and her story are not mentioned in the game.

A better-known woman from the same military formation, Olena Stepaniv, is the only military woman and one of the few women in general included in the content of the game. The game portrays Stepaniv as “the first female officer, the commander of a platoon of the Ukrainian Sich Sharpshooters”. This depicts the Sich Sharpshooters as a military formation far ahead of its time: not only did it recruit women, it also gave them officer ranks. But this version of Stepaniv’s biography, as well as the history of the Sich Sharpshooters, is incomplete without mentioning that Stepaniv was repeatedly prevented by the authorities, including those in the Sich Sharpshooters, from joining the unit simply because she was a woman, and that in spite of her military achievements and a successful return from imprisonment, she was ultimately dismissed by her own leadership because she was a woman [6].

The uses of history

History is used both to reinforce narratives aimed at mobilising the population to support the state, but can also challenge such narratives, and with them the wider official rhetoric. In both cases there is a danger of selectivity in pursuing a particular agenda. Ukrainian society is facing a conflict that was not expected by anyone in the country. The language of war has entered everyday speech, and frontline violence has become normalised. History can be useful in an attempt to make sense of these alarming, complex and confusing events. The method that ensures that history is not instrumentalised for a particular political agenda – whether in support of the state or against it – is simple: it has to be used with honesty.

An honest approach, however, is the hardest because it is unlikely to fit any established narrative neatly. If we talk about the patriotism of soldiers, we must also talk about war crimes in which they might have participated. If we hail the men for honourably defending their motherland, we must also see if they were as honourable in their attitude towards civilians. If we portray women as participating in warfare, we must reveal the gendered setting in which this was done and the discrimination and violence that this setting entailed. By the same token, when we seek to highlight crimes and abuses, we must also accept that those who committed these crimes and abuses, in other instances, may have acted honourably and bravely or may have been unwilling participants of violence.

The inclusion of difficult stories from the past and the present might undermine the image that is being created of the Ukrainian army as strong, honourable, progressive, and united. The image of a scared young soldier – in Kruty or at Donetsk airport – or that of a soldier “unheroically” killed by one of his/her own, would ruin the conventional image of a heroic defender of motherland. Yet it is the inclusion of stories such as these that help us understand the nature of war and the ambiguity of soldiering, which tends to include both the capacity for patriotic idealism and an ability to participate in atrocities.

To promote the Armed Forces of Ukraine and encourage recruitment, which is highly unpopular especially given the high level of casualties and the fact that the war has been dragging on for over four years with no end in sight, in 2017 the Ministry of Information produced a series of promotional videos. The series was called “Always Defending” (Zavzhdy na zakhysti). The videos were released on 14 October to celebrate the “Day of the Defender” – a holiday with complicated historical connotations, which harks back not only to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army but also to the Cossacks. These videos are narrated by the children of veterans of the ATO, who describe their fathers as heroes. The videos emphasise the fact that these fathers do not like to talk about war, but this silence makes them even more heroic and manly.


Negative media coverage of Ukraine's veterans can take a toll. Photo: Sergii Kharchenko / ABACA / PA Images. All rights reserved.Staying silent is not unusual among veterans, especially given that many of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which even to this day does not receive appropriate treatment in Ukraine. It is mostly state-run institutions who tend to speak on behalf of soldiers, both current and historic, both dead and alive. They too leave many silences in their narratives. The slogans the Institute of National Memory and the Ministry of Information use in their campaigns (“We remember – we prevail”; “We remember the dead – we defend the living”) leave little room for fear, PTSD, war-related suicides, war crimes, non-combatant deaths, violence among fellow soldiers, gender-based violence and many other subjects on which veterans remain silent. Another slogan omnipresent not only in official memory narratives but also popular ones is “heroes don’t die” (heroi ne vmyraiut’). However, the very nature of war is such that both heroes and “non-heroes” do die. And their deaths are crucial for the official narrative, sometimes more important than their lives.

The Institute of National Memory’s website states that the reasoning behind its recommendations for standardised gravestones for ATO soldiers is to “demonstrate respect for the buried fighter not only on behalf of relatives and close friends, but also on behalf of his brothers-in-arms, the state and the entire society” and “to turn the sad field of a cemetery into a field of military victory, where even after death the fighters will remain in the ranks of their army”. Such a step, as well as mythologising the victories and glorious defeats of wars, also limits the identity of the ATO dead to that of soldiers. In a country where a large number of soldiers who risk their lives on a battlefield are conscripts or volunteers rather than contract soldiers or professional service personnel, the dead are militarised whether they want it or not. Indeed, they seem to be afforded more respect after death, in their heroicisation, than they were while serving in the army, which notoriously fails to provide for its troops’ basic needs. The last line of the stated aims on the UINP’s website is to “encourage the patriotic education of young people”, in other words, to militarise the next generation of “avengers” who are to rise from the bones of their predecessors.

All of this raises questions that Ukrainians need to confront: are we as a society ready to take full responsibility for raising a militarised youth? And, in particular, do we realise the consequences of the perpetuation of gendered war roles (e.g. “manly warriors” and “supportive women”)? Are we prepared to face the costs of turning a blind eye to the many unheroic actions “heroes” are capable of just so that we can fit them into the category of the defenders of motherland? In the fifth year of a brutal undeclared war, we must ask ourselves if we want to write this war as yet another chapter of the fight of Ukrainians for their statehood without revealing the complexity of this conflict. Are we willing to ignore the oligarchic warlords and profiteering politicians? What about the erasure of men and women who join the army because in times of war it pays much better than many other industries? Who will tell the truth about women who perpetrate violence, and men who pay a fortune to avoid the draft, not to mention everything else that does not fit into the neat narrative of “another link in the chain in the struggle of Ukrainians for independence”?

Some may see the discussion of the problems outlined above as “untimely”, because the pro-Kremlin propaganda machine can use them to its advantage. But the most efficient weapon, to use a military term, against “fake news” and propaganda manipulations is precisely an ability to speak openly about these issues while the conflict is ongoing, and to act in order to ensure that we can speak honestly and without shame about them in the future. Indeed, an ability to recognise the complexity of this war could be the best way to honour the memory of those who perished in it, as it will signal that Ukrainian society is moving forward, and thus their deaths were not in vain.

History is an essential tool in our efforts to understand the events of today. If it is to provide any genuine insight, however, it cannot just be the sort of history that looks good on recruitment posters and in war movies.

Research for this article was made possible by the Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship. I am grateful to Molly Flynn, Iryna Sklokina, Uilleam Blacker and the editors for their comments on earlier versions of this article.

An earlier version of this text was presented at the conference ‘Official History in Eastern Europe. Transregional Perspectives’, organised by German Historical Institute Warsaw, the University of Geneva and the Forum Transregional Studies Berlin. Many thanks to the organisers, Andrii Portnov, Korine Amacher and Milos Reznik.

[1] The military hostilities in the Donbas, which started in April 2014 and are ongoing at the time of writing, are referred to in everyday speech in Ukraine as a war. The official term used by the Ukrainian authorities and much of the media was Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) until October 2017, when it was replaced by "security operations for the reestablishment of sovereignty and the territorial integrity of the country". For further discussion see Nataliya Lebid’, "Vzhe ne ATO, ale shche ne viina", Ukraina moloda, 6 October 2017. 

[2] Cynthia Enloe, Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives (Berkley: University of California Press, 2000), p. 291. Emphasis in original.

[3] See Marta Havryshko, “Illegitimate Sexual Practices in the OUN Underground and UPA in Western Ukraine in the 1940s and 1950s,” The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies 17 (2016), and Marta Havryshko, ‘Love and Sex in Wartime. Controlling Women’s Sexuality in the Ukrainian Nationalist Underground’, Aspasia – Yearbook of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern European Women's and Gender History 12 (2018): 35-67. See also See Olesya Khromeychuk, ‘Militarizing Women in the Ukrainian Nationalist Movement from the 1930s to the 1950s’ Aspasia – Yearbook of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern European Women's and Gender History 12 (2018): 1-34.

[4] See Danielle Johnson, "As Ukraine’s women speak up on sexual violence, we must not ignore those affected by conflict", Open Democracy, 25 July 2016. The Ukrainian Parliament refuses to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence because the wording of the document contains terms such as "gender". 

[5] Non-combatant deaths are very widespread at the frontline. Although the estimates vary, even the average number of those who are killed outside of combat is very high. See Oleksii Bratushchak, "Ne boiovi vtraty. Pro shcho movchat’ Henshtab ta Minoborony", Ukrains’ka Pravda, 28 February 2017.

[6] "Ukrains’ki Sichovi Stril’tsi" are usually translated from Ukrainian as Ukrainian Sich Riflemen. I choose to avoid the usage of the term which symbolically excludes women and use the term "sharpshooter" to translate the Ukrainian "strilets".

[7] See Olena Stepaniv, Na peredodni velykykh podii. Vlasni perezhyvannia i dumky. 1912-1914 (L’viv: Vydavnycha kooperatyva ‘Chervona kalyna’, 1930).




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