What place for women in Ukraine’s memory politics?

Conflict may have forced Ukraine to re-evaluate its past, but public officials do their country a disservice by excluding and particularising the role of women. Українською

Olesya Khromeychuk
10 October 2016

October 2015: residents of Kharkiv gather for the new "Day of the Defender" public holiday. (c) Pavel Pakhomenko / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.On 14 October, Ukraine will celebrate a new public holiday — the Day of the Defender of Ukraine. Announced six months after the outbreak of conflict in the Donbas in 2014, this new military holiday breaks the tradition of celebrating the Soviet “Day of the Defender of Fatherland” on 23 February. 

The new date was chosen for a reason. For the Eastern Orthodox and Greek Catholic traditions, 14 October is the celebration of the feast of the Mother of God (Pokrova). The date also has a strong connection to the Ukrainian military: the feast day was popular with Ukraine’s Cossacks, and in the 1940s, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army adopted it as the symbolic day of their formation. President Petro Poroshenko, it seems, aims to emphasise a lineage of Ukrainian military service that isn’t connected to the Soviet army — highly relevant in the context of the ongoing conflict, which has actualised the symbolic connection between “Soviet” and “Russian” and with it a desire to break free of the Soviet past.

Yet there’s something missing here — the thousands of women who have defended and continue to defend Ukrainian statehood, both with weapons in their hands and otherwise. Even the 1,500 female soldiers who have served in the current conflict in Donbas do not feature in the official commemorations. Indeed, the very word “defender” (zakhysnyk) is almost exclusively used in its masculine grammatical form, even in the name of the holiday. 

This exclusion means that it isn’t only women who participated in past wars who are relegated to the margins of official commemoration, but the female experiences of the current conflict in eastern Ukraine also receive little attention. 

Inclusion of women

“A nation without heroes is a nation without defenders,” says Pavlo Podobied of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory (UINM), an institution which was behind the development of the “decommunisation laws”, and which is in charge of the dismantling of the old Soviet myths and creating new ones. Ukraine’s past and current heroes tend to be associated with militarism and wars, both won and lost. And as there is no space (other than symbolic) allowed for women in a war, there is no space for them in the traditional heroic perception of “defenders”. 

The perception of what inclusion of women means in Ukraine is demonstrated by Serhii Hromenko, former representative of the UINM, who, in a 2015 interview on the introduction of the new holiday, highlighted that as well as celebrating “the actual military, the National Guard, the special forces, volunteer fighters, and volunteers”, the Institute of National Memory “will insist on the compulsory creation of the tradition of commemorating the soldiers’ wives and mothers, because not only boys, not only men stand in defence of our Fatherland”. Thus, rather than ensuring that women are also celebrated as defenders of Ukraine, the institute further distorts women’s real roles in society and armed conflict.

The point should be to discuss the place the very men we heroicise reserve for women, and thus to problematise our perception of our “heroes”

Women in Ukraine should be recognised for the real roles they play in armed conflicts and not only as “soldiers’ wives and mothers”. By viewing them as victims of the enemy or as performing auxiliary roles, we deny women’s agency. At the same time, focusing on individual women and their achievements without appropriate contextualisation might lead to the denial of the masculinist setting in which these women operated and continue to operate. Thus, the point of including women in the discussion of the “defenders of statehood” should not be to “do justice” to them by allowing them a place among male national heroes. This move only serves to endorse our existing understanding of “heroes” as first and foremost military leaders, and thereby justifies the patriarchal ideologies that they supported and the violence that some of them perpetrated and propagated. 

The point should be to discuss the place the very men we heroicise reserve for women, and thus to problematise our perception of our “heroes”.

Woman as symbol 

In October 2015, to celebrate the Day of the Defender of Ukraine, the National Bank of Ukraine produced a new five-hryvnia commemorative coin “dedicated to the celebration of bravery and heroism, indefatigability and the love of freedom of the fighters for the national cause of all generations.” 

The design of the coin tells us much about the way the “defenders” (both historical and contemporary) are imagined and celebrated. The reverse of the coin features a trident, the national symbol, and is placed against a camouflage background. The central figure on the obverse of the coin is the Mother of God, covering with her protective veil the Ukrainian Cossacks to her right and the contemporary soldiers to her left. 

The presentation of gender roles demonstrated in both of these state-initiated symbols is telling — the men are the ones who build the state and protect it, the women serve merely as symbols of the nation

Indeed, the image of a female deity (referred to as Pokrova) who protects the almost exclusively male defenders of the motherland is popular in Ukrainian culture. At Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, a huge 2x5 metre painting called “Statebuilding” depicts a Pokrova covering some 80 Ukrainian MPs, as well as some fictional and real historical figures, has been on display for over 16 years. 


Oleksiy Kulakov's painting "Statebuilding", which hangs in the Verkhovna Rada, portrays many significant men from Ukraine's history, but few women. Source: http://www.ednist.info. The few women depicted in the painting are all symbolic. Apart from the Virgin Mary herself, there is a “collective image of a woman” represented by Kateryna, the heroine of a famous poem by national poet Taras Shevchenko — a pregnant woman seduced and abandoned by an imperial Russian soldier and rejected by her own society. There is also a “collective image of a Ukrainian mother” represented by a Pietà who is depicted as having no face (a deliberate choice by the artist). The “real” women in the painting include Lesia Ukrainka, a well-known 19th century Ukrainian poet and writer, Princess Ol’ha, a ruler of Kievan Rus’, and one or two barely distinguishable female people’s deputies who, despite being real people, are, in effect, symbolic and tokenistic in the sea of men.

The presentation of gender roles demonstrated in both of these state-initiated symbols is telling — the men are the ones who build the state and protect it, the women serve merely as symbols of the nation.

On the margins of the national pantheon

The trend of glorifying military heroes is growing in contemporary Ukraine partly because of the initiative to honour the memory of “fighters for Ukraine’s independence”, as prescribed by one of the “decommunisation laws”, and partly because Ukraine is currently involved in a military defence of its territorial integrity. The Ukrainian Institute of National Memory is planning to create a new Ukrainian national pantheon. This should be, as institute director Volodymyr Viatrovych puts it, “a place where people who made the biggest contribution to the development of Ukraine as a state, to Ukrainian culture and science could be reburied. Among them, obviously, should be buried the heroes who died in the current war.” 

Such a pantheon is likely to have a similar gender dynamic as the “Statebuilding” painting, with male military figures over-represented and an emphasis on the national, rather than civic, identity of the heroes. Drawing on opinion polls about the popularity of historical figures, the National Institute for Strategic Studies discusses a number of potential candidates for the new pantheon, almost all of whom are male. As well as the already mentioned Lesia Ukrainka and Princess Ol’ha, the only women that appear in the institute’s analysis of the future pantheon are the poet and a member of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists Olena Teliha, and Solomiia Krushel’nyts’ka, a famous soprano of the early 20th century.

Ukraine’s memory politics do not exclude women entirely. In 2016, the UINM chose to focus on women when commemorating the anniversary of the end of the Second World War. The title of the institute’s project was “War makes no exceptions. Female history of the Second World War”. The intention to focus on women’s experiences in order to “reveal the criminal nature of war” seems admirable. But the 12 stories of both military and civilian women chosen by the UINM simply replicate a male pantheon rather than challenge the very tradition of glorifying the war through its heroes. The difference is that the male heroes are celebrated every year, whereas the female figures only once in a while, as part of a special project.


The role and fate of Ukrainian women in the Second World War is yet to be publicly evaluated — with consequences for the present. Source: memory.gov.ua. In the Soviet tradition, the female story of the Second World War was told on the margins of the heroic male narratives. This trend continues in official Ukrainian narratives of the war today. For instance, you can take a special tour of the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in World War II about women who offered the wounded soldiers first aid and carried them from the battlefield to hospitals. “The grateful soldiers called them ‘angels’”, says the description on the museum’s website. Out of the 800,000 female members of the Soviet army in WWII, the museum chooses to focus on the nursing “angels”, revealing little about these women’s actual experience of war, which included inadequate provisions, sexual violence and institutional discrimination.

While the Red Army has increasingly been the subject of critical evaluations, especially in recent scholarship, the Ukrainian nationalist underground movement of the 1930s-1950s has received a highly polarised treatment, which does not bring us any closer to understanding it. On the one hand, Soviet propaganda portrayed all nationalists as Nazi collaborators, thereby discrediting every effort to achieve Ukraine’s independence. Traces of this propaganda can be found in contemporary pro-Kremlin perception not only of nationalism, but of any support for integrity of the Ukrainian state. On the other hand, the pro-nationalist approach is wholly uncritical of the movement and tends to dismiss any criticism as recycled Soviet propaganda.

It is in this climate of dichotomous and distorted portrayal of Ukraine’s nationalists that gender-sensitive analysis can provide a nuanced critical perspective on the movement while simultaneously neither dismissing its members’ struggle to achieve independence, nor whitewashing its dark pages.

Similar to the widespread representations of the Soviet Army, public representations of the Ukrainian nationalist underground do not completely exclude women. Women performed work such as liaison (securing safe-houses, passing on messages between insurgents, collecting intelligence) and other tasks crucial for the survival of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). Nevertheless, the inclusion of individual female nationalists in the heroic narratives about the work of the nationalist movement is tokenistic and reveals little about wider gender dynamics in the OUN and UPA and the patriarchal tendencies of these organisations. 

Ukrainian society has been brought up on heroic, male-centred tales of defending the motherland — both in the Soviet period and in the last 25 years of independence

The OUN had a clear idea of the gender roles they wished to see in Ukrainian society. One of the underground publications states that the main task of women was “the upbringing of the new generation, a physically, spiritually and morally healthy generation”. In reality, however, the OUN and the UPA relied heavily on women for carrying out risky underground activities, as, in their view, they attracted less attention from the Soviet authorities. Thus, women in general, but especially young girls and women with children, made excellent recruits as they were able to maintain a civilian appearance. 

The impact this instrumentalised treatment had on women is rarely discussed in Ukraine. The Soviet authorities quickly cracked the secret of the nationalists’ longevity and began targeting women both as nationalists in their own right, but also as bait that could lead them to their more senior male colleagues. The women of the OUN and UPA thus became subject to double persecution: by the Soviet authorities and by internal security service who often suspected them of actual or potential treason. Many lost their lives, others lost their freedom, families, careers, health. And this is before we even discuss the fact that women often became victims of sexual violence perpetrated by their fellow nationalists

The people behind the monuments

A gender-sensitive critique of nationalism and the construction of national and nationalist heroes in Ukraine can reveal the real experiences of members of the pantheon, both men and women, which tend to get distorted in the process of heroicisation. 

Ukrainian society has been brought up on heroic, male-centred tales of defending the motherland — both in the Soviet period and in the last 25 years of independence. Thus, it isn’t surprising that society has such difficulty accepting that women also had the right to take an active part in the Maidan protests or to fight in the war in Donbas. And even when women who took part in violence or refused to limit their participation in protests or war to the duties traditionally seen as feminine (e.g. cooking and caring), they were generally perceived as having helped rather than actively fought for Ukraine’s statehood.

Women who serve in the current conflict in Donbas are often sexualised, and their actions, which are seen as being performed despite their gender, are treated as exceptional. Indeed, there is little difference in the way Ukraine’s female soldiers are perceived now and the ways in which their counterparts from the Second World War have been represented — and just as little is known about their real experiences.


22 March: Nadiya Savchenko is sentenced to 22 years in prison. (c) Evgeny Biyatov / VisualRIAN. All rights reserved.One of the most recognisable female faces of the current conflict is Nadiia Savchenko. A pilot and an officer of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, a former political prisoner in Russia and now a member of the Ukrainian parliament, Savchenko’s life story is extraordinary. In order to study to become a pilot, Savchenko had to jump through many hoops — the positions that women can occupy in the Ukrainian army are restricted by law. These difficulties, however, have not featured prominently in the public discussion of Savchenko following her release from Russian jail earlier this year. 

Instead, Ukraine’s mainstream media tend to focus on Savchenko’s “unfeminine” appearance, rather than her professional life. But it isn’t only the media that focuses on Savchenko’s private life. In August 2016, Anton Herashchenko, a fellow politician and an adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Minister, advised Savchenko to drop politics and start a family instead. The pressure to appear traditionally feminine seems to be at least partially effective — Savchenko put her best dress on and went on a televised date with a journalist to reveal “Savchenko the woman”.

The glorification of military heroism is, perhaps, unavoidable in wartime, but that makes it no less problematic

The perception of Savchenko as a symbol of the conflict in the Donbas and Ukraine’s defiance did not last. Even when she is perceived as an exceptional heroine, Savchenko is treated in symbolic terms. Her actual experiences, such as being Ukraine’s only female peacekeeper in Iraq or the difficulty of getting into the air force, are largely ignored.

Ukraine is busy dismantling its past myths and creating new ones, and the new war makes a break with the past both essential and inevitable. The glorification of military heroism is, perhaps, unavoidable in wartime, but that makes it no less problematic. 

The exclusion of women from popular heroic narratives points to a wider problem of the exclusion of other marginalised groups whose narratives, if embraced by mainstream historiography, would tell a less one-sided history of the war. In such a history, the glorious death on the battlefield would have to be described alongside the inglorious survival after rape; the pride of victory alongside the shame of collaboration, the struggle for independence alongside participation in ethnic cleansing. The inclusion of women, as well as all other marginalised groups who, due to their ethnic, racial, sexual or any other differences, do not fit neatly into the accepted image of a “hero”, will help problematise the very concept of heroism in Ukraine.

While paying attention to these figures might make Ukraine a bit less “heroic” in the traditional sense of the word, it could help unite Ukrainians around a peaceful civic identity, rather than one which is expressed in national and militarised terms. 

“Only where the dead are remembered, there are those who defend the living,” says Volodymyr Viatrovych. Perhaps the solution is to remember the dead for what they actually were, rather than how we imagine them. 

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