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Building an Inclusive Historical Memory of the Euromaidan

Emily Couch
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his wife, Olena Zalenska, hold candles as they walk to a memorial in Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine. Source: President.gov.ua

BY EMILY COUCH

On November 21, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy placed a lighted candle at the foot of Kyiv’s Memorial Cross, while a single bell tolled. The cross marks the site where during the Euromaidan more than seventy protesters were killed, mainly by Yanukovych-led government forces.

All countries grapple with traumatic periods in their history, but Ukraine’s particular post-Soviet history means that tensions over how certain events and people are remembered are particularly acute. Perhaps the two most controversial are the 1932–33 Holodomor famine and the activities of the nationalist paramilitary groups known as the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) which fought during the 1940s. Both have received considerable scholarly attention, including from Serhii Plohky, Ivan Katchanovski, and Oxana Shevel, whose work is referenced later in this article.

The Holodomor and the battles of the UPA-OUN, having occurred more than seven decades ago, fit comfortably within the realm of “historical memory.” The Euromaidan is a different story. Because it occurred just six years ago and because its aftermath—namely, the annexation of Crimea and the war in the East—persist, the Euromaidan has not yet been incorporated into a broader narrative of historical memory. However, steps have been taken in that direction: in 2014 Poroshenko signed a decree establishing the national commemoration of the 2013–14 Revolution of Dignity, the Euromaidan, and the winter 2004–5 Orange Revolution.

November 21 thus became “Day of Dignity and Freedom.” The ritual nature of this commemoration means that the Euromaidan has entered the annals of history—recent history, certainly, but history nonetheless. It is therefore worth taking a step back and considering the role that the memory of the Revolution of Dignity has played and continues to play in the country’s reform and state-building processes.

Beyond the commemorative naming of November 21, it is worth turning our attention to the material artifacts and behaviors that constitute the memory of the Euromaidan. When President Zelenskyy placed a candle at the foot of the cross, he was following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, who began the tradition in 2014. When I visited Kyiv in 2016, the Saint Sophia Cathedral complex was hosting an exhibition of photographs and posters from the Euromaidan.

In his article “Goodbye Lenin: A Memory Shift in Revolutionary Ukraine,” Serhii Plokhy notes that “in many cities of the Center and parts of the Southeast, Lenin monuments are being replaced not with monuments to a single historical figure but with memorials to heroes of another rising cult—defenders of democracy in the Revolution of Dignity.” There is also the National Memorial to the Heavenly Hundred Heroes and The Revolution of Dignity, which is currently under construction and which President Zelenskyy visited on the day of commemoration.

In her 2011 paper, “The Politics of Memory in a Divided Society: A Comparison of Post-Franco Spain and Post-Soviet Ukraine,” Oxana Shevel demonstrates how the building of the modern democratic Spanish state was founded on the negotiation of conflicting memories of the Spanish Civil War, and argues that only by following Spain’s example in creating a space for “democratic memory” regarding the UPA-OUN can Ukraine continue its state-building process. The same could be said of the memory of the Euromaidan.

Last year the Lviv-based pollster SocioInform conducted a survey in all of Ukraine’s oblasts (except the occupied territories) on attitudes toward the Euromaidan. The results showed significant regional variation. For example, in the West and Center, 48 percent and 36 percent of respondents said they supported the revolution both when it occurred and when the survey was carried out. In the East and South, 44 percent and 50 percent said they “did not support the EuroMaidan then or now.” (While the occupied territories of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics were not included in the survey, we can assume that the percentages there would be similar.)

The institutionalization of the Euromaidan’s memory was accompanied, in 2014, by the de-communization laws, which led to the process of Leninopad, in which statues of the revolutionary leader were toppled across the country. Many cities in the Center and Southeast transformed the empty spaces resulting from the purging of Lenin statuary into Euromaidan monuments. In the East, however, Lenin monuments were “removed mainly by Ukrainian volunteer battalions fighting in the war,” Plokhy writes, and “attempts to turn the remaining pedestals into shrines to the heroes of the Heavenly Hundred did not take root,” while “supporters of the pro-Russian rebels have taken the opportunity to cover the pedestals with anti-Ukrainian slogans and graffiti.”

Both the 2018 survey and the presence or absence of Lenin statues indicate that two very different memory communities—or “spaces,” as Plokhy calls them—have emerged. The reintegration of the occupied territories envisioned by Zelenskyy’s signing of the Steinmeier Formula and the just-concluded Normandy Four negotiations in Paris will therefore constitute not only an economic and institutional process but also a mnemonic one as well.

In 2014, President Poroshenko stated that the Euromaidan was the moment when Ukrainians demonstrated their Europeanness.” In contrast, President Zelenskyy did not refer to Ukraine’s “Europeanness” in his official statement on November 21. Instead, he simply referred to the revolution as the moment “when the voices of millions of citizens merged into a single voice of the nation to say firmly: Ukrainians want and will live in a free, democratic and prosperous state.” Poroshenko’s statement aligns with his strongly anti-Russian stance, whereas Zelenskyy’s aligns with his less confrontational position with regard to Russia.

The phrase “free, democratic, and prosperous state” is promising because it does not appear to pit one civilizational trajectory (European) against another (pro-Russian). The terms are consensus-building, much like Zelenskyy’s presidency, and point to a way forward for the cultural reintegration of the occupied territories in the East. This rhetoric suggests that for the commemoration of the Euromaidan to be a means of strengthening statehood and civic identity, it should be based on ideas that do not alienate regions in which the concept of Europeanness either has negative connotations or that obscures the residents’ particular cultural and historical experiences.

There is no national consensus when it comes to memorializing the Euromaidan. The lack of a consensus is exacerbated by the Euromaidan’s entanglement with Ukraine’s other controversial historical moments: the Holodomor, the OUN-UPA battles, and the Soviet period as a whole. In more recent history, establishment of the Day of Dignity and Freedom has also connected the Euromaidan to the Orange Revolution, an event that the Russian sociopolitical sphere, to which much of Ukraine’s East belongs, presents as a CIA-authored coup.

President Poroshenko tied the memory of the Euromaidan to stringent anti-Soviet and anti-Russian rhetoric. As part of his post-Euromaidan agenda, for example, he used the 2017 commemoration of the Holodomor to demand that Russia “repent” for causing the tragedy—thus eliding the current authorities with the Soviet regime. By using this historical event to advance his contemporary agenda, Poroshenko created an association between the memory of the Euromaidan and the anti-Soviet—and distinctly anti-Russian—sentiment. This elision is deeply problematic, given that the occupied regions have markedly different perceptions of the Soviet Union and Russia from those predominating in the West and Center.

With Zelenskyy’s decidedly less aggressive stance comes hope for creating a space for commemorating the Euromaidan that may be more inclusive of the regions that his administration wants to reintegrate. Only then can Ukraine build a future upon its revolutionary history.

About the Author

Emily Couch

Emily Couch

Staff Intern, Kennan Institute
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American expertise and knowledge of Russia, Ukraine, and the region. Through its residential fellowship programs, public lectures, workshops, and publications, the Institute strives to attract, publicize, and integrate new research into the policy community.  Read more