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In a contested history is there room for inclusive commemoration?

July 23, 2016

Ukrainian history is a very sensitive and contested subject – both internally and externally of Ukraine.

Unsurprising when the nation, or parts of the nation, have at various times, and sometimes simultaneously, been ruled by external powers more often than not at a very bloody and detrimental cost to the people of Ukraine.

Very few, if any major or significant grim incidents within its past are without contesting points of view – particularly when academic historical research is cast aside and emotion is played expertly to further political interests.

There are also issues relating to the difference between nationalism and patriotism that many seem unable or unwilling to recognise that lead to less than objective consideration.

To rake over all the atrocities that Ukraine has suffered, including some self-inflicted to one degree or another, is not the theme of this entry.  What matters is that Ukraine has yet to honestly confront its history and recognise the wrongs done to it, and also the wrongs it too has committed.  If and when it does, how will the nation commemorate the good, the bad, and the ugly?

What seems a long time ago, this blog wrote an entry pondering a Stolpersteine styled project for the identified Holodomor victims.  It was of course a thought exercise rather than an expectation that it would ever be seriously considered – nevertheless it was an entry that seemed to capture the imagination  of many within social media causing a significant spike in the readership figures compared to other entries.

Whether or not, publicly or privately a reader considers Holodomor genocide or not, whether or not a reader recognises Volhynia as genocide as Poland has done in the last few days, whether or not a reader recognises the mass extermination of the Odessan Jewry by the Romanians part of a larger genocide, whether or not a reader recognises the mass deportation of the Tatar from Crimea under Stalin as ethnic cleansing, and whether or not a reader recognises the massive losses of WWII suffered by Ukraine at the hands of both Hitler and Stalin, (to name fairly contemporary examples), there are incontestable commonalities to all of those events.

All occurred and continues to occur within the current internationally recognised territory of Ukraine, and they all had victims – thousands and thousands of victims at the lower end of the scale, and millions upon millions at the upper end of that truly awful gradation.

Indeed a reader may ponder further where within the “captured State” that was and is Ukraine since independence, where the victims end?  For example, are not the thousands upon thousands of Ukrainians that die unnecessarily due to poor medial care and lack of medicines not victims of the various elites that continually raped and pillaged the health budget for their personal enrichment to the tune of $ millions and millions?

As Ukraine today fights the Kremlin in its east, victims continue to mount among the civilian communities on either side of the “contact line” and fatalities among the military ranks continue on a daily basis.

All historical incidents have naturally resulted in numerous monuments, large and small as time has moves on – with many of these monuments as contested as the incidents that are responsible for their being.

Clearly the removal of any such contested monuments to contested memory events will be contested – as few would contest.

Odessa has more than 2000 monuments (including one to Steve Jobs and one to Darth Vader) and yet an empirical perception is that there are very few to commemorate victims, or indeed “the fallen”, in comparison to “victory”.

Perhaps a little odd for a nation that has so often been the victim – even if on occasion simultaneously having been on the victorious side.

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With a contested history around many a corner if and when Ukraine honestly, humbly and bravely addresses its past, and perhaps an equally contested future to which monuments will yet be built, how then to honestly, somberly and inclusively address the issue of monuments around which future generations, whatever their personal views and/or emotional bias will prove to be, will be able to commemorate without creating internal moral issues that fester, but rather creating a new holistic identity capable of managing and tolerating differing historical views ?

Can the answer be as simple as the creation of future monuments to “victims” – all victims – however and whomever those commemorating define a “victim” within their own moral system?  Similarly, can all monuments to “the fallen” – to all those who have “fallen”, whenever and where ever they fell – be a solution, however and whomever those commemorating decide to categorise “the fallen”?

Is that perhaps just too bland, or too elastic, or too inclusive to have any meaning at all for those that would commemorate?

A reader may of course consider this a small detail in light of the enormous issues and challenges currently facing Ukraine – and certainly not one that would seem a priority – but when attempting to create a Ukrainian nation of a new cloth, the stitching can be just as important as the pattern.

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