Diasporic memory and the internationalization of Ukraine

On the 90th Anniversary of the Holodomor Famine Genocide in Ukraine 1932-33.

Wiktoria Kudela-Świątek’s study Eternal Memory: Monuments and Memorials of the Holodomor, Guy Russell Torr, trans. Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, Distributed by University of Alberta Press Edmonton, Ksiegarnia Akademic Krakow, University of Toronto Press 2021.

Holodomor Monument, Winnipeg Manitoba Canada. Sculptor: Roman Kowal, 1984.

Monuments and commemorations that mark the 1932-33 Holodomor Famine in Ukraine have proliferated in the Ukrainian diaspora in the Americas, especially since the 1950s. While Ukrainian national and cultural symbols have drawn on disparate historical moments in different parts of the country, Holodomor was been a common historical experience. Monuments as ‘sites of collective memory’ were created first by ‘communities of memory’ in exile in the mid 20th century (communauté de souvenir (cf. Maurice Halbwachs On Collective Memory 1992, see also Erinnerungsgemeinschaft cf. Jan Assmann 2011 Cultural Memory and early civilization 2011; Iwona Irwin-Zarecki Frames of Remembrance: The dynamics of collective memory 2009) in the face of Soviet and later Russian denials. While observance has ebbed and flowed, the commemoration of Holodomor as a national symbol was emphasized by the administration of Viktor Yuschenko (2005-2010) after the first Orange Revolution. The millions who starved are recognized as forgotten victims of the Soviet system. Holodomor was declared a genocide by mass starvation by the Ukrainian parliament in 2003 and recognized by Canada (2019), many US States (2016–) and the EU (2013) to name a few.

Wiktoria Kudela-Świątek’s study Eternal Memory: Monuments and Memorials of the Holodomor examines who creates a ‘community of memory’ and where and why. It is an important full-length academic study now available in English.

“Holodomor memorialization in the diaspora has undergone transformations in both form and content that are related to changes in the memory communities themselves: their generational composition and ever-deepening assimilation. Through the memorials they funded, the communities south to encourage intellectual reflection on the subject of genocide and the causes and consequences of this even … In the last decade, we see the narrative stage of development in museum exhibitions created in Canada (especially the CMHR [Canadian Museum of Human Rights, Winnipeg]).”

(p.173)

She examines both the diasporic and national projects and commemorations as well as the iconography of specific monuments. The visual culture of Holodomor commemoration preserves but also reconstructs the information and symbols. Kudela-Świątek argues that the interpretation of Holodomor evolved in the public sphere as an independent Ukraine sought unifying symbols by gradually adopting the symbols used by diaspora communities of memory. These highlight the tragedy of the genocide. They abstract from Ukrainian folk and peasant traditions to adopt an international canon of symbols related to Twentieth Century abstraction. ’The suffering of Ukrainians during the Great Famine becomes, in this way, a key element of Ukrainian national martyrology and a way of settling accounts with the nation’s communist past.”

She examines both the diasporic and national projects and commemorations as well as the iconography of specific monuments. The visual culture of Holodomor commemoration preserves but also reconstructs the information and symbols of a martyrology. She argues that the interpretation of Holodomor evolved in the public sphere as an independent Ukraine sought unifying symbols by gradually adopting the symbols used by diaspora communities of memory. These highlight the tragedy of the genocide. They abstract from Ukrainian folk and peasant traditions to adopt an international canon of symbols related to Twentieth Century abstraction. “The suffering of Ukrainians during the Great Famine becomes, in this way, a key element of Ukrainian national martyrology and a way of settling accounts with the nation’s communist past.” (p.344)

Historical grievance is externalized onto the past USSR and contemporary Russia which is pursuing a war against the very idea of Ukrainian identity. A visual geopolitics operates both within Ukraine and also in Russia, not to mention globally. A ritual expulsion of the past dichotomizes the victims and oppressors on ethnic and nationalistic lines. This may fuel a geopolitical cycle of conflict beyond the current war. It contributes to reorganizing the borders between states. On one hand, some are cast as a post-Soviet bloc, while on the other hand, others are seen to participate in a liberal and pro-democratic (at least in theory) global order. Conflict arises at borderlines — and is seen by political commentators and actors to be natural and proper to the “front lines” of this social spatialisation.

“The taking of tourist and wedding photographs in a monument’s shadow, as happens in Ukrainian cities … speaks to the domestication of the monument within the surrounding urban space…”

“Holodomor monuments rarely function in abstract or negative form. The few exceptions apply to the North American diaspora. Take the monuments in Edmonton, AB, and Washington, DC. At this point, there are still no “counter-monuments” to consider. Sculptures devoid of monumentalism and direct referencing do not yet exist in the Holodomor context … (as exemplified by a monument in Hamburg opposing fascism, war, and violence, which disappears into the ground). This reality signals that Ukrainians are not prepared to say farewell to the memory of the Holodomor. The need to work through it via traditional forms of commemoration is still very much alive.”

(p.344)

National and global diasporic communities of memory have been set in a productive cultural exchange regarding Holodomor remembrance and symbols over the last 3 decades of Ukrainian independence. This global dialogue saved the Famine from oblivion and created a national symbolic culture that contributed to unifying the disparate regions of Ukraine. Particularly the North American diaspora has had a major effect on twenty-first century Ukrainian identity and collective memory. The diaspora both showed the value and restored rural folk traditions while it modernized and internationalized Ukrainian visual culture. This provided a vocabulary and visual grammar for political actors in the country.

-Rob Shields (University of Alberta)