Victims and visitors: Collective memory and a lost opportunity for growth

You may know that I am here in Ukraine studying national identity issues. This is a wonderful opportunity, since I visited Ukraine just seven and eight years after independence, and now 20 years after, and I can see evidence of both top-down and also grassroots identity-building.

People build communities in a number of ways. For example, they can identify characteristics they have in common; they can identify experiences they have in common, they can identity a common enemy. Museums are one of the ways that governments send a top-down message to tell stories that unite a nation according to any of these. This week in the same Kyiv neighborhood I went to two national museums and one religious site, all of which told stories important to the kind of community-building Ukraine is negotiating.

The first I want to tell you about is the museum to the victims of Ukraine’s Holodomor, the deliberate starvation of the Ukrainian people in 1932 and 1933 as the result of government farm collectivization policies. Having food in your home was a crime punishable by death. Some Western journalists did report the emergency, notably Britain’s Malcolm Muggeridge, but even if reporters submitted such reports, most were not published. The famine, which affected Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, and Russia as well as parts of some other present-day states, was officially denied by the Soviet Union. The authorities decreed that no death certificate could legally cite “swelling and starvation” as a cause of death. That is, the Soviet Union denied the loss of millions of people. Some say three million people died. Some say five million. Some say as many as 10 million. There are memorials throughout Ukraine. (As well as throughout Canada, by the way. The first in the world was erected in Edmonton.)

The national memorial in Kyiv is on the banks of the Dnieper River, just past the war memorial on the way to St. Michael’s Orthodox monastery. It is made up of many different parts, each one an honor to the victims: A white flame-topped tower surrounded by rising golden phoenixes; a quiet park littered with abandoned farming implements lying among the benches; a bronze statue of a starving child; a stairway leading to the river with appropriate quotations carved into stones laid on certain steps; a pair of monumental carved funerary angels kneeling on either side of the walkway; a contemporary rock sculpture with a figurative flame element and iron bars; an underground museum.

The museum scrolls the names of victims on a circular screen that surrounds the visitor area. To read the names, you look across a space littered with boats and sickles, spinning wheels and grinding stones. Every couple of feet stand wooden lecterns with huge tomes of scholarly and documentary material, including brief biographies of some of the victims. A film dramatizes archive photographs; each grim scene tells the story of another victim and the agony of the survivors. All the while, your back is to the chapel at the center of the memorial, where you can light a candle for the victims. The smoke rises and will waft out the openings in the phoenix-encrusted chimney structure that sits on the ground above.

The museum clearly illustrates one way a government can evoke emotions emerging from common historical experience and a common historical enemy (in this case, Joseph Stalin.) The exhibit demonstrates and the film script clearly states that every Ukrainian shares this legacy of suffering. The approach is heavy-handed and didactic. May that approach works for the Ukrainian audience. But I can’t help but think that the museum has missed a huge opportunity to turn the energy it evokes in the sorrow of the nation for the suffering of the individuals and the families and the communities into a positive energy for change.

I wish the museum could have used the emotion that the history evokes to create a common purpose among the visitors, especially the Ukrainians of today whom it challenges to never forget. I wish the museum could have used the bleakness of lack, where it seems to begin, to have imagined what might have been to make the challenge to visitors more concrete. I wish the exhibit could have shocked its audience into an energized reaction. Don’t simply ask me to donate money so the research into identifying more victims can continue; get me involved! I will have to let my reaction to this museum simmer to see how to weave it into my project.

Meanwhile, watch for posts on the contemporary photography exhibit I visited, and the collections of religious items at St. Michael’s monastery. (And here is the view of the other side of the Dnieper River. )



1 Comment

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One response to “Victims and visitors: Collective memory and a lost opportunity for growth

  1. A powerful story about giving a voive to the voiceless… and decisions about how to use that voice. Thanks for sharing it.

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