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What was thought as a way to remember the victims of a bloody conflict, and point fingers at the enemy, might turn out to be a unique instrument of identity-building in Ukraine.by Abel Polese 28 February 2018
How far can an elite go in its efforts, voluntary and involuntary, to foster a national identity in a given context? From mega-events and massive public projects to national singing and tourism brochures, a team of scholars, myself included, have been exploring a number of ways to boost national identity in post-Soviet countries.
We’ve looked at identity markers perpetuated by non-political actors – a new fashion or habit that goes viral nationally, or a social movement with which a large portion of the population identifies. We’ve studied political measures conceived for other purposes that end up affecting the identity of a large percentage of a national population.
But we had never considered nation-building through terrorism – or, more specifically, through an anti-terrorist narrative.
Until a few weeks ago, at least.
Terrorism and National Identity
Credit goes to the organizers of the CAT-ference, which focus on urban issues in the post-communist region, who arranged a visit to the museum of anti-terrorist operations in Dnepropetrovsk or Dnipro as the official name has been since May 2016. A joint initiative of veterans of the conflict and the regional administration, the museum was launched about a year ago.
I have to admit, the use of the term “terrorism” to label what is happening nowadays in eastern Ukraine sounds somehow awkward to me. However surprising, the museum does provide an excellent chance to reflect on the use of words and how definitions can be used.
It also offers an opportunity to reflect on how an anti-terrorism museum might have a role in the promotion of a Ukrainian (civic) national identity in a region that has not always accepted the narratives constructed by the central administration in Kyiv.
In most of the state-controlled media, the people fighting against the Ukrainian state in the eastern region are termed “terrorists” and, subsequently, actions against these groups are called “anti-terrorist operations.” A museum devoted to how the state officially reacts to these events has to be labelled, by force of definitions, “a museum of anti-terrorist operations.”
The choice of this name, then, leaves nothing open to misinterpretation. Is there anyone who, at least nominally, fancies terrorists? Endorsing anything related to terrorism is something socially unacceptable. Sympathizing with insurgency, independence, or even Russian foreign policy might be hard a position to defend. However, terrorism is definitely the word you do not want to use to back up your cause if you seek some kind of support by people or states. It is a ghost that embodies the worst of the human condition: violence, murder, killing of innocent people.
The museum is strategically located, a mere 160 kilometers (100 miles) from the frontlines of the conflict. Geographically, it can be regarded as boosting the commonalities between Kyiv and eastern Ukraine, since the exhibits covers operations in a large part of this region. Ideologically, it downplays ethnic identity in eastern Ukraine and puts Ukrainian citizens, whatever their origins, in the same boat. They are at risk of violence, or killing, by a common enemy: the terrorists. And those fighting them deserve a memorial in a museum that somehow celebrates the unity of the Ukrainian people, integrity of the country’s territory, and the common values, or even history, that people from Transcarpathia to Donbas are supposed to share.
Is there anything that unites people, and peoples, better than common enemies?
The Faithful Wife and the Returning Husband
After walking through 19th century and Soviet buildings to reach the museum, one enters a small playground that has been transformed into a virtual battlefield. The visual effect is striking: street signs with bullet holes, blown-up cars, and a few items evoking the idealistic approach of many Ukrainians to the conflict: a small bunker where it reads (in Russian) “no need to fear” and outside “if not us, then who [will defend our homeland]?”
The gloomy atmosphere surrounds you with a chilling feeling of insecurity. You are led to think: they are attacking us, and we have to defend ourselves from the enemy. But who is the enemy? The answer can be found in the name of the museums: the “terrorists”. But what terrorists? And what do they want?
Further into the museum, answers are provided. They want to annihilate Ukraine and the Ukrainians – from the older to the younger generations, from their values to their desire for a peaceful and stable life.
Outside, surrounded by bunkers and vehicles, one can sense the feeling of a battlefield, with an eye on what soldiers do and risk. The inside part of the exhibition, on the contrary, seems designed to reflect the inner fears and sentiments of the Ukrainian people. A reproduction of a hospital chair is shown, while a museum inscription illustrates the number of wounded and doctors needed to treat so many of them. Children’s drawings express fear and hope, and a soldier-shaped piece of plastic or wood bears the writing: “Dad, come back alive.” Maps, names, quotes, and artefacts retrieved from the frontlines decorate the walls to give a personal and more dramatic twist to the events.
Traditional values and stereotypes dominate here. A picture shows a woman waiting for her husband, who has heroically left his family to defend the homeland. As a good wife, she is waiting for him while taking care of the house, implicitly celebrating Ukrainian femininity, which combines beauty with the strength and patience to endure difficult circumstances.
A small space under the stairs is occupied by a bunker with a bed where a teddy bear gives an extra touch of drama, reminding the visitor that this is a conflict that touches entire families, including women and children.
The Construction of an Enemy
Visitors then enter a room with pictures of all the locals who have died during these years. The vision is heartbreaking, with portraits of 18- or 19-year-old boys, their faces just coming out of puberty, who have died in the conflict. Shirts and personal items give a personal touch to the room.
The message is implicit but clear: all these people have died to defend their homeland from the enemy. Ukraine has never been immune from questions around regional identity – sometimes drifting into separatist ideas, but sometimes simply prompting some regions to challenge the official narrative on national identity put forward by the capital city. This particular narrative seems to counter any such inclinations and emphasize that Ukraine is one, and fiercely standing up against the enemy.
That framing is completed by the audiovisual parts, which you can experience at the end, and which dissipate all doubts. So far the enemy was the scariest one – the one that you could not see, the terrorist with unclear objectives but to kill and destroy. But little hint has been provided to suggest where these terrorists are from and what they want.
The movie is projected on the ceiling and on all the white walls of an empty room in the midst of which you are standing. It starts with an overview of how peaceful and prosperous Ukraine and its people have been over the centuries – pushing back attempts at invasion for the sake of an honest and humble life.
Then Russia, and in particular Russian political actors, enter the picture. You see footage of political declarations on Russian TV by the likes of Putin and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the extreme nationalist, as well as scenes from the front. Violence, fear, and the suffering of the common people are counterposed with political statements and evidence of Russian interests in the country.
Returning the Eastern Regions
Dnipro and its surroundings have thus become – through the museum and the region’s role in the conflict – a legitimate part of Ukrainian territory. They contribute to the writing, or rewriting, of Ukrainian history. People from this area fight for Ukraine, die for Ukraine, and bravely and vigorously face a powerful enemy not just of Ukraine but also of its people, depriving it of its youth, men, and freedom.
A common enemy is stronger than linguistic or cultural differences – it brings people together by making them feel united around the most basic of human needs: survival.
Much has been said about the politics behind all of this; much can be said and much blame can be tossed at any of the actors involved in the Ukrainian conflict. But this article is not the place for it. As a scholar of national identity I have been fascinated by the amount of effort devoted to building a national narrative embedded in a museum.
Was it done on purpose or it is just a side effect? What were the intentions of the creators, and curators, of the museum? We will probably never find out. Nation building is performed through formal rules, laws, directives, and a number of other instruments that are often not conceived, at least consciously, to influence national identity. Beyond the all-too-clear messages conveyed, that was possibly the most fascinating aspect of my visit.
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Transitions magazine = Your one-stop source for news, research and analysis on the post-communist region.
Sign up for the free TOL newsletter!
The Moldovan Diaries is a multimedia, interactive examination of the country's ethnic, religious, social and political identities by Paolo Paterlini and Cesare De Giglio.
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