03 October 2012

Memory and Language in Ukraine: some reflections on a recent journey

It is hard to underestimate the usefulness of physically visiting landscapes of memory. This simple act can be just as instructive as hours spent in libraries or trawling the internet. As well as affording the opportunity to learn things that one would otherwise miss, it allows one to connect to the memories that one studies practically, rather than simply theoretically. It can also challenge many of the assumptions we make as we approach our subject, and many of the conclusions we draw as we study from afar.

Symbols of Soviet and Greek-Catholic memory co-exist in L'viv (photo: U. Blacker)
One assumption that falls apart as one walks through Ukraine’s memoryscapes is that of the ‘two Ukraines’. That is, two different territories, two different cultures, two different memories, and of course, two different languages. Observing Ukraine from a distance, through the media, it is easy to concur. East versus West, Russian versus Ukrainian, Stalin versus Bandera, etc. Ukraine’s ‘split personality’ has been sharply underlined by the recent political conflict over the language bill. Russian tries to squeeze out Ukrainian, and Ukrainian tries valiantly to resist linguistic colonization. The two languages fight each other, like deputies in the parliament, like partisans against insurgents.
Yet language is not war. One does not have to choose a side to fight for. In this case, it is quite possible to inhabit two camps at once. Languages are not ideologies, and can be combined, can co-exist. This is the case in Ukraine, as is evident to anyone who visits the country. And just as language is not unitary, neither is that other important constituent of identity, memory. Both language and memory diverge, re-converge, overlap, quarrel and even engage in dialogue. The one thing they do not do is separate out cleanly, simply and irrevocably.

Ukraine’s linguistic and mnemonic diversity are well illustrated at the Yanivs’kyi cemetery in L’viv. Near the entrance, numerous significant graves and monuments are indicated on a map. Collective graves of Jews, Poles, Hungarians, Germans, as well as Ukrainians, are duly indicated. The map is in Ukrainian; what it does not indicate is that the graves speak their own languages, often more than one. Polish graves sit alongside Ukrainian ones, Jewish graves alongside Soviet ones, Russian graves beside Armenian ones. There are many gravestones on which two languages sit side by side. The memories invoked in the cemetery are as varied as its languages. The first memorial one sees as one enters is a Soviet one to Ukrainian workers killed in demonstrations against ‘bourgeois Poland’. Hidden away towards the back of the cemetery is a modest monument to Hungarian soldiers who fought in the city during the Second World War. For whom they fought is not specified in any of the languages on the obelisk. There is a large memorial cemetery to men and women who fought in the Ukrainian Galician Army during and after the First World War, which was built in the thirties, destroyed by the Soviets, and restored in the 1990s; juxtaposed with it is a Polish memorial to those who fought against those same Ukrainians for L’viv, built in 1939, never destroyed, but now badly neglected. Perhaps the latter was built in response to the former, in order not to allow the Ukrainian narrative to dominate the cemetery: it’s dark cross looms over the expansive Ukrainian memorial, set above it up the hill. Yet the cross is crumbling, and fades in the background behind the impressive and imaginative recent Ukrainian sculpture comprising of broken fragments of the original cemetery suspended on chains. This commemorates not only the Ukrainian soldiers, but also reminds of the destruction of the memorial. Here is a memorial, a counter-memorial, and a meta-memorial all in close proximity. The overall impression one receives in this cemetery is not simply that of a dual memory, but of a collection, or cacophony, of memory, which is unified by a single location.
In one corner of the cemetery there is a Holocaust memorial that commemorates those who died at the once adjacent concentration camp. The site of the camp itself is hard to locate, however. It is not obviously marked. An elderly man sitting in one of the buildings near the entrance to the cemetery was, however, able to explain where the memorial was, where the Jews had been executed, and where the camp had been. When attempting to locate the site of the camp, however, asking another passer by resulted in being directed back to the monument in the cemetery: some, it seems, remember the site despite the lack of marking, others remember only the memorial. Here memorialisation seems to have in fact displaced the actual site of memory, and memory becomes circular, self-referential. Between urban commemoration and the memories of local people, the camp is not simply remembered nor forgotten, but the memory is somewhere in between. Thus the dialogue between oblivion and remembering is another to add to the polyphony of inscribed memories.
Memory dialogue can also be observed in the mountain resort of Yaremche. On the main street through the town there is a memorial to Red Army soldiers, comprising of a large monumental sculpture and graves. The memorial and the graves, whose inscriptions are all in Russian, are remarkably well maintained, adorned with many wreaths, and there is no sign of any alteration or damage. This despite the fact that the Hutsuls that live in this part of the Carpathians, in deepest Western Ukraine, have a reputation for being rather pro-Ukrainian and anti-Soviet: this was, after all, along with Galicia and Volyn’, prime UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) territory. As the curator of the museum across the road, Dr. Halyna Bashtanenko, explained, these are graves, people fought and died: they should be remembered and respected. The difference between a grave and a monument is quite evident at this site: the monument across the road, comprising of large busts of Kovpak and Rudnev, the leaders of partisans in the region, had been stripped of all its inscriptions, and bore only a solitary plastic flower. (Although even here assumptions can be dangerous: while it would appear that one inscription on the monument was indeed removed, those on the individual plaques – meant to commemorate individual partisans – were in fact never put up). Kovpak and Rudnev, meanwhile, still honour main streets in the town with their names, and no one seems to be in a hurry to change this.
The museum in Yaremche is a model of multiple memory. It was built as the Museum of Partisan Glory, then, after 1991, was changed to the Museum of the National Liberation Movement after; today it is the Museum of Ethnography and Ecology of the Carpathian Region. The first switch can be put down to obvious political factors, while the latter was apparently part of administrative reshuffles in the region’s museums. A half-hearted ethnographic display now occupies one corner of this history museum, to satisfy bureaucratic demands, while ecology must wait: ‘we don’t have money for ecology’, the curator notes. When one enters the museum, one is immediately met by a large socialist realist oil painting of Kovpak and Rudnev. The exhibition then begins with the history of the Sich Riflemen, and early attempts to form a Ukrainian State. Then there is a large statue of Kovpak and Rudnev, next to a plaster partisan girl, before the exhibition turns to OUN/UPA and Bandera. The Waffen SS Galicia Division is given a brief and vague mention, without any mention of its full title, before the second half of the museum space returns to the Soviet partisans.
Despite the jarring nature of these juxtapositions, the exhibition achieves a strange harmony. After all, as Dr Bashtanenko explained, everything shown is part of the history of the region: why should anything be omitted? In 1991, they museum received urgent calls from historians in Kyiv fearful that the partisan collections would be thrown out, but the curators assured them that there was no such plan.
While the museum presents multiple views of the past, it does not consciously try to mould these into one narrative. Its ‘Ukrainian’ displays are written in a nationalistic tone, while its Soviet displays retain the ideological language of their time. The different historical narratives are reflected in the switches in language in the museum’s displays: narrating the Soviet past, it speaks Russian, narrating the ‘Ukrainian’ past, it speaks Ukrainian. Some displays contain both languages. Again, dialogue and polyphony border on cacophony and chaos, both linguistically and mnemonically.
L'viv's multilingual past is carefully preserved today (photo: Olesya Khromeychuk)
The museum in Yaremche is, like most Ukrainians, bilingual. And like most Ukrainians, it chooses its language carefully. A similar polyphonic and ‘polymnemonic’ experience could be had at the Museum of One Street in Kyiv, one of the city’s most visited museums. The museum, which tells the story of Andriivs’kyi Uzviz, where it is located, depends largely on literary texts. The writers featured wrote in Russian, Ukrainian, Polish and Yiddish, and their works are displayed alongside hundreds of other texts and artefacts illustrating historical events and everyday life in various languages. The texts that accompany the displays shift seamlessly from Russian to Ukrainian, depending on what they are describing. Just as it does not speak in one language, it is hard to say, again, what the museum’s overall narrative is. It does not even follow a strict chronological order, preferring rather to be guided by who lived in which house: it is topography alone that guides memory here, a preoccupation with where we are, rather than explaining where we came from or where we are going, and who did what to whom in the process. The museum is dedicated to ‘one street’, and sticks strictly to this reduced, local spatiality, refusing to engage in-depth in national or geopolitical narratives: as it does so, it speaks the same languages as the street on which it is located, without burdening these languages, or the choice between them, with political baggage.
The small town of Berdychiv in central Ukraine is similarly multilingual in its memory culture. Here the ghetto monument, as one would expect, spoke Ukrainian and Hebrew, while a cross commemorating the construction of the local Roman Catholic church spoke both Polish and Ukrainian. Berdychiv remains one of the most significant centres of Polish population in Ukraine, as well as a site of pilgrimage for Poles, and, correspondingly, holds an annual festival of Polish culture. The 17th century Carmelite convent in the centre of the town is an important site of Polish memory, and has recently been restored; in its grounds is a monument to Jews who were shot there by the Nazis. A local tour guide was reluctant to entertain any notions of Ukrainian complicity in such actions, yet she was eager to discuss (switching seamlessly between Ukrainian and Russian depending on the language in which she was addressed) the Jewish and Polish pasts of the city.
What most surprised the participants of the tour of Berdychiv – doctoral students and academics – was the guide’s focus on Honore de Balzac, who married a local Polish noblewoman in the town in 1850. For scholars of memory and history of Ukraine, this was a trivial, if entertaining footnote in the city’s history that did not merit the detailed narrative the guide gave us. And surely the city could not justify building a Balzac museum (such plans are afoot), while there is no Jewish museum? Doubtless, a more balanced memory culture would turn to the Jewish past ahead of Balzac. The Ukrainian plaque to a French writer attached to a Polish church speaks to an older, more vibrant, less traumatised and perhaps more European Berdychiv that is beyond the nationalist or neo-Soviet historical discourses, and comfortably beyond the difficult memory of the Second World War.
The multiplicity described in the memoryscapes described above is not necessarily interpreted in positive terms in Ukraine. Many would prefer memory to be unitary, and languages to remain separated, rather than intertwined. The newspaper Den’ recently reported on its front page that mysterious billboards (their sponsors remain unknown) featuring Tsar Nicholas II, and begging the Emperor for forgiveness, had appeared in Zaporizhzhia. Alongside the nearby monument to Chapaev, as well as the local commemoration of the Zaporizhzhian Sich – a quintessentially Ukrainian memory trope – this all looked like cultural ‘schizophrenia’, according to the newspaper.

There are memory actors who wish to avoid such chaos. The curators of the Museum on Lonts’kyi St in L’viv, housed in a former secret police prison, certainly belong to this group. The museum is an exercise in monologic memory narrative. It tells the story of Ukrainians (and at that almost exclusively of those involved in the nationalist underground) who were detained and killed in the prison under the Nazis and the Soviets (though the Poles, who also ‘occupied’ L’viv, also get a mention). The experience of visiting the site, and many of the displays, is moving and shocking, and the scale of suffering and oppression of Ukrainians here was horrific. Yet the ‘wall of memory’ at the end of one of its dank corridors, which bears the names of hundreds of victims of the place and the various regimes that occupied it, also reveals many Jewish and Polish names, as do the archival lists of executed prisoners on display: these people’s stories remain untold. There is no ‘schizophrenia’, neither linguistic nor mnemonic, in evidence here: the names of Jews and Poles appear on the wall only in their Ukrainian variants, and the displays are exclusively in Ukrainian.
Jewish cultural festival in L'viv (photo: U. Blacker)
Another famous L’viv street, Staroievreis’ka, in the old town, gave quite a different impression. A major new monument to the city’s Jewish past is being planned here, and will be accompanied by similar projects at the site of the Yanivs’kyi camp and at one other location in the city. The plans for the memorial are displayed on placards at its future site in the old Jewish district, which seems to be slowly turning into a touristic lieu de memoiresimilar to Kazimierz in Kraków. The square was the location for more polyphony on 22 July 2012, when a sizeable crowd of locals and tourist gathered to hear klezmer bands from across Europe. The show was closed by a Kyiv band who managed to combine the Ukrainian folk song ‘Nese Halia Vodu’ with the Hebrew ‘Hava Nagila’ and Russian ‘Krutitsia vertitsia shar goluboi’ in one continuous medley. The festival was accompanied by a Jewish Studies summer school at the L’viv Centre for Urban History, at which one could learn Yiddish, and hear lectures in Polish, Russian and Ukrainian, and where Q and A sessions took place in several languages without translation.
Jewish cultural festival, L'viv (photo: O. Khromeychuk)
The received wisdom about Ukraine tends to focus on confrontations and splits, on collisions of monologic discourses. On the ground, what one finds is a beguiling multiplicity, a layering of memories and languages and discourses, often competing, often co-existing, sometimes even complementing one another. Rarely is there only one voice, or even only two. This is not a plurality by design, as Andrii Portnov has noted, but rather by default. There is no concerted state effort to maintain plurality of memory, and plurality of language is only undermined from above, despite the rhetoric to the contrary. Yet chaotic, uncoordinated local practices can and do produce multiplicity, cacophony, and even strange harmony.
Plurality can, of course, end in simple incomprehension. If one stood at the right place in L’viv on 22 July, one could hear the habitual Sunday crowd of elderly people singing Ukrainian folk songs near the Shevchenko monument in one ear, and hear the klezmer from Staroievreis’ka in the other. Neither of these groups could hear the other. Default plurality does not envelop everyone, nor is it recognised by or approved of by everyone; it can even be condemned as schizophrenia. Yet that plurality is there, and becomes abundantly clear when one takes the time to walk through Ukraine’s memory scapes. If one positions oneself judiciously, it is perfectly possible to hear, and appreciate, multiple songs.

First published on historians.in.ua, 28 September 2012: http://historians.in.ua/index.php/avtorska-kolonka/392-uilleam-blacker-memory-and-language-in-ukraine-some-reflections-on-a-recent-journey. Thanks to the organisers of the ‘Violence and its Aftermath’ summer school in Zhytomyr for arranging the tour of Berdychiv mentioned in this piece.


  1. I'm not sure I would agree that Lviv preserves its multilingual past. The cafe you've pictured spelled "cafe" wrong in Yiddish....I'd say that there's a token use of languages designed for advertising. And in working in some of Lviv's archives, I've been told that "Jewish" materials (and materials in Yiddish) are not available because the archive is Ukrainian....

  2. The picture shows old Polish inscriptions, and I don't think that modern 'caffe' above the door is meant to be Yiddish. These signs, here in Polish but elsewhere in Yiddish and German, are from the pre-war period, and are being deliberately uncovered and preserved all over the city centre (I have a whole file of photos). In most cases there is no clear commercial use. What exactly this means is open for discussion, but I think at the very least it represents an acknowledgment of the multi-ethnic past as in some way desirable and positive.

  3. No no, it's not Yiddish, but the same cafe has a Yiddish sign as well (its the one on Serbska and Pl Rynok, right?). I like the "ghost signs" that are being uncovered--a friend and I are working on a project to translate all the ones we find--and I agree that their uncovering represents a positive orientation to the multicultural past, but everything new I've seen in Yiddish in Lviv is misspelled and for commercial purposes.

  4. This sounds like a really interesting project, would you be able to send me more details, possibly by email? ub217@cam.ac.uk Thanks!

  5. First time here...u have nice space and really inspirational stuff... I'll be back soon.


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