Commemoration and the Ukrainian Nation

holodomor memorial

Since independence in 1991, Ukraine has endured the struggle to create a cohesive, unified nation. Due to its colonial past, it has strong Russian influences in the east, Polish influences in the west and Austro-Hungarian influences in the south. Kuzio (2001) states that a unified identity is crucial to the successful establishment of a nation. The lack of national identity in Ukraine has led to issues in government, when a pro-Russian President rejected policies to strengthen ties with the West, instead putting pro-Russian policies in place. This caused the Maidan Revolution of 2014, which saw President Yanukovich overthrown and exiled in Russia. The violent resistance of the government against the people during the Maidan Revolution is what made it so successful for the people, as it facilitated a national story of Russian repression on which the new Ukrainian identity could be built. During Maidan dozens of people were killed. They became martyrs, known as the ‘Heavenly Hundred’. The Holodomor also became an important part of the new narrative of victimhood with its perpetrators residing in the Kremlin. Commemorations of the Holodomor and Maidan have developed a Ukrainian identity that exists in contrast to a repressive ‘other’ in the form of the remembered Soviet Union and inherited by the Russian state. By shaping a Ukrainian identity, commemorations are uniting Ukrainians.


Commemoration as Lieux de Memoire

The Holodomor and Maidan have each become, in Nora’s words, a lieu de mémoire, or site of memory, for the Ukrainian community. Nora (1996) describes a lieu de mémoire as a “significant entity, whether material or non-material in nature, which by dint of human will or the work of time has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community” (p. XVII) . As sites of memory become better known and made official by governments, they have a tendency to homogenise varied local memories. Through government intervention, sites of memory may risk becoming what Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983) call “invented traditions”; “traditions” which “appear or claim to be old [but] are often quite recent in origin”. In the case of Ukraine, the goal may be to unite Ukrainians through the construction of a unified national history, which may then evolve into a unified national identity.


Holodomor and Maidan: Constructing a National History

In 2014, when the Maidan Revolution placed Ukraine in the hands of pro-Western politicians, different forms of commemoration appeared, including memorials, museums and national holidays, remembering those who died during Maidan. At the same time, commemorations for the Holodomor, including new monuments, sprung up around Ukraine. This is because the victim narrative of the Holodomor complimented the pro-Western narrative constructed during and after Maidan, as it demonstrated the extent of suffering endured by Ukrainians under Russia rule. Smith (2009) argues that many ideological and nationalist movements originate in elite circles, which rediscover, select and reinterpret existing ethnic symbols, memories, myths, values and traditions, and out of these elements forge the narratives of the nation (p. 101). For Ukraine, the Holodomor narrative, combined with the Maidan narrative, trickled down through commemorations shown in TV and radio broadcasts, newspapers and new media, infiltrating the national consciousness of the general public and shaping the population’s views on its national history.

Since the European Parliament resolution of 23 October 2008 on the commemoration of the Holodomor, the Ukraine artificial famine (1932-1933), it was agreed amongst members of the Ukrainian diaspora that the Holodomor would be commemorated on the fourth Saturday of November each year. While commemorations of the Holodomor have generally been undertaken in small group community settings and run by Ukrainians in the past, these commemorations are increasingly becoming more public (and political). This is the case both in Ukraine and in Western states such as France and Canada, which seek to pull Ukraine out of reach of Russian expansionism. With each passing year since Maidan, there has been an increase in commemorative activity surrounding the Holodomor in Ukraine and the West, while to the east, Russia continues to deny the atrocity. In Paris, a commemoration ceremony for the victims of the Holodomor took place on 19th November 2017. Attending this ceremony were, among others, Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine of European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, Eugene Czolij, President of the World Congress of Ukrainians, Oleh Shamshur, Ambassador of Ukraine in France, as well as members of the Ukrainian diaspora in France. Canada, home to the largest population of Ukrainians outside of Ukraine, hosted a Holodomor Memorial Day on 25th November 2017. Just last year, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced plans to build a Memorial to the Victims of Communism, including victims of the Holodomor. In support of Ukrainian independence, he also said “[t]oday, we also reaffirm Canada’s unwavering support for the people of Ukraine, its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and reforms being undertaken by Ukraine’s government to bring greater security and prosperity to its people.”

Maidan was a major turning point in Ukrainian politics, exacerbated by the annexation of Crimea and the ensuing conflict with Russia. The Heavenly Hundred quickly became a symbol of Maidan; of defending Ukraine against the colonising ‘other’. A small shrine to the fallen protesters in Maidan Square was, in more recent years, developed into a long-term memorial. Last year this memorial was destroyed by a man from Sevastopol in Russian-annexed Crimea. The man was described as a “bastard” and a “monster” by Interior Ministry adviser Zoryan Shkiryak. On the 20th of February each year Ukraine remembers these martyrs with the Day of the Heroes of the Heavenly. They have become symbolic of the struggle for democracy and closer ties to Western Europe. In an analysis of pre- and post-Maidan surveys conducted throughout Ukraine, Kukyk (2016) demonstrated that since Maidan “the very meaning of belonging to the Ukrainian nation has changed, a change most vividly manifested in the increased alienation from Russia and the greater embrace of Ukrainian nationalism as a worldview and, accordingly, as a historical narrative” (p. 607). The following table shows how the sense of belonging has changed across Ukraine since Maidan. It demonstrates a trend towards a more unified pro-European, Ukrainian identity in most areas, except the Russian-annexed Donbas region and some areas of Eastern/Southern Ukraine.

Table 1: Frequencies of answers to the survey question, ‘whom do you consider yourself to be primarily? Indicate one most important answer’, by the region (%)

Table 1

(Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, February 2012 and September 2014)

Looking at symbols of nationalism, the following table demonstrates improved attitudes towards pro-Ukrainian symbols. It is important to note that attitudes towards the Russian language showed significantly little change, as it is generally not viewed as a symbol of Russia due to its high level of integration into Ukrainian everyday life. According to Kulyk (2016), “this perception of the Russian language is very different from that of the Russian state, attitudes toward which, according to the respondents’ declarations, drastically worsened during 2014, particularly among those who primarily consider themselves to be citizens of Ukraine, an identity which the Russian state currently seems to question and in various ways undermine” (p. 600).

Table 2: Frequencies of answers to the survey questions ‘how has your attitude toward the following changed for the last year?’ (%)

Table 2

(Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, September 2014)

Together, these tables demonstrate significant changes in the way Ukrainians view themselves in relation to the world after Maidan. The Heavenly Hundred, the annexation of Crimea and the ensuing conflict with Russia have negatively affected attitudes towards Russia in most parts of Ukraine, while at the same time forming the connective tissue for Ukraine’s newly-formed national identity.



Both the Holodomor and Maidan represent lieux de mémoire of Russian colonisation of Ukraine. Commemoration of the Holodomor and Maidan is being used to construct an ‘other’ in order to strengthen Ukrainian unity. While the Holodomor demonstrates the suffering of Ukrainians at the hands of Russia, Maidan demonstrates the strength of Ukraine in defending its sovereignty. By illustrating Russia as the colonising ‘other’, a united Ukrainian identity is forming with a national tradition of defending Ukrainian sovereignty, exemplified in the heroes known as the Heavenly Hundred.


Image credit



Hobsbawm, E and T Ranger (eds.) 1983, The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kulyk, V 2016, ‘National Identity in Ukraine: Impact of Maidan and the War,’ Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 68, no. 4, pp. 588-608.

Kuzio, T 2001, ‘Identity and Nation-Building in Ukraine: Defining the ‘Other’,’ Ethnicities, vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 343-365.

Nora, P 1996, Realms of Memory: Conflicts and divisions, New York: Columbia University Press.

Smith, AD 2009, Ethno-symbolism and Nationalism, New York: Routledge.