[Workshop] The Political Cult of the Dead in Ukraine: Traditions and Dimensions from Soviet Times to Today

09.07.2015 - 2015-07-11

Historical research on the political cult of the dead has gained increased attention in the past twenty years. Three important reasons stand out in that regard:

  • societies showed a growing awareness of their relation to experiences of war and violence in the 20th century,
  • nation and state building and in particular the cult of political leaders have become a focal point of historical research, and
  • research on cultures of memory and sites of memory flourished among cultural historians.

In the 1990s path breaking works on the political cult of the dead were published by the American historian George Mosse (1918-1999) and the German historian Reinhart Koselleck (1923-2006), focusing on Western Europe and in particular on French and German traditions from the 18th century on.

More recently historians of Eastern Europe and Russia have taken up the topic as well although so far in a more sporadic manner. Related research has concentrated largely on the political cult of political leaders, e.g. of Lenin, Stalin or Piłsudski, or on the cult of the fallen soldiers of World War II and its political use by the socialist regimes after 1945. Only very rarely scholars took up other topics. Our conference originates in historical research conducted within the international research program ‘Region, Nation and Beyond. A Transcultural and Interdisciplinary Reconceptualization of Ukraine’, directed by Prof. Ulrich Schmid (University of St. Gallen, Switzerland). It aims at exploring the political cult of the dead in Ukraine in its regional, national and transnational dimensions from Soviet times to today.

Historical research on the political cult of the dead investigates primarily practices of veneration and public commemoration of political leaders and soldiers, less of the civilian population. Historically, the death of the soldier has caused and called for the question of the political legitimacy of a given political order. Modern societies, nations and their public expect to obtain an answer to the question why “their” soldiers have fallen.

Four general assumptions guide our interest and have a rather hypothetical character:

First, a cult of fallen soldiers exists in Ukraine, in difference to some other European countries as e.g. in Germany. It has largely developed within the Soviet context and has focused on Soviet political leaders and on the fallen soldiers of World War II. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union attention also has been given to the fallen soldiers of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Of major political relevance is the recent cult of the ‘Heroes of Nebesna Sotnya’ of Maidan square and the fallen soldiers of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Among the many regional forms of the political cult of the dead in post-Soviet Ukraine the cult of the fallen soldiers of the Polish-Ukrainian war of 1918 in Western Ukraine and the Bandera cult stand out. Both cults most probably emerged as counter-cults and originate partially in the interwar period. The emergence and changes of these cults should be a relevant topic of our conference.

Second, the conference attempts to challenge the strict division in historical research between the political cult of the dead and the commemoration of the ‘fallen’ civilian population. Did civil death not trigger questions of political legitimacy? How to separate different forms of political legitimacy?

Third, important specifics of the political cult of the dead in Ukraine are related to peculiar historical developments of Ukraine, above all to Ukraine’s nation and state building process and its religious diversity. The peculiar nation and state building process explains the hostile coexistence in Ukraine after 1991 of a cult of the Soviet soldier and a cult of Stepan Bandera. However, regional historical research points to plural and transnational cultural forms which can be either qualified as a particular “wealth” or as a deficit of cultural-national unity. The visual language of memorials, ritual practices and different answers to questions of political legitimacy testify the regional diversity.

Fourth, the universal trend of individualization of commemoration can also be observed in Ukraine. Little booklets with commemorative texts and images of the fallen Ukrainian soldiers of the Soviet war in Afghanistan exemplify this process in post-Soviet Ukraine. However, its emergence and development over political caesurae have to be explored in more detail. The veneration of the ‘Nebesnya Sotnya’ might be a suitable case in that regard as well, a process which was closely related to a symbolism of collective sacrifice for the nation and which presents a major new political founding myth of Ukraine.

The conference has five sections: I. The political cult of the dead: the concept in the context of the history of Ukraine, II. The Soviet legacy in different regions of Ukraine, III. The impact of the neighbor countries on Ukraine, the impact of Ukraine on its neighbor countries, IV. Commemorating the fallen soldiers of the Soviet war in Afghanistan after 1991, V. The ‘Heroes of Nebesna Sotnya’: The Maidan as a new political founding myth of Ukraine.

Conference language will be English.

The Graduate School of East and South East European Studies at LMU Munich is co-organizer of the conference.

Please contact Boris Ganichev for organizational questions.

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