ARCHIVES Danyliw Seminar 2014
Maidan and Civil Protests
Women and Men of the Euromaidan:
Revitalizations of the Heroic National Narrative
This paper addresses gender aspects of the Maidan protests by exploring the mechanisms of gender identities' construction and legitimization within the national discourse in contemporary Ukraine. The Ukrainian national grand narrative transformed over the past year in Ukraine, and with it the gender order.
For segments of Ukrainian society and many Maidan activists, the primary historical figures symbolizing victimhood and bravery were members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalities (OUN), the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), and Cossacks. Although Cossacks and the UPA represent different historical periods and are recognized as national heroes to different degrees, still an analysis of the similarities and differences of these figures shows their importance in the construction of national belonging. I will focus on the mechanisms of the mythologization of these groups as an integral part of the current political discourse in Ukraine.
The symbols, slogans and history of the struggle of the OUN, the UPA and Cossacks have received a new academic interest because of the protests on Maidan. Along with Ukrainian flags, the central square of Kyiv was decorated with the symbols and red-and-black flags of the UPA. Representatives of some Cossack organizations joined the protesters and became the security forces of Maidan. The aura of heroism projected by these historical characters contributed to considering them the brightest models for succession. A popular Internet blogger, Arkadii Babchenko, drew direct parallels between the Zaporizhian Sich and Maidan. According to Babchenko, Maidan represented a location that recognized no forms of political power except its own. He emphasized that the cornerstone of the barricades was neither the intellectuals, who went to spend nights at home, nor the students, but rather the “simple men – Cossacks.”
Such historical references established a broader frame of identification for diverse men on Maidan, as well as Ukrainian fighters in the military conflict in the Donbas, who might never have thought of themselves in such clear national terms. These parallels became even more visible at the state level with the decision of Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko to proclaim October 14 a new state holiday: the Day of the (male) Defender of Ukraine.
Seeking to commemorate the courage and heroism of defenders of Ukraine's independence and territorial integrity, military traditions and victories of the people of Ukraine, to promote the patriotic spirit in society and to support public initiative, I resolve to establish a Ukrainian holiday, the Day of Defender of Ukraine, which will be observed annually on October 14.
The official proposal of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance to celebrate this new holiday on October 14, also dedicated to the religious observance of the Intercession of the Virgin Mary, could be understood as the "public initiative" to which Poroshenko referred. The holiday clearly connects to symbolic historical context. The narratives of the two groups of heroes – Cossacks and fighters of the UPA – symbolically intersect in the case of this religious holiday. This is the largest Cossack holiday and celebration of their main patroness, the Virgin Mary; it is also the official foundation day of the UPA. In this way, todayʼs Ukrainian soldiers are seen as official inheritors of the traditions, history and mythology of Cossacks and the UPA.
Attempts to replace the old heroic narrative with a new one have been taking place since the 1990s. These initiatives have been made at a commemorative level as well as at state level. The political party Svoboda was one of the few political parties in Ukraine to explicitly connect with and reinforce narratives of Cossackdom and the UPA in its ideology before the events of November 2013-February 2014. Cossackdom, in contrast to the UPA, was much less relevant to Svoboda’s anti-Soviet and anti-communist rhetoric. The uncompromising attitude towards the glorification of the activities of the OUN and UPA activities made Svoboda one of the most ardent supporters of solidifying a national grand narrative. For Svoboda the model of the Cossack and the UPA fighter represent empowerment, the regeneration of the nation and "true" masculinity.
However, after several months of protests on Maidan, Svoboda was not only forced to share the role of promoter of national ideas, but the party also lost almost all symbolic influence. One would have thought that Svoboda would have taken on the role of the promoter of national symbolism and traditions as a legitimizing basis for nation building and cultural renewal. However, the situation changed radically with the increased violence. The starting point of this brutalization was the forceful dispersion of students and the acceleration of anti-Maidan propaganda, when every kind of protest was presented as “a fascist horde” and “a crowd of bloodthirsty nationalists.” Hundreds of thousands of people who supported the protests suddenly found themselves in the strange situation of being branded with identities with which they were not even familiar before: “nationalists” and “Banderite.”
Such massive anti-Maidan propaganda became decisive in two ways: on the one hand, popularizing the history of Ukraine’s nationalist movement, and on the another, searching for an alternative narrative to replace the Soviet one, still relevant in the post-Soviet period in Ukraine. The new developments encouraged the protestors to search for historical examples of courage and strength, which could reflect the fight for Ukraine's independence. The Cossacks and the UPA served as an obvious choice.
Protestors often instrumentalized old slogans and terms by taking them out of their historical context. The revitalisation of Bandera discourse was not necessarily the result of numerous attempts of Svoboda to establish new heroes of the past. The popularization of new terms like "real Cossacks," "Banderivky" and "Banderivtsi" is connected also to the search for "true" Ukrainian femininity and masculinity in post-Soviet times. It is a kind of neo-traditionalism – that is, harkening back to gender models from Ukraine’s past and offering them as gender ideals for today.
Today's revitalization of the historical characters of the Cossacks und the UPA represents an understanding of a particular gender order. On the one hand, this order highlights the role of gender relations in nation-building; on the other hand, it shows the interplay of gender and national discourse.
Both sexes were assigned attributes to strengthen the national community. While men were characterized by qualities such as self-control, will, dynamism and aggression, women were associated with the preservation of family, giving birth to future fighters, and supporting and inspiring today's male fighters. In particular, this gender order emphasizes patriotic and militaristic manhood and exalted motherhood. The men’s mission is to lead, control and protect; the women’s is the physical and symbolic reproduction of the nation. Such understandings represent not merely differences in normative gender roles, but also unequal social status.
The militarized discourse of threats to the nation, as well as the necessity to combat enemies, assume that it is men who have been assigned the mission to resist all dangers and fight for the future of the nation. Militarism, in this case, works as an effective mechanism to reinforce traditional masculinity. It suggests an understanding of spheres that are not directly connected to warfare – politics, nation-building, business, etc. – as unsafe and dangerous. Their regulation can best be achieved with militaristic values and attitudes, which are traditionally seen as more natural to men.
The dramatic and rapid development of political events in Ukraine has considerably affected the significance and the relevance of militaristic masculinity. The model of the Ukrainian hero-warrior that had initially been promoted as an abstract ideal in the post-Soviet period has received an opportunity for real embodiment by Ukrainian men. This, in turn, has contributed to sharpening gender dichotomy and hierarchy in Ukraine. The contemporary continuity with the OUN, UPA and Cossack periods has brought new meaning to the experience of victimhood and bravery, and militaristic masculinity has acquired new symbolic meaning. Men have received an opportunity to emulate and experience the glory of past Ukrainian heroes.
Olena Petrenko is a Lecturer and PhD Candidate at the Chair of East European History of the Ruhr University, Bochum, Germany. She is writing a dissertation on “Women in the Armed Ukrainian Underground, 1942-1954.” Her research has been supported by grants from DAAD, the German Historical Institute, and the Wilhelm and Günter Esser Foundation.