Women’s Faces of Ukrainian Contemporary Memory of World War II


We are currently witnessing and participating in the processes of reinterpreting the history of World War II and the formation of the modern historic narrative in Ukraine. An important aspect of this relevant discourse is the visibility of diverse women’s experiences in World War II.

As exemplified by Kyiv urban space

New focus: Women’s Histories of World War II

The publication of the 2015 collective book of Ukrainian and foreign research devoted to the main forms of female war experiences and women’s participation in WWII[1] made a significant contribution to both the scientific and public discussion of this subject. The next step in this process was the decision made by the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance to make women’s experiences in WWII the main focal point of remembrance in 2016 under the title “War Makes No Exceptions. Women’s Histories of World War II.”[2] This project visually put together the “old” Soviet as well as “new” national heroines but has not yet offered a deeper reflection on their experiences.

At the same time, the official policy of decommunization stipulated in the law since May 2015 has played a major role in the reassessment of certain events and personalities as well as their significance, which includes the officially recognized heroes and heroines of the Soviet time.

Since then, the memory of World War II in Ukraine has often taken the form of a compromise, combining old practices with newer trends. One manifestation of this process is “Ukrainizing” the legacy of the Soviet “Great Patriotic War.” In this approach, the Soviet heroes of World War II who were not involved in Soviet crimes and had a connection with Ukraine remain among the officially recognized heroes of the modern Ukraine.

Trends in contemporary Ukrainian memory policy

One such example is the Soviet heroine of the Ukrainian origin Lyudmila Pavlichenko, celebrated both in Ukraine and Russia, especially thanks to the film Nezlamna (“Unbreakable”; Russian title The Battle for Sevastopol), co-produced by both countries mostly before the Russian aggression in Donbas. The film as a biographical drama does not contradict the official life story of the famous Soviet sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko but does reflect her life without a clear ideological component, which has probably contributed to the film becoming one of the 2015 hits on the Ukrainian big screen.

Another trend in the contemporary Ukrainian memory policy is the glorification of new national heroes mostly done through “rehabilitation” of the personalities stigmatized as enemies in the Soviet times. It concerns primarily the participants of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA).

National historic narrative combines Soviet heritage and old heroes and new figures from the nationalist resistant movement during WWII

In this case we can speak about two parallel processes: inclusion of the Soviet heritage and some of the old heroes on the one hand and of new figures from the nationalist resistant movement during WWII on the other hand into the national historic narrative. But these attempts to combine different and previously even hostile traditions are still lacking a deeper analysis or comparison. Another result of this strategy is that some traditional Soviet forms of commemoration and symbolic representation are now being filled with new national content.

Some important parts of commemorative and decommunization practices are the renaming of streets and the construction or destruction of monuments. The most vivid illustration of different memory sites coexisting in one space is the “mental topography” of Kyiv.

The ideological and visual coexistence of the “old” and “new” tendencies in the commemorative traditions can be illustrated by the creation in 2009 of two monuments to WWII heroines in Kyiv — Tetiana Marcus and Olena Teliha, the participants of the underground movement, Markus on the Soviet side and Teliha on the Ukrainian nationalist side.

Tetiana Markus, a participant of the Soviet anti-Nazi resistance, was executed by the occupants in Babi Yar in 1942. Markus’ figure has an important symbolic meaning, personifying a Jewish woman as a fighter, not as a victim. In 2006 Markus was also awarded the title “Hero of Ukraine,” becoming the only woman to receive this high recognition for her contributions during World War II. Her monument in Babi Yar (sculptor Valerii Medvedev) depicts a young woman clenching her fists in demonstration of courage and hatred of the enemy. This way of heroic representation corresponds to the Soviet iconographic tradition of depicting Zoya Kosmodemianskaya, whose image has become a sort of general pattern for representation of a Soviet woman in the resistance.

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Monument to Tetiana Markus in Babyn Yar


Another type of commemoration can be seen in the first monument to Olena Teliha, constructed in 2009 by Volodymyr Shchur. It is located not in Babi Yar, where she is believed to have been executed in 1942 as a member of the Melnyk wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN-M), but in a place connected to her stay in Kyiv instead. The sculpture of Teliha sitting on a bench highlights her identity as a poet rather than an underground fighter or a martyr. This way of commemoration through the manifestation of the person’s individual features rather than going for the “typical” image of a heroine represents a different, modern approach to the glorification of the war heroines.

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Monument to Olena Teliha (2009)


Competition of memories

The “rivalry” between the two trends in the commemoration of World War II heroines is not just about the visual but also about the political aspect. It has manifested itself in the construction of the second monument to Olena Teliha (by sculptors Ruban and Lypovska), which was opened to the public in February 2017 in Babi Yar next to the street named after the poet and activist herself. This step was not just another contribution to the celebration of Olena Teliha but also a demonstration of the “competition of memories” in Babi Yar as a commemoration site encompassing numerous disjointed monuments on its territory. In this case, Olena Teliha serves as a suitable symbol of the group of Ukrainian nationalists executed by the Nazis. Being a notable part of the complex discourse of the national memory in Ukraine, this monument quickly became an object of the “war of monuments” and was almost immediately vandalized and then cleaned by a volunteer group just as quickly.

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Monument to Olena Teliha in Babyn Yar (2017).


Most female underground fighters have some common features in their sculptural forms, regardless of their political affiliation, connecting them to their Soviet “protagonist” — the figure of the most famous Soviet female war hero Zoya Kosmodemianskaya. Her name and visual depictions were so well-known in the Soviet times that they not only turned her into the main symbol of a Soviet female war heroine but also influenced the visual representation of other heroic women from World War II.

Zoya Kosmodemianskaya is still present in Kyiv memorial space, even though she had no connection with the city in her lifetime. After several acts of vandalism and having been moved to a different location, the monument to Kosmodemianskaya (by Anatolii Kushch) has lost its memorial plaque to vandals and now serves rather as a park sculpture than a commemorative monument. This sculpture is currently located in a little park on the corner of Olesia Honchara Street, which may well be its temporary site on the future way to a museum.

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Sculpture of Zoya Kosmodemianskaya


“Double” monoments depict women and men

Thus, the old traditions in visual forms and symbolic patterns coexist with new trends in the representation of new national heroes, the two influencing each other. As the result some traditional Soviet forms of commemoration and symbolic representation have acquired new national content.

Another current trend, different from the Soviet traditions, is to pay attention to various wartime experiences lived by women, not just the heroic ones. One manifestation of this trend is the creation of “double” monuments depicting a woman and a man with similar wartime destinies together.

The most remarkable example of this approach is the 2013 sculpture “Eternal Love,” dedicated to the story of former Ukrainian forced labourer (Ostarbeiterin) Mokryna Yurzuk and Italian prisoner of war Luigi Pedutto. The monument captures the moment of their meeting as old people after being separated for almost their entire life. The reality of the situation, combined with their love and destinies, places this monument among the most touching manifestations of the human experience connected with World War II. It reflects a certain “cultural turn” and a departure from the perception of women’s wartime experience exclusively through the Soviet dichotomy of heroes vs. victims.

Another example of a double gender-balanced monument is the sculptural pair of two war veterans named “People of the Victory,” created in 2015 by sculptor Oleksandr Morhatskyi.[3] The prototypes of the figures were also real people and WWII veterans — Hero of the Soviet Union pilot Ivan Selifonov and radio gunner Hanna Kolomiitseva. The fact that they were not in any way connected in reality makes the monument lacking its own story somewhat less emotionally impressive than the first sculptural pair.

The female figures are significant not only as monuments to famous heroines; the symbolic roles of female images as embodiments of the Nation or national tragedies carry even more meaning. This kind of female sculptures also goes back to the Soviet tradition with its symbolic figures of the Motherland. The best-known representation of this image is the figure towering over the Museum of the History of Ukraine in WWII. There have been attempts to include it symbolically into the new memory space. The most spectacular visual and performative manifestation of this tendency was the decoration of the figure in the Ukrainian national colors and style.

The figure of “Motherland” decorated with Ukrainian traditional dress

The modern Ukrainian cultural tradition also uses the allegorical female figures with a similar purpose, the most vivid example being the Monument symbolizing Ukraine’s independence on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), the central square in Kyiv. While the visual idea itself goes back to the old iconographic representation of the Holy Virgin, its modern manifestations are already strongly determined by the above-described Soviet tradition to associate the home country, a.k.a. the Motherland, with the female figure of the Mother.

Another important role played by female sculptures is the symbolic personification of national tragedies represented in numerous monuments to the Ukrainian Famine (Holodomor) depicting figures of women or girls. A prominent example is the figure of a young girl situated next to the entrance of the National Holodomor Memorial in Kyiv, as well as the monument to former forced labourers (Ostarbeiters) at one of Babi Yar borders. In this last case, the monument seems to be a generalized portrait of the Ukrainian Ostarbeiters, who were mostly women and girls.

The representation of the national tragedies through the figures of women or especially young girls serves to highlight the emotional effect of the tragedy, emphasizing the delicacy and defenselessness of the whole nation through the figure of a suffering young woman.

In this short overview, we have attempted to show how the female experiences of WWII are becoming visible in the memory space in its literal sense, through the example of Kyiv monuments. We can conclude that the roles of women in World War II are changing not only in the perception and interpretation of the wartime legacy, but also in the urban space and its “mental mapping.” Using the images of women less common in the previous remembrance tradition opens up new opportunities for creative expression and modern interpretation the wartime experience in its numerous forms.

[1] Grinchenko G., Kobchenko K, Kis O., eds. (2015) Central and East European Women and the Second World War: Gendered Experiences in a time of extreme violence (Kyiv: TOV Art Knyha), In Ukrainian. [Ukrainian Title: Žinky tsentralnoji ta Skhidnoji Evropy u Druhij svitovij vijni: genderna spetsyfika dosvidu v chasy extremalnoho nasylstva].
[2] "War Makes No Exceptions. Women’s Histories of World War II". Information materials for the media for 8-9 May 2016 commemoration: http://www.memory.gov.ua/news/viina-ne-robit-vinyatkiv-zhinochi-istorii-drugoi-svitovoi-informatsiini-materiali-dlya-zmi-do-v
[3] The monument to Mokryna and Luigi “Eternal Love” has been created by two sculptors, O. Morhatskyi and H. Kostiuk.