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War monuments and memorials

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For a few years now I have been working on an ambitious project on the history of Soviet war memorials. I focus primarily on the hitherto neglected 1940s-1960s, as well as on the post-Soviet period. However, I also trace continuities that go back to late imperial Russia, and propose a new perspective on the supposedly uniform war monuments of late socialism.

My research aims to revise the stereotype of a commemorative culture that has variously been described as managed directly from Moscow, or as completely suppressed by a totalitarian state. Instead I propose a nuanced perspective that distinguishes between different logics, actors, intentions, and conditions of war monument construction and portrays the Soviet Union as part of a global continuum of commemorative practices rather than a totalitarian outlier.

Instead of limiting myself to a small number of case studies of well-known memorials, as has often been done, I try to study the different contexts of monument construction in different parts of the Soviet Union and beyond, not least because one and the same actors were often involved in building monuments in different parts of the country and in the satellite states. Even in late Stalinism, war monument construction was—in practice—much less strictly regulated and centrally orchestrated than has often been assumed based on the proclamations of institutions in Moscow. The initiators ranged from former Soviet prisoners of war, Holocaust survivors or residents of incinerated villages via army units or individual army engineers, conservationists, and sculptors all the way to members of the republican or central party leadership with a particular penchant for war monuments. By consequence, monuments came in a broad range of shapes: from individual grave markers—often improvised and sometimes featuring religious symbols—via anonymous mass graves and soldiers’ cemeteries to tank monuments and memorial complexes. The logics of construction also ranged widely: from decrees issued by the central authorities, with activities monitored by the state and party bureaucracy, via direct personal control by individual powerful figures or patronage networks, to grassroots initiative “from below.” And finally, the motivations for building monuments were no less diverse, including considerations of logistics and hygiene; mourning and triumph; geopolitical claims; patriotic education of young people and especially new and prospective army recruits; showcasing new building techniques, etc.

In my extensive travels I have seen some of the variety of Soviet war memorials in both urban and rural settings in a number of countries and regions first hand. I have also tried to systematically collect local publications on the history and present uses of the monuments. The main focus of my research, however, has been in archives: on research visits and occasionally with the help of local correspondents, I have collected archival sources in central and provincial archives in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Estonia, and Georgia, as well as Poland, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

One core theme of my research concerns the monuments’ materiality and the political economy of their construction. Previous research has typically treated war and other monuments as symbols in a narrative that can be “read” like any other text and whose signifiacnce is defined by their design and inscriptions. In the Soviet case in particular, however, materiality is a crucial part of the story. For one thing a monument’s lifespan—trivially—depends on the materials used. Many early monuments from the 1940s and even the early 1960s no longer exist because they were made of insufficiently weatherproof materials such as wood, soil, or plaster, reinforcing the widespread misconception that no monuments were built after the war. Even more importantly, in the Soviet planned economy whether or not a monument could be built depended on access to scarce building materials as well as studio and production space and transportation. This was true at all levels: from small monuments built on village or small town residents’ own initiative using a tractor load of bricks or cement all the way to large complexes such as the memorials in Berlin or Volgograd, where direct intervention by political or military leaders (such as Vassilii Sokolovskii, Ivan Chuikov, and especially Kliment Voroshilov) secured access to granite, bronze, or concrete, but also studios and railway carriages.

So far my research on these aspects has mostly drawn on two groups of archival sources.

On the one hand I have been tracing the patronage network around Kliment Voroshilov which, between the 1920s and 1960s, dominated artistic production on military themes in the Soviet Union and, since 1945, also in East Central Europe, with direct intervention by Voroshilov often proving decisive in allocating the required resources. My sources come from Voroshilov’s personal archive in the Moscow RGASPI, the archive of painter Mitrofan Grekov at the RGALI, numerous documents on individual built or projected monuments from the GARF, and from published memoirs. I have also worked in Ukrainian archives to view sources that document this network’s influence on monument construction in the Ukrainian SSR, as well as direct petitions to Voroshilov to support monument construction projects and settle funding request or disputes. In a regional case study, I have also worked with sources in the rural Gomel region in southeastern Belarus relating to monument construction in both cities and the countryside.

On the other hand I am the first scholar to have systematically studied the archive of Monumentskul’ptura in Leningrad—the only foundry in the Soviet Union capable of producing monumental (larger-than-life) bronze figures. Since its creation in 1937, Monumentskul’ptura was in charge of casting most major bronze monuments, such as the famous bronze soldiers in Berlin-Treptow and Tallinn. The foundry’s archive sheds light on the material and logistical conditions under which monuments, large and small, were produced. Thus in 1945 the Red Army’s Karelian Front commissioned a massive bronze plaque for a memorial complex in the northern part of the Leningrad region that it had built using its own resources and labor. The foundry accepted the commission on the condition that the clients would supply the bronze, transportation, and soldiers as manpower. In order to cover its operating costs, Monumentskul’ptura was also expected to secure supplementary commissions in addition to fulfilling the plan, which explains why the foundry liked to accept smaller orders from enterprises and other organizations across the country.

As additional case studies for my research on the materiality and political economy of monument construction I am studying the L’viv Sculpture and Ceramic Factory (the biggest of the new izokombinaty created in the Soviet Union’s newly acquired territories after WWII on the basis of existing studios) and the Berlin-based Noack Foundry, which cast bronze statues for the Soviet military administrations not only in eastern Germany but also in Poland.

Concerning the post-socialist period, I have looked in detail at the creation of Russia’s new national cemetery, the Federal Military Memorial Cemetery near Moscow. One important and intriguing aspect I studied are global connections: on the one hand the globalized production process in which patriotic monuments for Russia’s national cemetery are created in China, and on the other hand the export of design principles and production processes characteristic of socialist realism via North Korea to African and Asian countries such as Namibia, Zimbabwe, Senegal, or Laos, whose national monuments and cemeteries in recent years have been built by the Pyongyang-based Mansudae Art Studio, founded by an artist who had studied in Moscow in the 1950s.

In addition I have studied the fate of Soviet war memorials across the world since 1989/91, reviewing the whole range of ways in which they have been treated, from demolition or removal via rededication or new construction all the way to artistic reinterpretation.

This page lists my published work on these themes. I am currently working on long papers on the materiality of Soviet monument construction; on the patronage network around Kliment Voroshilov; and on Stalin monuments in the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet period, as well as a large-scale quantitative study of the representation of monuments in Soviet and post-Soviet history textbooks in all the republics of the (former) USSR. Many of my publications on the past and present of war commemoration also discuss monuments and their uses.

To make this page easier to navigate for English speakers, English-language publications are presented in gray.

Umkämpfte Erinnerung – Kriegsdenkmäler in der Ukraine. Natascha Freundel im Gespräch mit Mischa Gabowitsch und Alona Karavai. RBB, 22.6.2023

Mykola Homanyuk & Mischa Gabowitsch: Monuments in Times of War: Soviet and Post-Soviet War Memorials in Russian-Occupied Ukraine since February 2022. Conference “Politics of Memory and the Identity of the Nations,” Vienna Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences, May 2023
Icons of Immortality, Pictures of Patriotism: Images of War Memorials in 450 Soviet and Post-Soviet Textbooks. Institute of Human Sciences (IWM), Vienna, 26 April 2023
Soviet War Memorials in Ukraine, 1943-2022. Contribution to the discussion “Decoloniality in Ukraine: Is there Still a Place for Soviet Soldiers in Historical Memory?” – Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, December 2022
„Der Umgang mit sowjetischen Kriegsdenkmälern seit dem Ende des Kommunismus“, Europäisches Geschichtsforum, 18.5.2021. Click here for a version with simultaneous interpretation into English.