Honouring the Dead: With a Torchlight Procession. And an update on the revolutionary everyday.

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Photo from http://firtka.if.ua/?action=show&id=48465, which outlines the route of the procession through the city centre and suggests the number of participants was ‘close to a hundred’. This longer video suggests the number of participants, and torches, was significantly higher. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bUAwnKqa4U0

Yesterday evening (28 Feb 2014), around 6:50 p.m., I was walking through the city centre along Sichovych Striltsiv Street and became aware that I could hear a crowd shouting or chanting. I thought that perhaps a rally was being held, this being a now-traditional time for gathering, on the original site of Euromaidan protests in the city – on Vichevyj Maidan, by the post office. However, when I reached a corner and could get a view of that square, I could see that a torchlight procession was taking place. Having eaten nothing but dry crackers since Tuesday owing to food poisoning, I thought – briefly – that my mind was playing tricks. Although I couldn’t track the procession yesterday, I understood correctly that it would head to the Memorial Square, where an Ivano-Frankivsk student, Roman Huryk, who was killed on Maidan in Kyiv, is buried. (See my previous post on that.)

Ukrainian funeral and mourning traditions are regionally and ethnographically diverse, and some do involve lighting torches, although not in mass numbers and then marching through a city with them while chanting slogans (more on those below). The associations of this march with a tradition in Nazi Germany are clear not only to me, but also to numerous people who have commented in social media on this march. The comments on the post about it on Typical Frankivsk’s VK page is insightful, as are the comments under the Firtka article.

Ukrainian funeral and mourning traditions include long-term, public mourning, including wakes held 40 days after a death, as well as marking a death again on the ninth day afterwards, which was the purpose of this torchlight procession. It is clear that the population of Ivano-Frankivsk would want to mark the death of local-student Roman Huryk and others from the region, Ukraine and beyond killed on Maidan, although public opinion – as far as it can be gauged from these comments – suggests that including a torchlight procession was not the wisest option.

More pragmatic responses to the torchlight procession in the city suggest that candles would have been a better option and there was no need for someone to consciously prepare dozens, perhaps hundreds, of torches for parading through the city. Other pragmatic or strategic responses suggest that this was not the right time to hold such a procession (implying that it might be ok in future – after all, Svoboda have in the past few years been holding torchlight processions around the country in honour of dead Ukrainian heroes). The main concern in such responses is the current context of Crimea where a military confrontation is brewing as the peninsula is held by Russian or Russian-backed forces.

Responses worrying that this is the wrong time are concerned for the perception of western Ukraine, which is framed in Russian media stereotypically as a region of fascists, Nazis and “banderites” (Bandera/ UPA/ OUN supporters) and nationalists. Thus, there is a fear that such processions can simply provide evidence for such stereotypes which, it is believed, also prevail in more pro-Russian parts of eastern Ukraine. A typical response to this appears to be that Ukrainians in their own country shouldn’t need to be concerned about what Russians or anti-Ukrainians think, as they are free to mark their dead heroes as they see fit. I’ve yet to read or hear a denial that this is not a National Socialist inspired form of marking the dead or making a statement. Either there is among some of those approving of this torchlight procession ignorance of the associations of this form of march, or there is no sense of shame attached to it.

What is clear, however, is that what could have been a march to honour the memory of Roman Huryk and others killed on Maidan, has not received any extensive media coverage. Firtka focused on the torchlight procession aspect, while no other local media, usually quick in updating their sites with local news and commemorative actions, have even mentioned the march. It seems that there is ambivalence towards this form, with coverage of the protest not possible without drawing attention to the torchlight procession. Editors are clearly showing restraint, perhaps fearful that this march could be used to validate the stereotype of western Ukraine.

It is clear, however, even from the video on YouTube of the procession that not everyone was carrying a torch, thus not everyone was necessarily aligned to whichever organisation thought they were a necessary accessory. This was supposed to be a general, civic march in honour of the memory of the dead. In the video, you can see priests leading the procession, followed by a marching band, then a crowd with numerous torches, but not held by all. (The role of the priests here becomes an interesting comment on this article from the Polish press, featuring the archbishop of Ivano-Frankivsk, proclaiming the Church’s important, key role in the Maidan. It should be borne in mind that this was the city of Andrey Sheptytsky.) In the video you can hear the following slogans:

Honour and Glory to the heroes of Stanislav.

Glory to Ukraine/ Glory to the Heroes.

Glory to the Nation/ Death to the Enemies.

Ukraine/ Above All.

Heroes Never Die.

At the end of the video, the Lord’s Prayer is chanted.

The first slogan has been fairly common place in the city, reflecting upon the memory of local heroes, using one variant of the pre-1962 name of the city. The second slogan is the most prevalent not only in the city but now in the Maidan movement, regardless of affiliations. It is used in parliament, it has become a commonplace greeting on the stages at rallies around the country, while it has also been chanted at a Georgia-Russia rugby match and at a CSKA-Spartak ice hockey match in Moscow in support of Ukraine. The third slogan, Glory to the Nation/ Death to the Enemies marks something of an escalation in the arms race of nationalist markers. As Glory to Ukraine/ Glory to the Heroes becomes commonplace, this is – I believe – is now the marker of the ideological nationalist. This also applies to Ukraine Above All, which also seems to have fairly obvious connotations. ‘Heroes Never Die’ has been chanted at funerals by crowds around the country.

2014-02-24 13.42.25

An Italian/Mexican pizza restaurant in Ivano-Frankivsk bearing the slogan, ‘Glory to Ukraine/ Glory to the Heroes’.

Why has there been an arms race in slogans or nationalist identification, and what suggests the normalisation of the nationalist greeting Glory to Ukraine/ Glory to the Heroes (Слава УкраїніГероям СлаваFrankivsk (Bunker), require you to respond on the door to gain entry. However, it has been possible to mumble something vague or just one person in your party to reply in order to access the places. With the events of Euromaidan, however, the greeting has become commonplace, entering workplaces, greetings between friends, as well as becoming ubiquitous at rallies.

It is understandable why in light of the mass killings and tragic situation in Ukraine why this has happened. Equally, it is clear why nationalist symbolism has become widespread in the course of the revolution. However, there is also a sense that the Glory to Heroes slogan/greeting is also used unthinkingly, becoming visible when an affront is committed against this new everyday ritual. Such affront can be caused by a foreigner refusing to respond as “required”. Indeed, in one workplace I was asked – before the mass killings took place – what I do when greeted with the slogan. I suggested that the response ‘Heroyam slava’ sounds quite like ‘heroine’s lover’, which was an attempt to deflect the conversation. (Before the revolution I also had a tactic of deliberately mixing up non-typical Ukrainian greetings – so to ‘Slava Ukraini’ I would respond ‘Voistino voskres”, which means ‘He truly resurrected’, which is part of the Easter greeting tradition.)

Now, at a time when such play is inappropriate, I generally give a nod, a handshake, or a vague mumble, although there is evidently an affront felt particularly in the company of strangers. What is hard to communicate is that my intent is not an affront to those who have newly joined the pantheon of Ukrainian heroes, the ‘Heavenly Hundred’ (Небесна Сотнія), or even to the Ukrainian nation. It is simply an attempt to remain aware – even at times of heightened emotion – a sense of the historical significance that this slogan carries, what and who it has represented in the past, including values and actions that I cannot accept (both for family reasons and out of a an ethical position). The same stands for torchlight processions. More people, though, seem to be aware of what they are associated with than the everyday slogan.

What is noticeable is that in the very first days of what became Euromaidan, organisers and activists in the civic protests were suggesting alternatives to the then popular chant ‘Whose not jumping is a Moskal” (a Muscovite). And it had an effect.  However, that was in the days of the initial civic protests, which generally seemed to have been an upsurge of popular frustration and desire, as well as an indication of an unexpectedly vibrant although still fragmented and developing civil society in Ukraine. Nationalist symbols and organisations were evident, but not dominant, and seemed to largely indicate a kind of mobilising populist patriotic nationalism. Since the protests turned violent and fatal in Kyiv, nationalist-leaning organisations have become more prevalent and this is evident now in the city in terms of who and what is visible on the city streets as the face of protests and Euromaidan.

While defenders of the torchlight procession have suggested that people are free to mourn the dead and express their feelings as they wish, and that such a protest does not break any laws, this fails to explore the question of who has power over the city’s streets. Currently, as the various roadblocks and the Self-Defence/ Pravy Sektor-police patrols of the city’s streets suggest, it is the organisations who have fought and are prepared to fight who are given authority and become the public face of the post/pre-post-revolutionary city, as well as legitimacy for the future. This is not to say that the entire city has turned nationalist. Far from it. The everyday revolution continues.

Market-stall holders on the central market, previously in the hands of a Party of Regions figure, are now renting their stalls from the city which took control of the market. The stall-holders staged a protest and won out. Locals involved in a dispute with a garage cooperative also won their battle. This is all part of a general realisation that the biggest difference to everyday lives will be made by taking action against corruption which previously was largely treated as a necessary evil. Passports are now being issued according to regulations, rather than with extra payments required, while there is a widespread call for avoiding giving bribes in any situation. Even Women’s Day, 8 March, has been targeted – with parents asked not to give teachers presents, as is usual, and instead donate the value of any intended gifts to support those injured and the families of those killed on Maidan.

My fear, however, is that those organisations – Pravy Sektor, the Church and whoever else – who claim to have done the most for Maidan, measured in the number of deaths suffered or the level of spiritual inspiration purported to have been instilled in the people, will – as is already becoming evident – demand greater representation in the new structures of power. They will do so in the name of the people, claiming to represent them and speak for them, and thus claiming the right to seek policies in accordance with the organisations’ views. Speaking in the name of a singularly imagined people or nation, this will likely forget the disparate, diverse nature of Ukrainians (and others) who first came onto the squares of Ukraine in November.

9 thoughts on “Honouring the Dead: With a Torchlight Procession. And an update on the revolutionary everyday.

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