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Aesthetics of Genocide and Politics Pt. 1: Holocaust Envy?

August 23, 2010

If you happen to visit the famous St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery in Kyiv (once destroyed by the religion-loving Soviets and now rebuilt) you will see the following on one of the walls near the entrance:

(Credit: Author)

For those who don’t read Ukrainian or English (odd how you’re reading my blog!) or know immediately what this placard is referring to – it has to do with the Holodomor (or Famine) in which some 2 to 10 million, Ukrainians and other nationalities included, starved to death in Soviet Ukraine in 1932-1933. I have little interest in wading into the debate over whether this tragedy should be called a “genocide” or not on this blog (I can do without death threats from both Ukrainian peasants or Soviet apologists for now), so instead I will simply note the issue is extremely contentious.

(Credit: Author (c))

In the interests of brevity, I’ll simply say that many Ukrainian “nationalists” (those that tend to geographically live in the western side of the country) very strongly believe in calling this a genocide (as did former President Yushchenko), while many living in the other side of the country, who strongly identify with Russia (and speak Russian) happen to think quite the opposite (as do most people in Russia). Since independence in 1991, many groups within Ukraine (and at times, like under Yushchenko, the government too) have pushed to get international bodies like the UN to declare this tragedy a genocide, but so far they failed in this endeavour.

One can find many memorials and exhibitions regarding the Holodomor throughout Ukraine. What is interesting to me, and at times confusing and provocative, is the language and aesthetics through which this push to recognize the Holodomor as a genocide is articulated. This little poster memorial on one of the most famous churches in all of Ukraine is no exception. My main interest in this picture is the use of the star and the barbed wire.

The star is meant to reference to the Soviet red star and it’s position over Ukraine is obviously meant to demonstrate its captivity to Soviet power. In short, we have Soviet domination – Soviets like red stars – so all is fine, no? But not so fast. We need to keep in mind a few points here. First, many in Ukraine try to articulate the need for their genocide to be recognized by noting how the Jews, the ultimate victims in all of history, “have their own genocide,” so “we the Ukrainian victim-state must have our genocide too” (yes, I’ve had people say this to my face). In many instances, even in a well-intentioned matter on occasion, they use the Holocaust as a barometer for how and why the Holodomor should be a genocide and remain on parity with the Holocaust (to occupy the same discursive space if you’d like). Even more extreme are those who like to argue, often times in defense of accusations that Ukrainians aided in the extermination of the Jews (actually true), that the “Jewish” Bolsheviks perpetrated their own genocide against Ukrainians, namely the Holodomor (a nod to some perverted logic along the lines of: “so the genocide math cancels it all out and everyone can be friends now!”) With this in mind, the use of the red star, which often itself is conflated and/or confused with the Star of David, especially here in Eastern Europe, certainly makes this a much more provocative design. Whether the authors knowingly intended some double meaning in which they are either a) quietly referencing the Holocaust because they think the Holodomor is equivalent or b) surreptitiously noting the fact that many Jews were Bolsheviks and the Bolsheviks killed Ukrainians (on the walls of a church, no less) is not actually the point — the point is they know this double meaning exists and remains palpable in Ukraine — yet despite that they went ahead with the design and its placement in such a prominent place anyway.

As for the barbed wire I have less sympathy and analysis. The barbed wire is an obvious allusion to concentration camps, which to my knowledge is from where it originally gained its aesthetic currency. One does not have to look hard for its use with the Star of David in Holocaust matters. Just a few that took me five seconds to find:

If barbed wire in matters of genocide is a blatant reference to concentration camps and Ukrainians knows this, why exactly is this relevant to the Holodomor? Many people were starved to death. They were not put in concentration camps surrounded by barbed wire. Sure, some will note how the Soviets deported many Ukrainians to Siberia where they were put into the infamous gulags — that is true, but there were no concentration camps during the Holodomor making the overt Holocaust connotations confusing. Here is another similar representation by an Australian-Ukrainian artist.

In the end, it’s sad because such depictions, whether they be true provocations or simply, unartful sampling, actually do nothing to help what supposedly is their main cause: recognize the victims of the famine as victims of genocide. Ukrainians may think conflation may be a useful tactic in the dialogue of politics and genocide, but it serves no real function among the sane and educated in the West and it will never further their cause. When comparisons are made, they need to be done in a very erudite and constructive environment, often by professionals who understand the politics and history that go along with them. Genocide and all the sadness, pain and controversy it carries, is a powder keg always ready to blow. Until many in Eastern Europe realize that genocide is not a game of competing victimhoods, then little progress will be made in healing the wounds of the 20th century.

As for the use of the word “inquisition” by a Church, well I’ll just leave that one alone altogether. I’ll do a second part on the next Holodomor memorial in my next posting.

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