Holidays and Nation-Building in Ukraine
By Allison Abrams
"By analyzing how the post-Soviet Ukrainian state has revised the calendar of holidays and commemorations, we see how the state restructures cyclical practice, the details of historical memory, and the perception of time," stated Catherine Wanner, Senior Lecturer, Department of Anthropology, Pennsylvania State University, at a 20 March 2000 Kennan Institute lecture. The revision of its calendar can be viewed as part of the state's efforts at nation- building. By attempting to foster cultural change the state is actively shaping the daily lives of its citizens. In the lecture, Wanner discussed October Revolution Day, May Day, Independence Day, the reintroduction of religious holidays, and the impact of these commem-orations on the dynamics of nation-building in Ukraine.
Despite being the cornerstone celebration under the Soviet regime, October Revolution Day (7 November) remained a national holiday in post-independence Ukraine. However, 7-8 November were not considered official holidays, but only official rest days. Eventually, ambivalence regarding the holiday prompted a vote in the Verkhovna Rada to determine its continued commemoration. Wanner explained that the holidays survived because legislators were hesitant to eliminate any holiday during a period in which there was already a dramatic decline in the standard of living, as well as many other economic hardships.
Wanner noted that October Revolution Day in post-independence Ukraine was celebrated differently by various factions who engaged in what Kathleen Smith has dubbed "dueling rituals." For example, in Kharkiv in 1998 two key demonstrations took place, one of which was organized by a committee of the Communist party. At the demonstration, "several thousand people listened to speakers condemning the bourgeois-nationalist dictatorship' in power." At approximately the same time, a commemoration was held by the national democrats to call attention to the victims of communist terror.
Wanner commented that similar "dueling rituals" occurred, but on a different level, in L'viv. There was an attempt to replace November 7 with a November 1 commemoration of the founding of the Western Ukrainian National Republic. "By replacing the original Soviet symbolism with an event centered on Ukrainian statehood and the Ukrainian historical experience, they transformed a red anniversary' into a black one." In addition, employees were given the option of working on public holidays and being compensated with an additional day off. Many in Western Ukraine chose to work on November 7-8, in an effort to diminish the importance of these two days.
Eventually, in February 2000, President Kuchma eliminated October Revolution Day from the state calendar. Wanner noted that after defeating the communists in the recent election, Kuchma wished to publicly reject the past and appeal to the West.
Another key Soviet holiday, May Day, is still celebrated in Ukraine. While grandiose displays of military power on this day have ceased, the common traditions of working at the dacha, or simply taking a day off on this date, have not. Wanner noted that while the holiday itself has become meaningless, the individual practices associated with it are not and therefore the state continues to grant rest day status to May Day.
The Ukrainian state has instituted two secular public holidays: Constitution Day (28 June) and Independence Day (24 August). The actual dates themselves are uncontroversial as they relate specifically to the formation of the new Ukrainian state, however the manner in which Independence Day has been commemorated has come under criticism in the past several years. In 1998 and 1999, the festivities included a parade which featured an impressive showing of military hardware, soldiers from all branches of the armed forces, and marching athletes. Military might and athletic prowess, once a Soviet source of pride, are now included in celebrations of the Ukrainian state.
With regard to the Ukraine state's reintroduction of religious holidays and their impact on nation-building, Wanner commented that, "while religion is clearly an important element in reviving traditions and fashioning a national culture--and during the early years of independence the state tried vigorously to establish a national church to mirror the new nation-state--the role of the church in the process of nation-building thus far has been mixed." She noted that religious festivities are not celebrated in the same collective way in the public realm and only by those who adhere to a particular faith, thereby lessening their impact on nation-building. Additionally, the reintroduction of religious holidays increases the difficulties in attempting to incorporate multiple calendars and therefore inadvertently creating holiday marathons.
In reviewing the holidays discussed, Wanner noted that one is surprised by the continued presence of the Soviet past. Wanner also discussed that by using commemoration as a "fractured lens," one can see that the key fractures in society are not linguistically or nationally-based, but rather based on divergent interpretations of Soviet experience.