note on Ukraine’s first ATO Museum

In the course of making notes for material from a seminar on Archaeology in Occupied Territories and in Zones of Armed Conflict, which will be posted next week and the week after, I found images in reports that depicted Ukraine’s first ATO Museum in Dnipro (in Ukrainian, Перший Музей АТО Дніпро; in Russian, Первый Музей АТО Днепр), the Museum of the Anti-Terrorist Operation against acts of destabilisation, invasion and occupation by Russia. It reminded me of formal and informal efforts to memorialise the Revolution of Dignity while it was still under way.

It also reminded me of an exhibition in Kyiv on the Triumph of Man [sic]: Ukrainians who Defeated Gulag or Triumph of a Human: Ukrainian Residents who Defeated GULAG, by the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, the Center for Research of the Liberation Movement in Ukraine, the National Museum and Memorial to Victims of Occupation Regimes, and the State Branch Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), which I saw by chance while I was in Ukraine for the seminar.

The exhibition documented the history of, experience of and resistance to the Soviet Union’s gulag; and it traced the gulag’s lineage through to the Russia Federation’s continuing torture, show trial and unjust imprisonment of people such as ethnic-Russian Ukrainian film-maker Oleg Sentsov, who has been targeted for his resistance to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As noted by sociologist Elżbieta Olzacka, with regard to the ATO Museum experience, such efforts provoke questions about the line between the communication of trauma and the communication of propaganda.

As Olzacka observes, it might be argued that when visitors are intended ‘not only to learn about the evidence and testimonies of the conflict in Donbas, but also to engage in a moral confrontation with the issues of violence, military aggression, as well as with the need and moral right to fight for the defence of the homeland’, it creates an ’emotional narrative that hinders an objective assessment of the events’.

However, equally, it might be argued that histories of violence are indeed histories of perpetrators and victims, as well as more morally ambiguous actors, and experience, empathy and emotion are critical in understanding, learning from and behaving better because of history.

The Triumph of Man. Ukrainians who defeated Gulag. (Exhibition by Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance from 8th May 2019 onwards.)

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