Politicizing War Memorialization in Soviet and Post-Soviet Sevastopol

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Book Chapter

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The Memory of the Second World War in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia


"The chief thing is the happy conviction that you carry away with you--the conviction that Sevastopol cannot be taken, and not only that it cannot be taken, but that it is impossible to shake the spirit of the Russian people anywhere--and you have seen this impossibility not in the numerous traverses of breastworks, and winding trenches, mines, and guns piled one upon the other without rhyme or reason, as it seemed to you, but in the eyes, the speech, the mannerisms, and in what is termed the spirit of the defenders of Sevastopol."
--Lev Tolstoy

"2014 is in many ways special for Sevastopol, since 230 years ago the city acquired its name by the order of Empress Catherine, in addition, September will mark the 160th anniversary of the beginning of the defense of Sevastopol during the Crimean War. There is also a round date associated with the Great Patriotic War: exactly 70 years ago, the city was liberated from the Nazi invaders. I am sure that 2014 will also be included in his chronicle, in the chronicle of our entire country, as the year when the people living here firmly determined to be together with Russia. Thus, they confirmed their loyalty to the historical truth and the memory of our ancestors. There is still a lot of work ahead, but all difficulties can be overcome together."
--Vladimir Putin

Separated by over 150 years, young soldier-journalist Lev Tolstoy and Russian President Vladimir Putin both discussed in the epigraphs above a trait that made Sevastopol's residents special: a spirit that binds them to the city and their tireless defense of, or desire to unite with, Russia. This persistent image of stalwart defense of Russia and Russians has remained resilient since the Crimea War. It formed a central justification of Putin's illegal---but mostly welcomed---occupation of the city. Observers should not be stunned, however, by Putin's connection between the Crimean War and World War II; the trope of the "two greatest defenses," manufactured in the early days of the Nazi invasion, has been central to Sevastopol's urban biography for decades with surprisingly little variation despite political vicissitudes.

Putin timed his speech (quoted above) in Sevastopol on Victory Day (9 May) 2014, just over two months after the invasion, to coincide with this revival of Russian nationalism. This thrust Sevastopol's history of military feats in service of Russia into the spotlight and redefined Sevastopol---or "City of Glory" in Greek---as a Russian hero city now "liberated" from Ukraine thanks to the demands of local residents. He has continued to link past and present and to draw the connection between Sevastopol and Moscow. In 2019, he laid flowers at the monument to a Crimean War admiral in Sevastopol after the reopening of a memorial complex to both defenses. The next year, following the COVID-19 pandemic delayed Victory Day celebration, he dismissed accusations of occupying the peninsula and asserted that the "people of Crimea have decided to reunite with Russia."

Putin has continued Tolstoy's recognition of the distant past, the need for individual sacrifices, and the link between Russia and Sevastopol. When we study shifting narratives of war memorialization in Sevastopol and elsewhere, we find that commemoration and memorialization of past events teach us more about the time of commemoration than the events to which they refer. The path from Tolstoy to Putin is not a straight one and reflects the pragmatic and political choices of the people promoting war memorialization. After the destruction of 97 percent of the city during World War II, local urban planners rejected Moscow's desire to create a museum city honoring the recent war and instead embedded the city's longer naval heritage into the monuments and place names of the city. As Leonid Brezhnev and the World War II generation rose to power in the late 1960s, so too did the importance of that war in the city's travel guidebooks, which taught visitors and locals alike a revised narrative of the urban biography while still recognizing the centrality of 19th-century heroism. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, guidebooks in this Ukrainian city embraced capitalism and promoted heritage tourism together with beaches and eco-tourism to promote economic development. With Russian occupation of the Crimean Peninsula and the revival of Russian nationalism came yet another shift, returning to the centrality of defense fo the Russian homeland without the participation of Ukrainian forces, as had been the tradition for decades. Throughout these repeated re-scriptings, World War II memorialization has not been able to break away from its 19th-century roots and thus grounds the urban biography in Russian---not Ukrainian or Soviet---history.


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