On one of the great hills of Kyiv stands a colossus with sword and shield in hand. Her massive shield defends the country and her sword pierces the sky above the city. This is the Motherland Monument, a gigantic statue celebrating the Soviet victory in World War II. This statue stands taller than the Statue of Liberty and her base houses the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War. My visit to this museum, as part of my included cultural program with my SRAS/Novamova study abroad program in Kyiv, was of special interest to me as a historian for its perspectives on how Ukrainians interpret their complicated history.
During World War II, Ukrainians were divided, most were fighting for the USSR, but others chose to fight for the Nazis. This fact was highlighted throughout the museum as the main tragedy of World War II for the Ukrainian people. Although most histories of WWII in Eastern Europe focus extensively on the Jewish Holocaust, and although Ukraine lost most of its Jewish population at this time, with 1.3 million killed and 850,000 fleeing, this museum chooses another focus, the brutalization of Ukraine as a whole as it was caught between two great waring empires.
The focal point is thus how Ukrainian citizens were treated by the Soviets and Nazis. There was a large emphasis on the scorched earth policy adopted by the Soviets as the Nazis began to invade the USSR.
This policy saw agricultural land, infrastructure, and strategic positions burned or otherwise destroyed as the Red Army retreated so that the Nazis could not use them. This had a devastating effect on the Ukrainian people as they were taken over by the Nazis and left with nothing but ashes by the Soviets.
The museum goes on to show the atrocities of the infamous concentration camps but with an emphasis on the plight of the Soviet prisoners of war. The museum showcases several gut-wrenching torture devices used against the Soviet POWs. The Nazis’ treatment of prisoners of war was truly atrocious but no better fate awaited Red army soldiers who surrendered or deserted or who escaped the Nazis after capture and returned home. These soldiers, the museum shows, were sent to the Gulag. This captures the plight of the Ukrainian people in World War II perfectly. They were simply damned if they did fight the Nazis and damned if they did not. This is the tragedy that the museum aims to portray.
It also houses a new exhibition of artifacts from the war in Donbass. This goes a step further to highlight the division of the Ukrainian people by showing the separation that exists to this day. The exhibit details the battles and has artifacts such as helmets, flags, and even one of the ambulances used during the fighting. It is truly chilling to see these artifacts knowing they once belonged to a soldier on the frontlines who lost his or her life to defend Ukraine. The exhibit plays well into the theme of division as it captures Ukrainians fighting Ukrainians in the present day as well as during World War II.
The National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War is truly a must-see attraction in Kyiv. It is a sobering experience to see just how Ukraine was affected in the Second World War. When we think of World War II, especially for Americans, we instantly think of Pearl Harbor and the Holocaust, about a battle of right forces against wrong. However, the reality on the ground in Eastern
Europe was dizzyingly complex, with almost no path to a happy survival, and with long-lasting consequences for the local population. As Ukraine strives to establish its own identity after what it sees as decades of occupation, this museum reminds us of Ukraine’s unique history, which is both intertwined with the USSR’s and individual.