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Article

Social Practices of Using War Memorials in Russia: A Comparison between Mamaev Kurgan in Volgograd and Poklonnaya Gora in Moscow

Russian Sociological Review. 2015. Vol. 14. No. 4. P. 115-128.
Polukhina E., Vanke A.

This paper presents the intermediate results of the research on post-soviet historical memory and soviet war memorials dedicated to the Second World War, known as the Great Patriotic War in Russia. The authors introduce a comparative analysis of a site of memory, lieux de memoir according to Pierre Nora, Poklonnaya Hill where there was no real fighting during the Battle of Moscow in 1941 – 1942, and a place of remembrance, lieux de souvenir according to Aleida Assman, Mamaev Kurgan where, during the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942 – 1943, violent fighting took place.

However, both memorials play particular roles in reproducing and sustaining memory about the Great Patriotic War in Russia. We will reconstruct social practices of using war memorials in Russia through comparing various contexts in which Poklonnaya Hill and Mamaev Kurgan exist nowadays and through analyzing the celebrations of the Victory Day in these locations from the perspectives of ideology, emotionality, geographical symbolism, and spatial differentiations.

Our paper is based on various empirical data. Firstly, we use materials of involved observations and short street interviews conducted by the authors on the 9th of May in 2014 (Victory Day in Russia) at two significant memorials: on Poklonnaya Hill in Moscow and Mamaev Kurgan in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad). Secondly, we analyze documentary and historical sources as well as texts and messages from media and social networks which contain information and public debates on these memorials. Thirdly, we appeal to interviews with experts who work in the historical museums located in these memorial complexes.

Mamaev Kurgan and Poklonnaya Hill are popular and sacred sites in the mentality of Russian people. It can be explained by their symbolic history and spatial structure. Victory Park in Moscow contains many monuments. On the 9thof May people organize prayers, rallies and celebrations there, while Mamaev Kurgan includes not only monuments but also common graves where soldiers killed in 1942-1943 are buried.

Both memorials are similar in thematic and spatial scopes. They translate a heroic discourse about the victory and courage of soviet people, they are national symbols. Female images are used in the main sculptures of both memorial complexes. The Motherland Calls by Yevgeny Vuchetich was constructed in socialist realistic style in 1967 while obelisk with the Goddess Nike by Zurab Tsereteli is characterized by abstractive forms combining religious and civic motives. 

Classical social practices on Victory Day celebrations that honor veterans such as laying flowers and wreaths, participating in mass rallies and folk festivals, are similar in both memorial complexes. Mamaev Kurgan and Poklonnaya Hill are embedded in the space of uncontroversial memory about the Great Patriotic War in Russia. They are the means of constructing and reproducing a united nation. State politics of 2010-s in relation to these war memorials is oriented to sustaining their infrastructures and maximal usage on the 9th of May and other significant national days. The government makes allocations for their reconstruction and restoration. They are regularly represented and promoted in Russian mass media as national symbols.