No to Hurtful Symbols

It was a Russian Soviet soldier who followed the orders of the Soviet government to occupy the Ukrainian territory between 1918 and 1920. This same ...

It was a Russian Soviet soldier who followed the orders of the Soviet government to occupy the Ukrainian territory between 1918 and 1920. This same soldier tortured and murdered 27 Ukrainian university students in the Kruty railway station, in the Kyiv region, as they tried to stop the advance of Soviet Russian Forces into Ukraine.
It was also a Russian Soviet soldier who appeared on the poster that advertised the student-organized Slavic Night that took place on 24 April 2014 at our university. Its aim was to promote the cultures of various countries in and around Eastern Europe. But the agenda of the event and its advertisement made me feel deeply humiliated. The poster advertising the event featured a Soviet soldier in a threatening pose saying, “Are you coming to the slavic night?” The picture came from the well-known propaganda poster from the 1920s, promoting enrollment in the Soviet army. There were more ideologically similar images left on the wall after the event. They were typical of Soviet propaganda, with the standard Soviet colors of red and orange. The second image below is identical to one that was hanging at the event.
The 1920s Soviet propaganda poster to promote enrollment in the Soviet army; the same image was used in the invitation for the Slavic night event. Image 2: ‘Don’t talk – the enemy is listening’ Soviet propaganda theme; the same pictures remained on the wall in the room after the event.
Left: The 1920s Soviet propaganda poster to promote enrolment in the Soviet army; the same image was used in the invitation for the Slavic night event, via. Right: "Don’t talk – the enemy is listening;" the same pictures remained on the wall in the room after the event, via.
The Soviet intervention in Ukraine has a very bitter history. Between 1932 and 1933, Soviet soldiers encircled Ukrainian villages and towns in Eastern Ukraine, cutting off the food supply to those who stood against the newly enforced collectivization policy of the Soviet Union. Various estimates suggest that 7 to 10 million Ukrainians died from hunger in that period, known by Ukrainians as the Holodomor.
Today, the Russian government continues its invasive totalitarian politics in my country. One of my Ukrainian friends who is studying in the United States could not travel home for spring break because her parents were afraid for her safety in Ukraine. My city, Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, has had its mayor shot amid continuing unrest. In the city of Sloviansk, the bodies of a local councilman and a university student were found tortured and drowned in a river. All this would not have happened if the Russian army and pro-Russian activists supported by the Russian government had not escalated the conflict in an attempt to divide Ukraine and annex it by parts.
The images used for the event promote the strong Soviet nationalism and the associated violence toward my country. The first image calls to join and fight for the Soviet army, while the second warns not to speak too much, since the enemy is listening. What was the intention of the person who put up these images? Did that person realize the message behind the pictures? When Russia engages in violence against my country, am I the so-called enemy that the woman in the poster describes? With these posters at the event, do I feel like an equal participant at the show, when my nation is deemed inferior by the Russian army and Russian government-supported activists who defy the territorial integrity of my country and the rights of its people? The militaristic actions of the Russian government are no different from those used by the Soviet Union. The posters misuse the university resources and represent harmful ideology that goes contrary to our university’s values of cultural respect.
Given the current circumstances in Ukraine and history of Russian intervention in my homeland, it was very insensitive to advertise this event with a poster featuring a Soviet soldier. I write this not to criticize any particular individuals, but to criticize symbols which hurt others. The agenda and promotion of the event insulted me and some other Ukrainians at our university, and I appreciate the efforts of the NYU Abu Dhabi staff to moderate a conversation on this issue. The purpose of my writing is to raise awareness of the need to critically examine and counteract messages that spread aggressive attitudes and ignore suffering.
There is no point in arguing that the posters were intended to be provocative to attract attention to the event. It disrespects the immense suffering brought by the Soviet regime. To see images like this advertise an event that is supposed to promote my culture is beyond insulting, given that Russian forces are occupying Ukrainian territory and waging a war of propaganda against my country, infringing on the freedom of Ukrainians exactly as they did in the ‘20s and ‘30s.
It is also insulting to hear that a soldier in one of these posters could be a Ukrainian citizen joining in the efforts of the Soviet Union to fight Nazi occupation during World War II. Here it is very important to separate the ideology from the motives. People fought to protect their homes from the Nazi invasion, but this in no way means that they fought to defend the ideology of the Soviet Union. Moreover, to claim that the soldier represents the unity of Soviet republics is to support the current invasion of Russia in Ukraine, in which the Russian government attempts to appropriate Ukrainian territories by force and belligerent propaganda, breaching international laws on territorial sovereignty and human rights.
The fact that other countries used similar propaganda methods does not justify the use of Soviet propaganda. The context is important, and seeing such symbols in light of the current situation is especially hurtful to me as a Ukrainian. People of other nationalities who were affected by the aggressive tactics of the Soviet Union in their lands may feel the same way as I do.
The Soviet Union lasted for 70 years and left a deep imprint on the lives of several generations. People may have nostalgic feelings about that time. But personal reminiscences should stand separate from the advertisement of ideological symbols. The swastika symbol is prohibited in many countries where it might carry Nazi connotations. However, Soviet symbols, although officially discredited, are still used freely by people who may or may not realize that these symbols can be hurtful for others to see. Just like the actions of the Nazis, the actions of the Soviet government left many families suffering and destroyed whole communities.
Soon, on May 9, 2014, it will be “Den Pobedy,” or Victory Day, which marks the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany. While I agree that every person is free to celebrate what they find important to them, I think that the celebration should not involve any Soviet symbols in any form. I shiver at the possibility that someone would play the Soviet anthem on university premises. Needless to say, this would go against the principles of this university.
May 9 celebrates the victory over the Nazi terror. It is the victory of the people who defended their homes; the event should not entail the symbols of the Soviet government, which, like the Nazis’, represented the oppression and killing of individuals and communities that resisted its ideology. I think that people who promote Soviet symbols or encourage others to promote them are ignorant and disrespectful to the suffering brought upon different societies by the Soviet regime.
I hope that all democratic educational institutions like NYUAD will collectively work to stop the usage of hurtful propaganda such as Soviet symbols within their premises and will strongly engage in educating students on the harm and suffering caused by such symbols.
Anastasiya Oleksiyenko is a contributing writer. Email her at
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