Remediating violence: Second World War memory on Wikipedia
The article examines how memory of past violence is remediated online and how its remediation interacts with contemporary collective traumas in post-socialist countries. For this purpose, it examines how a single episode of the Second World War – the Battle of Kyiv of 1943 – is represented and interacted with on Wikipedia. Using web content analysis, the article traces the evolution of narratives of past violence in different language versions of the encyclopedia and explores how the current conflict in Ukraine affects the refashioning of Second World War memory in digital media.
Remediating violence: Second World War memory on Wikipedia
The impact of remediation – that is, the process of refashioning existing media formats in new media (Bolter and Grusin 1999, 45) – on individual and collective remembrance is one of the trending subjects in the field of memory studies.1 Mass media play a key role in representation of the present and the past alike, as the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann noted (Luhmann 2000, 102). Instead of being ‘passive and transparent conveyors of information’ (Erll 2008, 3), they set the agenda for current and future acts of remembrance and determine how the past is represented and understood. Consequently, the transition of memories between different media has significant impact on the dynamics of remembrance, which, as memory scholars Astrid Erll and Ann Rigney note, is increasingly dependent on media technologies and circulation of media products (Erll and Rigney 2009, 3).
The growing interest towards remediation of memory has resulted in a number of academic works that examine interactions between digital media and traumatic memories in the post-socialist states.2 The importance of this particular area is related to the disproportionate politicization of culturalremembrance that leads to frequent ‘memory wars’ (Blacker, Etkind and Fedor 2013) among the regional actors as well as the significant impact of digital media on transformation of the local memory landscape (Rutten and Zvereva 2013). Remediation of the traumatic past – in particular, Second World War memory – has also became intertwined with media coverage of the Ukraine crisis, which started in 2013 with anti-government protests in Kyiv that led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, followed by the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the conflict between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian insurgents in Eastern Ukraine, often known as the war in Donbass. A number of scholars (Gaufman 2015; Siddi 2017) note extensive use of Second World War memory for explaining and interpreting the crisis on mainstream and digital media. However, until now the impact of current collective traumas, such as the war in Donbass, on the remediation of past violence in the region remains remains a pressing but understudied subject.
The article addresses this shortcoming by examining how a single Second World War episode – the Battle of Kyiv of 1943 – is represented and interacted with on Wikipedia. Not only is this episode an important milestone in the Second World War, it is also a recurring source of historical controversy between Ukraine and Russia. By exploring how traumatic memories of this event are conveyed on Wikipedia, which is both the world’s largest online encyclopedia and one of the most popular websites in the post-socialist space,3 this article strives to trace the evolution of narratives of past violence online and to explore how the current conflict in Ukraine affects the remediation of Second World War memory in the post-socialist countries.
Wikipedia and cultural memory: literature review
Remediation of war memories is not a recent phenomenon and can be traced back at least to the middle of the 19th century, when the media coverage of wars and conflicts was increasingly adapted for mass consumption (Keller 2001, 251). The development of information and communication technologies led to the intensification of this process in 1960s and 1970s, when it brought a ‘memory boom’ (Winter 2011) that transformed Second World War memory, in particular Holocaust remembrance. A few decades later, as media scholars Andrew Hoskins and Ben O’Loughlin argue, the distribution of digital technologies resulted in a new memory boom that radically changed the remembrance of contemporary conflicts (Hoskins and O’Loughlin 2010, 131). Not only did they enable ‘a far greater intensive andextensive connectivity’ between the forms, agents and discourses of memory (Hoskins 2009, 40), but they also opened up new possibilities for memory production and circulation, distinguished by low costs and a potentially high impact (de Cesari and Rigney 2014, 12).
The digital memory boom affected not only recent traumatic memories, but also the ones that have already experienced the process of memorialization in the pre-digital time. A number of studies suggest that the distribution of digital commemorative practices has had a significant impact on the remembrance of conflicts, such as the Second World War.4 The consequences of the remediation of older memories of violence through digital media remain, however, a subject of scholarly debate. The existing works offer contrasting assessments that vary from the formation of more inclusive narratives of conflicts that challenge hegemonic interpretations of the past (Trubina 2010) to the propagation of mutually exclusive interpretations of traumatic historical episodes that ignite disagreements between their adherents (Nikiporets-Takigawa 2013).
Wikipedia is one of the digital platforms, the impact of which on collective remembrance is widely recognized both in post-socialist countries and worldwide. Christian Pentzold, a German communication scholar, argues that production of Wikipedia articles can be viewed as process of the ‘discursive construction of the past’, which involves a transition from communicative memory that is debated on the encyclopedia’s discussion pages to cultural memory that takes the form of encyclopedia’s articles (Pentzold 2009, 264). A number of studies argue that the platform can be viewed as a transnational space that facilitates the production of a fundamentally pluralistic historical knowledge (Hardy 2007), or as a digital forum that sustains consensus-building vis-à-vis contentious pasts (Dounaevsky 2013). Yet others theorize the site as an online platform that enforces hegemonic memory narratives (Luyt 2011) or a mnemonic battleground on which different views of the past clash (Rogers and Sendijarevic 2012).
The interactions between Wikipedia and Second World War memory in the post-socialist space has attracted significant scholarly attention in the recent years;5 however, the existing assessments of the encyclopedia’s impact on war remembrance in the area paint different pictures. Helene Dounaevsky, a communication scholar, argues that Wikipedia facilitates creation of ‘a special type of historical knowledge’ which is characterized by uncertaintyand polyphonism that challenge hegemonic interpretations of the Second World War (Dounaevsky 2013). By contrast, an interdisciplinary team of researchers demonstrates in their study of Stepan Bandera, a leader of the Ukrainian nationalist movement in 1940s and 1950s, that different versions of the encyclopedia tend to transmit local narratives of Second World War (Fredheim, Howanitz and Makhortykh 2014), thus promoting a ‘linguistic point of view’ of the past (Massa and Scrinzi 2013). The current study attempts to investigate further the platform’s impact on the complex memory landscape of the region and examine how its interaction with Second World War memory is affected by the ongoing Ukraine crisis.
Battle of Kyiv: historical background
In autumn 1943, Soviet troops approached Kyiv, the former capital of Soviet Ukraine, which was seized by the Germans two years earlier. At the end of September, Soviet units managed to capture a number of bridgeheads on the German-controlled right bank of the River Dnieper; the largest of those were the Lyutezh and Bukrin bridgeheads. In the weeks that followed, the Red Army made several attempts to seize the city; however, none of them were successful, due to the heavy losses sustained while crossing the River Dnieper and the difficult terrain on the right bank. Soviet losses were particularly high at the Bukrin bridgehead, originally envisioned as a primary bridgehead for capturing Kyiv.
The unsuccessful October operations led the Soviet High Command to relocate Soviet forces to the Lyutezh bridgehead, from where a massive offensive was staged on 3 November. This operation was preceded by another attack from the Bukrin bridgehead on 1–2 November; according to the Ukrainian historian Victor Korol, this distracting manoeuvre resulted in huge losses among Soviet ranks (Korol 2003). The rapid advancement of the Soviet troops from the Lyutezh bridgehead, however, proved to be unexpected for the German command and on the morning of 6 November – the anniversary of the October Revolution and the most important state holiday in the Soviet Union – Soviet forces recaptured the Ukrainian capital.
The successful actions of the Red Army during the Battle of Kyiv had a profound impact on the course of the war. The capture of Kyiv led to the destabilization of the German front and a rapid Soviet advance in 1944; furthermore, it had great ideological significance, and was used to the fullest by Soviet propaganda (Shulzhenko and Tykhonenko 2013). The propaganda, however, omitted the high losses suffered by the Red Army, estimations of which vary from 133,000 (Gorelov and Grutsyk 2013) to 270,000 (Levitas 2012) dead and wounded. Today, however, a number of Ukrainian scholars argue that the high death toll was a consequence of the Soviet High Command’s intent to liberate Kyiv for the anniversary date of the October Revolution (Korol 2005, 22), which spurred the massive mobilization of Ukrainian men who were often sent to battle unprepared and – according to a few testimonies – insufficiently armed (Koval 1999, 95–96).
After the end of the war, the Battle of Kyiv quickly became an integral part of the Great Patriotic War myth, which would later be instrumental in the creation of a common public identity in the Soviet Union. During the Khrushchev period, 6 November became an official holiday – the Day of the Liberation of Kyiv – and the actions of the Red Army were unequivocally praised in Soviet historiography (Hrynevych 2005). A number of monuments commemorating the battle appeared in Kyiv in the post-war period; however, the majority of them were dedicated to the Soviet High Command, whereas the sacrifices of rank-and-file soldiers remained largely ignored. While in the late 1970s a few monuments dedicated to ordinary soldiers appeared in the Ukrainian capital, these monuments usually commemorated soldiers who were fighting at the Lyutezh bridgehead; in contrast, the Bukrin bridgehead, where the bloodiest clashes took place, remained forgotten (Makhortykh 2014).
While in Ukraine the annual Soviet-style celebration of the liberation of Kyiv continued after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a number of Ukrainian scholars (Ginda 2010; Korol 2003; Koval 1999) started questioning existing interpretations of the event. The revision of the Soviet narrative made it possible to integrate those traumatic memories that had been left out of the glorious story of the liberation into the public discourse of the Second World War; yet, a number of scholars note that the rewriting of history in Ukraine led to the formation of new myths, which emphasized the martyrdom of the Ukrainian people (Jilge 2008; Portnov and Portnova 2010). In the case of the Battle of Kyiv, this shift toward ‘competing victimhood’ (Jilge 2008) resulted in the deglorification of the event and the propagation of a view of the battle as a Soviet crime against the Ukrainian people (Korol 2005) or even an instance of genocide (Ginda 2010).
These radical revisions of the existing narrative of the glorious liberation turned the Battle of Kyiv into one of the problematic issues inUkrainian–Russian memory relations. Despite significant challenges to the Great Patriotic War narrative in early 1990s, the cultural memory of Second World War in Russia experienced significantly fewer changes than in Ukraine. The revival of the Soviet war narrative in Russia in the beginning of the 2000s further contributed to the rise of memory wars between the two countries, especially concerning the question of Soviet war crimes. This memory warfare was not limited to academic historiographies and, instead, became increasingly present in political debates in Ukraine and Russia; these debates became more intense during the Ukraine crisis, when the Battle of Kyiv was referenced as a predecessor of the Russian aggression against Ukraine (Fed’ko 2017; Lebid’ 2017).
Sections, edits, and posts: methodology
In order to investigate how Wikipedia is used for remediating past violence, I examined articles that deal with the capture of Kyiv in Ukrainian (‘Bytva za Kyiv (1943)’), Russian (‘Kievskaia Nastupatelnaia Operatsiia’), Polish (‘Bitwa o Kijów (1943)’) and English (‘Battle of Kiev (1943)’) versions of Wikipedia. The former three versions are the largest Eastern European versions of the encyclopedia (‘List of Wikipedias’) and are of particular relevance for the process of remediation of the past in the region (Fredheim, Howanitz and Makhortykh 2014; Makhortykh 2017). The reason the English version is included is that it relates to its unique position as a global memory platform that hosts the most diverse community of editors (Rogers and Sendijarevic 2012).
For the implementation of my analysis, I used versions of all the articles as retrieved on 1 December 2017: I started by comparing the ways both historical episodes are framed in different language versions of Wikipedia. Similarly to earlier studies (Rogers and Sendijarevic 2012; Božović, Bošković and Trifunović 2014; Fredheim, Howanitz and Makhortykh 2014), I conducted a web content analysis of selected components of the Wikipedia articles: titles, tables of content, images and categories. These components are not only concise enough to be easily compared, but they also provide a brief summary of the article’s content (titles and images), clarify the structure of the article’s narrative (table of contents) and reveal the article’s position in the larger Wikipedia structure (categories).
Having compared how the Battle of Kyiv is represented in Wikipedia, I then explored how the encyclopedia’s users interact with those patterns. While many of earlier studies (Ferron and Massa, 2011; Keegan, Gergle and Contractor 2011) rely mostly on passive forms of user interaction (that is, viewings), I focused on active forms of interaction, such as edits and comments on the articles’ ‘Talk’ pages, that have higher interpretative value (Rogers and Sendijarevic 2012; Luyt 2015). Based on these data, I compared the dynamics of interactions with the articles in different language versions in order to examine how contemporary collective traumas – such as the conflict in Eastern Ukraine – influence interactions with Second World War memory in post-socialist countries.
Battle of Kyiv on Wikipedia: findings
Titles. All Wikipedia articles have a title that describes the main subject of that article and distinguishes one article from another (‘Wikipedia: Article Titles’). It would seem reasonable to assume that different language versions of Wikipedia would use the same name for articles on the same subject: however, as also in an earlier studies of the memory of the Srebrenica massacre in Wikipedia (Rogers and Sendijarevic 2012) and the Second World War in Ukraine (Makhortykh 2017), a comparison of the respective titles for the Battle of Kyiv articles – translated into English – pointed to the existence of certain variations, as shown in Table 1.
Table 1. The titles of articles in different language versions of Wikipedia
|Title||Battle of Kiev (1943)||Battle for Kyiv (1943)||Kyiv offensive operation||Battle for Kyiv (1943)|
Three out of four articles used the title ‘Battle of/for Kyiv’, the informal name for the Kyiv offensive operation that took place between 3 and 13 November 1943. The official name – ‘Kyiv offensive operation’ – was used for the Russian version of the article, whereas in the other three languages the informal name was preferred, with the additional indicator of ‘1943’ used to distinguish it from the article about the Battle of Kyiv of 1941. While these distinctions were not as significant as in other cases – such as, the capture of Lviv by Germans in 1941 (Makhortykh 2017) – the presence of disagreements on such a basic level can be the first indicator of the differences in the representation of the Battle of Kyiv between the various language versions.
Table of contents. The tables of contents in Wikipedia consist of article headings that clarify and organize that article’s content better (‘Wikipedia: Writing Better Articles’). Each heading points to a particular topic that is discussed in the article: therefore, the table of contents can be used as a source of semantic information, which, as media scholars Richard Rogers and Emina Sendijarevic note, can be particularly useful for investigating differences in representation of the same event across different versions of the encyclopedia (Rogers and Sendijarevic 2012).
A comparison of the tables of contents from the Battle of Kyiv articles showed that the Ukrainian and Russian versions had a similar structure, consisting of three parts: an introduction/background to the battle, how it played out and the battle’s aftermath. The English and Polish articles, instead, elaborated on the course of the battle by dividing it into several stages – for example, the preparatory stage, the capture of Kyiv and the Rauss counterattacks – and assigned independent sections for each of these stages. Unlike the former two articles, the structure of the English/Polish articles implied that the seizure of Kyiv consisted of several stages, and that Soviet troops encountered heavy resistance from the Germans. These differences can be explained both by the variations in the articles’ scope (with the Russian/Ukrainian articles being focused exclusively on the Kyiv offensive operation) and the focus on successful Soviet operations in the Russian/Ukrainian versions that ignored the subsequent Soviet defeats in the course of the German counterattacks.
However, despite similarities in structuring the narrative, the Russian/Ukrainian and English/Polish versions often allotted different meanings to the same sections. For instance, the section about the battle’s course in the Ukrainian article mentioned several unsuccessful Soviet attacks from the Bukrin bridgehead, whereas the Russian Wikipedia ignored them by focusing on the successful actions at the Lutezh bridgehead. The focus on the glorious aspects of the battle in the Russian article was supplemented with a detailed discussion of the losses incurred by the German side. Such a discussion was absent from the Ukrainian article; in contrast, it alone noted that German forces burned down parts of Kyiv before their retreat, describing how Soviet troops captured the ‘almost empty and burning city’ (‘Bytva za Kyiv (1943)’).
The discrepancy between the narratives of military victory and human suffering was also traced in the case of the English and Polish articles. The ‘Soviet preparations’ section in the English article briefly mentioned ‘serious trouble’ (‘Battle of Kiev (1943)’) encountered by the Red Army at the Bukrin bridgehead before switching to the successful operations at the Lutezh bridgehead. Similarly, despite mentioning the successful German counterattacks, the English article emphasized the glorious achievements of the Soviet side in the Battle of Kyiv. In contrast, the Polish article dedicated significant attention to the failed operations of the Red Army at the Bukrin bridgehead and mentioned the high death toll among the Soviet soldiers. This feature connects the Polish article with the Ukrainian one: both dedicated significant attention to the price of the Soviet victory in the Battle of Kyiv.
Images. In her work on visual images and 9/11, Kari Anden-Papadopoulus, a communication scholar from Sweden, notes that the pictorial turn in today’s culture increasingly affects the way traumatic memories are represented (Anden-Papadopoulus 2003, 101). The articles on the Battle of Kyiv were also accompanied by a selection of images, even while these images were not numerous and presented little variety. The largest number of images – eight – was found in the Polish article, whereas the Ukrainian and English articles included three images each and the Russian article included only two images. Some of these images were recurrent across several articles: for instance, the photo of victorious Soviet soldiers marching across ruined Khreschatyk was used in all versions except the Ukrainian one. Other common images included an image of Soviet troops before the battle (the Ukrainian and Polish articles) and German tanks preparing for the counterattack (the English and Polish articles).
The use of individual images followed the patterns of representation mentioned in the earlier section on the articles’ table of contents. In addition to the image of victorious Soviet soldiers, the Russian article showed an image of the Soviet military reward that was introduced to mark the capture of the Ukrainian capital; the central position of this image promoted the interpretation of the event as a Soviet triumph and put the main emphasis on the glorious aspects of the battle. A similar stance was observed in the English article, which used the image of Soviet military plans for the article’s opening; together with the images of Soviet soldiers in postbattle Kyiv and German tanks in Zhytomyr, it emphasized the military aspects of the Battle of Kyiv and promoted its interpretation in line with the Soviet narrative.
By contrast, the Ukrainian and Polish articles featured the image of Soviet troops preparing for the Battle of Kyiv. The black-and-white photo showed Soviet soldiers building rafts to cross the River Dnieper; a wooden sign displaying the words ‘Daesh’ Kiev!’ [For Kyiv!] in the background provided the context for the image. Unlike the visuals used in the other two versions, this image showed exhausted-looking men, photographed in the midst of combat preparations, thus instilling a sense of uncertainty in the reader and directing attention to the less glorious aspects of the Battle of Kyiv. This purpose was further advanced with images of a post-war memorial and a mass Soviet grave at the Bukrin bridgehead that promoted the interpretation of the battle as a episode of collective suffering. The Polish article did not include images of Soviet graves; instead, in addition to the above mentioned image of combat preparations, it showed a selection of images made during the battle, including the ones of Soviet soldiers crossing the Dnieper. Such a broad selection of images not only made the Polish article more informative, but also expanded its focus beyond the Soviet victory-centred narrative of the Russian and English articles.
Categories. According to Wikipedia’s own definition, ‘[t]he central goal of the category system is to provide navigational links to all Wikipedia pages in a hierarchy of categories which readers ... can browse and quickly find sets of pages on topics that are defined by those characteristics’ (‘Wikipedia: Categorization’). Wikipedia categories allow for the grouping of existing articles into thematic sets, on the basis of the essential characteristics of their subjects; consequently, categories constitute an important source of lexical and semantic information in Wikipedia (Zesch, Gurevych and Mühlhäuser 2007) that can provide a perspective on the differences pertaining to a particular event across various language versions.
I have grouped the existing categories into two sets, based on their semantics, as shown in Table 2. The first set – temporal indicators – includes categories related to the chronological attribution of the event, whereas the second set – thematic indicators – includes categories related to the actual description of the event. This division allows us to differentiate between categories that are of lesser importance for subject exploration (based on the assumption that the use of time categories only marginally affects representations of the Second World War) and more semantically relevant, thematic categories, that are of particular interest for the current analysis.
Table 2. Categories in Wikipedia articles
|Temporal indicators||Conflicts in 1943, 1943 in the Soviet Union, 1943 in Ukraine, 20th century in Kiev, November 1943 events, December 1943 events||Battles in 1943||Year 1943 in USSR, November 1943, Conflicts of 1943||Conflicts of 1943, October 1943, November 1943, 3 November, 6 November, 13 November|
|Thematic indicators||Battles and operations of the Soviet-German War, Battles of the Second World War involving Germany, Battles involving the Soviet Union, Battles and operations of the Second World War involving Czechoslovakia, Czechoslovakia-Soviet Union relations, Military history of Kiev, Ludvík Svoboda||Eastern Front (Second World War), Operations of the Red Army during the Second World War, History of Kyiv, Battles of the Second World War||Kyiv operation (1943), Great Patriotic War operations, Battles in Ukraine, Kyiv in the years of the Great Patriotic War||Eastern European theatre of the Second World War, Battle for the river Dnieper, Operations and battles of Soviet-German war, Battles for Kyiv, Battles in Ukraine, Battles in USSR, German battles, Soviet battles|
The examination of thematic categories points to certain differences between language versions. The Russian article was the only one to use the ‘Great Patriotic War’ category in classifying the article: this subjective definition, which is steeped in Soviet war mythology, was much less neutral than the ‘Soviet–German War’ or ‘Second World War’ categories used in other articles. By contrast, the other articles used less biased and more informative categories. The English version was particularly extensive in its selection of categories and attempted to give due recognition to all the parties involved in the battle: besides the Red Army and the Germans, which were mentioned in the other articles, it added Czechoslovakia, by referring to Ludvík Svoboda’s brigade, which participated in the battle on the Soviet side.
Together with the analysis of other elements of Wikipedia articles, the study of categories indicated a number of differences between the variouslanguage versions. The differences were particularly pronounced in the case of the Russian and Ukrainian articles: the former presented the Battle of Kyiv in line with the glorious Soviet narrative, whereas the latter put greater emphasis on the suffering of Soviet soldiers during the battle. The English and Polish articles with their more pronounced encyclopedic stance were located in-between these two poles with the English version aligning itself with the Soviet victory narrative and the Polish one being closer to the revisionist Ukrainian version. While the existence of such divergent views of the past is well recognized in public memories of post-socialist states, their transfer to digital space questions the validity of claims about the positive transformation of conflicted memories into more inclusive discourses of the past through digital media (Trubina 2010; Dounaevsky 2013).
As mentioned earlier, edits and discussion posts are the major indicators of user activity in Wikipedia. Editing is the most basic feature of Wikipedia, and, arguably, the most important one. The term covers a wide range of user activities: from correcting mistakes to making useful additions and improving articles in numerous other ways (‘Wikipedia: Tutorial/Editing’). Similarly to edits, discussion posts are usually produced by editors, who communicate with each other through ‘Talk’ pages. The ‘Talk’ pages are intended to facilitate communication among editors who want to discuss certain changes to an article. Large amounts of posts can serve as an indicator of controversies related to the article in question – in particular, disagreement among editors on references or on the neutrality of other editors (‘Wikipedia: A Researcher’s Guide to Discussion Pages’).
As Table 3 demonstrates, different versions of Wikipedia showed different dynamics relating to user interaction. In contrast to the Wikipedia articles about recent traumatic events such as mass protests (Ferron and Massa 2011) or terrorist attacks (Pentzold 2009), the articles about the Battle of Kyiv indicated a limited amount of active participation on the part of users. The English article included the largest number of edits and discussion posts, followed by the Russian one. The Ukrainian and Polish articles were the least edited and had the fewest comments; a discussion page was actually absent for the Ukrainian article.
Table 3. Numerical summaries of user interactions with Wikipedia articles
One possible explanation for these distinctions between representation of more recent (for example, the Arab Spring) and less recent (for example, the Second World War) traumatic memories on Wikipedia is the lack of realtime memorialization in the latter cases. Unlike memories of recent events, which are converted into Wikipedia articles ‘within minutes’ (‘Wikipedia: About’) of their occurrence, Second World War memories do not appear spontaneously, but are documented according to existing sources. In the case of the Battle of Kyiv, the transition between communicative and cultural memory has already taken place; this, however, does not mean that various online communities will interpret it in the same way. The lack of discussion and minimal amount of edits in the Ukrainian Wikipedia may be taken as an indicator of a consensus on this particular episode of the past, originating from a greater familiarity with the history of the Second World War in Ukraine. The opposite situation can be found in the English Wikipedia, where users are less familiar – and less burdened – with that particular past and, therefore, feel freer to explore and discuss it.
Figure 1.Temporal dynamics of edits of Wikipedia articles – see picture on the right
The examination of temporal dynamics of editing activity points out a number of similarities between the Wikipedia articles on the battle. As Figure 1 demonstrates, the process of editing for all versions was the most intensive in the period of two to three years following the creation of the respective article. After this time, the user activity tends to drop; the occasional peaks of activity were usually related to the event’s anniversaries. Examples of such peaks include 2013, when the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of Kyiv was celebrated in Ukraine and Russia, and 2015, when the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War was commemorated. Both events attracted significant attention of mainstream media in post-socialist countries, in particular Russia; by contrast, the lesser attention towards these events in Anglophone mainstream media can explain the lack of significant changes in user interaction patterns in the English article.
The dynamics of editing also shows the impact of the contemporary traumas on the remediation of Second World War memory on Wikipedia. The beginning of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine in 2014 marked the decrease in editing activity in all versions; such an effect can be explained by the switch of user attention towards the ongoing conflict that overshadowed earlier traumatic memories (in particular, its ‘hot’ phase in summer 2014). In the following years, the scope of editing activity approached the pre-2014 level; however, the majority of edits made in this period were the minor ones. The only exception was observed in the Ukrainian article, when in 2016 an attempt was made to add a detailed description of the battle’s background, including additional information about the Soviet losses at the Bukrin bridgehead. These observations indicate that the Wikipedia narratives of Second World War largely remained stable throughout the Ukraine crisis and that the influx of contemporary collective traumas could have a conserving effect on them.
Verbal interactions. The ‘Talk’ pages in Wikipedia offer ‘the ability to discuss articles and other issues with other Wikipedians’ (‘Wikipedia: Tutorial/Talk Pages’); consequently, the use of these pages often facilitates communication among editors who want to discuss changes to specific articles. As already noted in the earlier section, the amount of verbal interactions in relation to the Battle of Kyiv was not found to be significant. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the majority of verbal interactions occurred before the beginning of the Ukraine crisis in 2013: the Russian article on Kyiv was mostactively discussed in November 2013, but a few weeks before the outbreak of the crisis, in relation to the seventieth anniversary of the seizure of city by the Red Army.
The analysis of the ‘Talk’ pages indicated a number of differences in the narrative strategies employed in the different Wikipedia versions in dealing with historical controversies. In the case of the Russian and English articles, these controversies mostly relate to counting the fatalities on both the Soviet and German sides. In the Russian article, a number of editors expressed dissatisfaction with the article’s tally of fallen Soviet soldiers, which they considered too high. For instance, an anonymous editor who called himself Andrey left the following comment on 3 December 2012: ‘So, that means the Germans lost 389 soldiers in the Battle for Kyiv? It is just nonsense, sorry. As always, we heighten our losses and decrease theirs ... How did they lose then?’ (‘Obsuzhdenie: Kievskaia Nastupatelnaia Operatsiia’). Similarly, another user, D2306, criticized in a post from 3 July 2013, the use of German sources for estimating casualties on the German side: ‘There are some smartasses who found a website with ten-day casualty reports for Wermachts and now think that is it, so they cite those reports everywhere as an ironclad fact. They do not care to compare their theories with actual facts’ (‘Obsuzhdenie: Kievskaia Nastupatelnaia Operatsiia’).
This kind of emotional response to the Russian article was contrasted with the more reserved reactions in the English article. While there, too, the question of fatalities, as well as of the decisiveness of the battle, ignited discussions, these were approached differently. For instance, the user Counterstrike69 initiated a discussion on the matter by posting the following question on 8 March 2007: ‘Any ideas on the casualties on both side?’ (‘Talk: Battle of Kiev ’). Such a formulation contrasted with more subjective statements by editors of the Russian version, who were less interested in the number of casualties per se than why the encyclopedia presented Soviet fatalities as greater than those from the German side. Similarly, the discussion of the decisiveness of the battle initiated by the user Kurt opened with a call for ‘civilized discussion’ able to clarify whether or not the Battle of Kyiv should be referenced as a decisive combat operation (‘Talk: Battle of Kiev ’).
These differences in the way the same episode was approached in various Wikipedia versions had immediate consequences for the interactions betweeneditors. In the Russian article, the majority of comments left on the ‘Talk’ page were strong statements leaving little space for discussion; consequently, instead of dialogue, the Russian ‘Talk’ page mostly hosted a collection of isolated monologues. Under these circumstances, the idea of a collaborative production of the past seems dubious; instead, the content of the article itself seemed to be more dependent on the decisions of a few editors who were not particularly interested in debating their views on the event with others. By contrast, the English ‘Talk’ page actually hosted some discussions that included attempts to accommodate different points of view and reach a degree of consensus in relation to the traumatic past.
My observations suggest that the evolution of narratives of past violence in different language versions of Wikipedia are largely driven by existing cultural constructs – first and foremost, by the specific national memories of wars and conflicts. The presence of profound differences in the ways the Second World War is remembered in post-socialist states, in particular Ukraine and Russia, translates into rather divergent representations of the Battle of Kyiv. The Russian Wikipedia, for instance, promotes an interpretation that is steeped in the narrative of the Great Patriotic War; by contrast, the Ukrainian and, to a certain extent the Polish versions, rely on more revisionist trends in war historiography. These differences permeate Wikipedia narratives on different levels, varying from visual images deployed in the articles to descriptive categories that bring different parts of the encyclopedia into an interconnected whole; together, these elements promote images of the past that indicate significant differences in the ways the Second World War is remembered.
The patterns of interaction with the Wikipedia articles point to the complex interplay between public remembrance and digital media in post-socialist countries. The rise of interest in Second World War narratives on Wikipedia, coinciding with the anniversaries of the respective historical episodes, can be viewed as evidence that today the line between offline and online developments is increasingly blurred. Similarly, the post-2014 changes in the interaction with Second World War memory on Wikipedia can be explained by the impact of the ongoing Ukraine crisis as Wikipedia users’ attention turned from memories of past violence to the ongoing collective traumas. Under these conditions, the Wikipedia narratives of the Battle of Kyiv demonstrated a degree of stability that contrasted withrecurrent instrumentalization of Second World War memories in mainstream media in the course of the Ukraine crisis; the latter observation suggests that online memory cultures can be less volatile and susceptible to change than might have been expected from ever-changing digital environments.
Mykola Makhortykh is a researcher at the Department of Slavic Languages and Cultures at the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands. His work is focused on Second World War memory in Ukraine and how it is affected by the processes of de-Sovietization, nationalization and digitization that the country is currently undergoing. In his recent research, he has also explored the use of social media in the context of the crisis in Ukraine and the role of cultural memory in representing and interpreting the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
1 See, for instance, works by Erll and Rigney 2009a; Erll 2011; Garde-Hansen, Hoskins and Reading 2009; Garde-Hansen 2011; and Neiger, Meyers and Zandberg 2011.
2 See, for example, works by Rutten, Fedor and Zvereva 2013, Trubina 2010, Bernstein 2016, Makhortykh 2017.
3 According to the Alexa data, Wikipedia is the sixth most popular website in Ukraine (‘Top Sites in Ukraine’), eighth most popular website in Poland (‘Top Sites in Poland’), and tenth most popular website in Russia (‘Top Sites in Russia’).
4 Examples include works by Trubina 2010, Nikiporets-Takigawa 2013, Bernstein 2016 and Makhortykh 2017a. 5 See, for instance, works by Dounaevsky 2013, Fredheim, Howanitz and Makhortykh 2014 and Makhortykh 2017.
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This article has been published in the sixth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of Violence in 20th-century European History.