By Marc Belciug
Settled on the great river Danube, Izmail (Ishmael) is a city that was once associated with Russian military achievements. It was here that in 1790 the Tsarist generalissimo Alexander Suvorov conquered the Ottoman fortress through a combination of incessant infantry attacks on the fortress walls and a daring beach landing. So important was the battle that it became memorialized in song becoming the unofficial Russian national anthem in the early 19th century. For the people living here, the Siege of Izmail was central to its history. Particularly important was the famous Russian General Suvorov who not only was honored with a great statue in the city square but also with the main street bearing his name. That is until the 24th of February, when Russian declared a special military operation and invaded Ukraine.
When I visited Izmail in 2019, I was struck by the rather odd degree of pride that Ukrainians living in Izmail remembered General Suvorov. Everywhere there were symbols that alluded to the Russian general. Even when visiting the main Orthodox Church, I was told stories by the locals that even the church bells were cast from the cannons that took part in the battle. And yet, everything changed. The great statue of Suvorov gallantly riding on his horse, now stands obstructed from view. Hidden like an object of shame it is likely to be removed while the main street that bore his name has already been renamed Independence Street.
This degree of change could not have been imagined before the events of 24th of February. In fact, veneration towards the old Russian General was alive and well even during fighting in the Donbass in 2019. At that time for the locals, war was a distant reality.
Like in many communities in Ukraine, the Russian invasion of 2022 was a world changing experience. Once the initial two week shock wore off, a sense of patriotism united many thus ushering a growth of a deeper Ukrainian identity in places that one least expected. Compounding this was the understanding that Russians were not only fighting for new territory but for the destruction of Ukrainian identity. One resident said that he used to think that only the Russian state was hell bent on destroying Ukraine but as war progressed, he came to believe that Russians themselves want to eradicate Ukrainians as a people group.
The story of the great changes in Izmail showcase the great strategic failure of the Russian government which patiently built memory alliances throughout the former Soviet Union. Defined as “informal or formal associations formed on the basis of a shared narrative of the past” such Russian memory alliances reflect Russian domestic policies which are export driven with the goal of glorifying and rewriting history, all to support Russian foreign policy and to make ground for future propaganda. For those that live in Izmail this is not new. “Here history is always political,” one local that studied history at the graduate level said.
To give a sense as to how important are memory alliances to Russia one can analyze the domestic policies within Russia itself and the trips that Russian Foreign Minister Serghei Lavrov had to Serbia in 2020. Although Lavrov spent only two days in Serbia, he attended nine events that related to historical memory, seven of which were relating to World War II. Likewise, the permanent offices of Rossotrudnichestvo also organize events relating to World War II with many focusing on Russian sacrifice and shared Russo-Serbian remembering. As for the developments in Russia, history has become an active tool of propaganda especially with the passage of laws that stress “patriotic upbringing” and the state funding of the “Youth Army.” Furthermore, it also became a crime to disparage Russia’s role in World War II which is meant to preserve historic “truths”. Therefore, as described by Jade McGlynn and Hannah Albert, Russia memory alliances are a state export and a tool of soft power that militarizes memory. In a similar manner some analysts have often extended this to include language as a tool for exploitation. Such is the case of the supposed persecution of Russian speakers in Ukraine which prior to 2014 was not mentioned as a point of concern. Yet, because of effective propaganda Russian speakers have become associated with being pro-Russian. However, it would be incorrect to think that it applies broadly to all Ukrainians. For example, in Izmail almost everyone speaks Russian, but the people see themselves as Ukrainian. “In all my life, either in deep Western Ukraine or anywhere else in Ukraine, never have I been berated that I spoke Russian!” a native of the Izmail region said in response to the assertion that Russian speakers were persecuted in the past.
Despite the effort of the Russians to divide ethnic groups in Ukraine and to militarize historical memory, the invasion has indeed united the people of Ukraine to an unheard degree. Many now also started to throw off Russian imperial heritage. Not only because of anger of having one’s country attacked but also because Ukrainians understand that behind statues and Russian cultural exports, lies Russian aspirations of empire and inevitable violence. Yet, despite the change in opinion towards Russia, there are still a percentage of pro-Russian residents. However, as one Ukrainian soldier said: “As soon as there will be a missile strike in their village or neighborhood, they will change their mind who they support.”
McGlynn, Jade. “Constructing Memory Alliances: How Russia Uses History to Bolster its Influence and Undermine Rivals Abroad.” Center for Strategic and International Studies. September 23, 2020. https://www.csis.org/blogs/post-soviet-post/constructing-memory-alliances
Karagyozov, Panayot. "Singing Ones Image: Slavic National and State Anthems as Realms of Memory or ‘Blemishes’ on the Face of History." Colloquia Comparativa Litterarum. Vol. 5. No. 1. 2019: 43-64.
Miakinv, Eugene. “‘The Gutters of the Town Were Dyed with Blood’: The Siege of Izmail, the Russian Military Culture, and the Limits of the Enlightenment at War.” In War and Enlightenment in Russia: Military Culture in the Age of Catherine II, 184–211. University of Toronto Press, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3138/j.ctv138wqd1.13
Russian Roulette. “Of Russia’s Politics of Memory — Episode 106”. Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 25, 2020. https://www.csis.org/podcasts/russian-roulette/russias-politics-memory-%E2%80%93-russian-roulette-episode-106
 Eugene Miakinov, “‘The Gutters of the Town Were Dyed with Blood’: The Siege of Izmail, the Russian Military Culture, and the Limits of the Enlightenment at War,” in War and Enlightenment in Russia: Military Culture in the Age of Catherine II (University of Toronto Press, 2020), 199.
 Panayot Karagyozov, "Singing Ones Image: Slavic National and State Anthems as Realms of Memory or ‘Blemishes’ on the Face of History," Colloquia Comparativa Litterarum Vol. 5. No. 1 (2019): 45.
 Jade McGlynn, “Constructing Memory Alliances: How Russia Uses History to Bolster its Influence and Undermine Rivals Abroad,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, (September 23, 2020) https://www.csis.org/blogs/post-soviet-post/constructing-memory-alliances
 Russian Roulette, “Of Russia’s Politics of Memory — Episode 106”, Center for Strategic and International Studies, (September 25, 2020) https://www.csis.org/podcasts/russian-roulette/russias-politics-memory-%E2%80%93-russian-roulette-episode-106
 Jade McGlynn, “Constructing Memory Alliances”.
 Russian Roulette, “Of Russia’s Politics of Memory — Episode 106”.
 Russian Roulette, “Of Russia’s Politics of Memory — Episode 106”.