How Ukraine is adapting the ancient practice of trophy presentations to modern propaganda

As Ukraine prepared to celebrate its Independence Day even as its military forces battled a month-long Russian invasion, government officials assembled a grandiose, but macabre display on Khreshchatyk, the main street of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

Destroyed and burned tanks, military trucks and other equipment lined the street as an intentional mockery of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s failed plan for a victorious Russian army parade in Kyiv.

This display, in August 2022, was not a first for Ukraine and echoes an old tradition of displaying weapons looted from a military adversary.

On the sites of the battles they won, the ancient Greeks usually erected what they called too much – triumphal monuments made from trees and decorated with captures armor, weapons and helmets – to commemorate the victory and pay homage to a god. The classical Greek epic “The Iliad” contains references to Odysseus stripping the dead enemy of his armor for a later ritual offering to Athena, the goddess of war and her divine patroness.

The ancient Romans continued the practice, and has also developed a tradition of military triumphs, parade through the Imperial City of Rome to show off the spoils of war, including slaves, art, bullion and weapons. Wealthy benefactors then often purchased the spoils and donated them to the Roman public for fixed displays that symbolized Roman imperial power.

This 15th century painting depicts Romans carrying weapons, armor and other treasures captured in battle.
Andrea Mantegna via Wikimedia Commons

Trophy exhibits in the modern era

The practice has continued in the modern Western world.

At the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, when Napoleon led the French forces to conquer and plunder other countries, including Italy, he brought back art objects stolen with the weapons of the enemy. His triumphal processions in Paris deliberately evoke the Roman tradition. The the objects were later exhibited in the Louvre.

Looting of cultural property has become a feature of colonial violence, filling Western museums with looted works of art and valuables belonging to colonized nations. The practice is currently prohibited by international humanitarian lawalthough that doesn’t actually stop the looting.

Seizing enemy weapons, however, is usually accepted as spoils of war. Various nations used demonstrations of captured enemy weapons to invoke patriotism and boost morale.

As wars and weapons became more important, so did trophy displays. In 1918, London’s Trafalgar Square was transformed into a “destroyed villagefilled with German weapons. This was part of the promotional campaign to sell bonds to continue paying for the ongoing conflict, later known in history as the First World War. Battle trophies were one of the greatest sources of display material for the British. Imperial War Museum at its beginnings.

As I showed in my doctoral dissertation, during World War II, the Soviet Union made extensive use of trophy arms displays as a propaganda tool. When the Red Army won for months Battle of Moscow in January 1942 and launched a counter-offensive, the retreating Nazi army left behind a large amount of weapons. Trophies then became a prominent feature of war-themed exhibits across the USSR.

People in civilian clothes watch rows and rows of tanks.
An exhibit in Moscow’s Gorky Park in the 1940s featured Nazi weapons captured by the Soviet Union.
Gorky Park Archive

The largest Soviet exhibition of captured German weapons opened in Gorky Park in Moscow on June 22, 1943, the second anniversary of Germany’s invasion of Russia. The grand outdoor exhibition featured German tanks, planes, cannons and other heavy equipment.

The exhibition conveyed two messages. First, the enemy was powerful, as evidenced by his innovative and solid equipment, and victory would require everyone’s best efforts. Secondly, however, the fact that the weapons were captured demonstrated that the Red Army and the Soviet people were capable of defeating and defeating the invaders.

Similar exhibitions were opened in many other Soviet cities, including Leningrad, Minsk and Kyiv. The screens were dismantled in the late 1940s; the weapons were recycled as scrap metal.

A Soviet film from 1943 shows vehicles and weapons captured by the Nazis.

To mock the enemy

Since Russia first invaded the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Ukrainians have adopted the practice of displaying captured weapons as trophies.

In July 2014, the National Museum of the History of Ukraine during World War II in Kyiv presented a temporary exhibition of heavy equipment captured by Russian-sponsored separatist groups. After the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Ukraine continued to use trophy displays of newly captured Russian weapons as propaganda, seeking both domestic and international support.

In May 2022, the National Museum of Military History of Ukraine opened an exhibition of recently destroyed Russian military equipment at Mykhailivs’ka Square in downtown Kyiv. The display of the wreck was intended to boost the morale of the Ukrainian people by celebrating the strength of the Ukrainian armyand to humiliate the enemy by demonstrating the incompetence and moral inferiority of the Russian army and its armament.

A month later, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy took on then British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visit the exhibitionas well as other sights of Kyiv.

An exhibition on July 22, 2022 in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, shows Russian weapons destroyed and captured by Ukrainian forces.
Sean Gallup via Getty Images

Rallying international support

Ukraine used seized weapons to gain support from other countries of the former Soviet blocsending Russian trophy weapons for display Poland and the Czech Republic.

In Prague, Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky opened the exhibition of defeated Russian tanks and other weapons on July 11, 2022. In his speech, Monastyrsky referred to the August 1968 Soviet invasion who crushed the anti-Communist demonstrations of the Prague Spring, saying:Russian tanks are back in Praguebut this time broken, burned by the hands of Ukrainian warriors.

With this age-old practice, Ukraine shows its power and determination, and demonstrates the weaknesses of its adversaries, raising morale in Ukraine and strengthening the support of the international community.

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