Whether by choice or necessity, Ukraine’s new generation of creative professionals are rebelling against former President Petro Poroshenko’s draconian ‘de-Communisation’ policies by calling for a reappraisal of Soviet aesthetics as they strive for cultural self-awareness in the wake of the ongoing war with Russia.
In May 2015, a series of poorly conceived ‘‘de-Communisation laws’ passed by Poroshenko banned Soviet and Nazi propaganda and effectively sanctioned mass vandalism against Soviet-era memorials that spread across the country following the Euromaidan Revolution.
For many activists, Soviet symbols were not a mere souvenir of Ukraine’s time as one of the fifteen republics of the Soviet Union, but a reminder of Russia’s expansionist policies. However, in taking it upon themselves to rid the country of these uncomfortable mementoes, the activists – followed by state officials – threw the baby out with the bathwater, damaging notable architectural and artistic objects and using force, not dialogue, to determine the future of Ukraine’s public spaces.
Late Soviet society was characterised by a tension between militant patriotism imposed by state propaganda and a tendency to idealise everything foreign. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, most former citizens sought to distance themselves from the austere aesthetics that prevailed during much of the eight decades that the country existed.
The 8 million viewership of HBO’s Chernobyl, a recent historical drama miniseries based on the devastating reality of the 1986 nuclear disaster in the Ukrainian SSR, points to the lasting grip that the country’s Soviet period has on the global imagination. The show’s producers may have taken a few liberties with historical accuracy, it was generally well-received in Ukraine where many victims continue to suffer ill health and economic deprivation following exposure to radiation.
Based in large part on the oral testimonies of locals, as told by Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich in her book Voices from Chernobyl, the Anglo-American serial received widespread critical acclaim and exposed the evils of Soviet totalitarianism with such frankness that Russian state TV has banned the series and already started production on a ‘patriotic’ riposte.
While the majority of Chernobyl was filmed in another former Soviet republic – in this case, Lithuania – it is Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, with its imposing Soviet buildings and wide boulevards, that passes for Moscow. The Soviet Union’s third-largest city developed rapidly after suffering heavy damage during World War II with massive public and residential architectural and infrastructure projects, many of which were both artistically iconic and innovative from an engineering perspective, with one of the prime examples being the city’s Arsenalna metro station – the deepest in the world.
For better or worse, the Soviet element is integral to Kyiv, just as the eight decades of the Soviet period is to the country’s history. It defines how Ukraine is perceived. What’s surprising, however, is that this perception is not universally negative. In fact, when creatively repurposed, one can look past the drab grey functionality of Soviet design to discover its ‘cool factor’.
Kyiv’s Vernadsky National Library, a Socialist Modernist building from the mid-1970s that looms 27 stories above the city’s Demiivka neighbourhood, got some screen time as an ominous state archive building in Chernobyl. It also hosted a glamorous book launch party by local publishing house Osnovy, whose book Ukrainian Soviet Mosaics was followed by a paean to the country’s crumbling modernist past.
The director of Osnovy Publishing, Dana Pavlychko, said Poroshenko’s blanket attempt to rewrite the national historic narrative through the de-Communisation laws “had many elements. Some of these are important and it’s great they’re finally being implemented – for example, the renaming of streets. However, almost all the aspects that relate to art are badly thought out. They are geared towards the destruction of the form without due consideration of the content.
Pavlychko took over Osnovy from her late mother while only in her mid-20s. She set out to add a fresh spin on their output by promoting Ukrainian architecture, history, and culture. The publishing house’s “Soviet Modernism. Brutalism. Post-Modernism. Buildings and Structures in Ukraine 1955-1991 was, first and foremost, an attempt to reconsider Ukraine’s Soviet heritage, and an attempt to document a specific period in the country’s art history that may soon be destroyed.
“Our books draw attention to the aesthetics of Soviet modernism that have been highly appraised by foreigners, but are still ignored by Ukrainians,” said Pavlychko.
Julia Beliaeva, a contemporary Ukrainian artist echoed Pavlychko’s sentiments saying, “De-Communisation is a painful process…a rejection of history. Berlin is an example of a city that demonstrates a wholly different attitude to signs of the past.”
Beliaeva was among the many young activists who campaigned against attacks one of the Ukrainian capital’s more beloved Soviet-era monuments, the Kinoteatr Kyiv, or Kyiv Cinema. “I have a project where I touch upon the theme of the porcelain industry in Ukraine. Using AR, I raise the question of the disappearance of an entire epoch of Soviet porcelain. Ukrainian factories like Polonsky, Baranovsky, Korostetsky, Gorodnytsky have ceased to exist. Thus, the project is a kind of requiem, an attempt to recreate the lost past in the ephemeral format of digital art.”
Local fashion designer, Polina Weller, whose swimwear featured reproductions of Soviet mosaics in Kyiv, recently invited Ukrainian artists, including Beliaeva, to model for her. Weller’s designs showed the creative community’s overwhelming support for the preservation of Soviet monumental art.
Architect Dana Kosmina also took part in campaigning for the preservation of the Kyiv cinema and contributed to a new exhibition at Vienna’s MUMOK modern art museum that brings attention to the current social and political developments in Ukraine through a reconstruction of pedestals of Soviet avant-garde monuments that have faced destruction.
Her indignation at the sorry state of Ukraine’s landmark modernist buildings is palpable: “The process of de-Communisation, as we know it, has been wholly unprofessional. The monuments that were removed should have been moved to museums or natural spaces. Instead, they’ve just been erased. This can negatively affect the memory of future generations.”
It is likely that under Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s new president with a showbiz past and who captured more than 73% of the vote, the country will take on a more holistic approach to its recent history with a view towards moving forward on a positive note.
The opening credits of Zelensky’s Servant of the People television series shows off numerous Soviet monuments as being integral to Kyiv’s urban fabric. Indeed, much in the same way that viewers of Chernobyl ought not to be suspected of wishing another nuclear armageddon, those who wish to better understand the past should not be confused with being supporters of the Soviet Union’s politics.