“Molotov may be sold off – it’s not just a piece of non-ferrous scrap metal, it’s a sculpture. There are people ready to dish out good bucks for such items”, Sergey Zhadan speaks through the mouth of his hero. He adds right away, though: “Which acquaintances of mine would need the Molotov bust? That’s how you determine the level of environment you deal with – that’s the only way, no other. Well, I don’t have any friendly antique dealers, jewelers or even undertakers…”
Ukrainian society today is akin to that Sergiy from Zhadan’s Depeche Mode – it seemingly understands that the artistic legacy of the Soviet era is not simply “molotovs”, but rather a sculpture / architecture / art – that is, material culture that can store for the society the knowledge of its own progress. True enough, though, it still has no ecosystem – museums, research centers, discourses – that is able to reflect and store that heritage.
Instead, the State of Ukraine pursues a policy of overwhelming de-communization, which, in the words of the philosopher Boris Buden, is a way of “obscuring” historical memory rather than working with the traumatic past. In his work The Transition Zone Buden presents a story from the early days of the Romanian revolution of 1989. During the popular uprising against the totalitarian Ceausescu regime, the Communist emblem was cut from the country’s flag. This tricolored flag with a hole in the middle became the official symbol of the democratic revolution and coincidently an apt metaphor for radical severance with the past. Following the revolution’s success the hole was plugged which seemingly restored the “historical continuity” and “reasonable attitude towards the past” regime. However, as Buden notes, it is not the severance but rather obscuring it that leads to historical amnesia, which in turn leads to the “derealization of the present state of society”.
Ukraine these days is hovering in this unstable yet exceptionally productive moment between cutting out the hammer and sickle and plugging the hole that remains in its place. The Lenin monument pedestal in Kyiv is still empty. Kharkiv activists defended an open space at the Independence Square from installing yet another “monument of independence”. The Schors horseback monument in Kyiv lost a hoof and was hid behind a yellow-blue screen. Yet, the Soviet legacy increasingly becomes the focus of artistic, activist and even fashion-centered projects.
The third edition of the Kyiv Biennale took residence, amongst other locations, in two iconic buildings of Kyiv: the Flying Saucer building next to the Lybidska subway station and the Zhitniy Market on Podil. The T-shirts and sweatshirts displaying the recognizable outlines of the architectural 60’s created by the DA-Style collaboration are worn throughout by the trendy youth. The ceramic modern mini-copy of the Artem monument authored by Ivan Kavaleridze from the distant Svyatogorsk blended into the modern interiors. And the photo album published by Osnovy containing Soviet mosaics became the most desirable gift of the year.
Why and when did it exactly happen that the massive interest, just short of piety, to the Soviet architecture and aesthetics moved far beyond the highly specialized circle of researchers? To a certain extent, this was a matter of time – literally and figuratively speaking. The case of the Soviet modernism architecture is symptomatic. The 2010s are seeing the end of service lifespans for the majority of the 60s buildings which comprise a significant chunk of the urban landscape and now require capital maintenance. That same period is also the period of coming-of-age and gaining political voice by a generation of Ukrainians who never really lived during the Soviet Union times.
The way these youngsters perceive the Soviet era is not based on actual life experiences but rather mediated by images and cultural artefacts, including material ones. Their interest towards Soviet architecture as an important visual component of the city they know is primarily driven by the sincere affection for this city. The capital is literally drowning year upon year in uncontrollable construction: an architecture not only tasteless but lacking any public benefit. The number of newly-created public spaces tends to zero while inappropriate commercial construction is thriving. Hence, the commitment to and the desire to protect it do not represent a sentiment towards the “Soviet past” but rather a protest against false, empty, unprofessional things.
The search for the intersection points of such an immediate interest towards the Soviet heritage and the rather urgent need to “re-invent” its place in the modern state is the focus of the Kyiv Art Week debates program. A series of lectures and meetings with Ukrainian and international experts offers to contemplate further scenarios of working with the architectural, artistic and discursive memory of the Soviet Ukraine. The curators and architects from other countries of the former USSR, where the reinterpretation process occurred earlier and under different circumstances, will share their experiences of existing practices of working with urbanistic and cultural legacy. Historians and photographers will offer their views on how to fall in love with Soviet modernism and understand its extraordinary value. Finally, the authors of the iconic objects of the 60s-80s – the living classics of Ukrainian art and architecture – will share unique stories of creation and subsequent fate of their projects.
The program was developed by Maria Lanko and Lizaveta German.
Photo: Yevgen Nikiforov, from the series "On Republic's Monuments", 2014-2018