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Black Commander

From a monument to the alive image

Sculpture is a traditional form of art which for thousands of years had been relatively constant. For a long time, it had been static, actually the monument. There are many artworks in the history of arts depicting white men riding horses: that’s how an image of the powerful man, the hero, should look like, but for the last century everything has rapidly changed. This process had been started by Auguste Rodin. He was trying to express the personality of the writer and make his/her image alive. It is one of the first moments in the history of arts when a sculptor puts vividness and expression above the tradition. American contemporary art critic Rosalind Krauss in her essay “Sculpture in the expanded field” (1976) wrote that right there and then the sculpture stopped being a monument. However, there is as question: What is the sculpture now? First of all, it had been tradition, goal and task. And what about now? The understanding of sculpture and its logic has transformed for the first time in ages. The sculpture is changing today as well, and that is why we are continuing to look for answers to the questions what is it and are inviting to a dialogue.



Auguste Rodin “Honoré de Balzac”, 1897.

Nowadays Ukraine is rethinking Soviet cultural heritage. This process is connected with the range of contradictions and difficulties and it is vital to search for a solution for saving and rethinking of the cultural heritage. After the “decommunization wave” it was left one architectural project in Kyiv which afterlife is a subject to many questions, the Mykola Shchors memorial, coincidentally located now near Symona Petliury Street. The Mykola Shchors monument, the Red Commander of the Civil War 1917-1922, had been unveiled on 30 April 1954. Group of the following sculptors had erected it: V.Z. Borodai, N.M. Sukhodolov, M.H. Lysenko and the architects: A.I. Zavarov and A.I. Vlasov.

Publishing House “Mystetstvo”. Photo by: B. Mindel, I. Kropyvnytskyi, 1970.

This sculpture is the only equestrian memorial in Kyiv being a subject to the Ukraine’s decommunization laws, but it is protected from dismantling as a cultural heritage site. The monument is included to the State Register of Immovable Monuments of Ukraine by the category of national significance as a public art memorial. The equestrian statue of Mykola Shchors 13.8 meters high is erected on the granite base with a height of 6.5 m. At the top the base is adorned with a cornice and a frieze with basreliefs depicting episodes of the Civil War in Ukraine. The monument often becomes a subject to vandalism. At night on 10 April 2008 it had been blown up and during the act of vandalism a granite piece had been knocked off. On the 23rd of August, 2016 it had been covered with a huge Ukrainian flag by the City Department, but this had not protected it from destruction. On the 20th of March, 2017 unknown individuals had cut off the horse’s hoof that had damaged the sculpture. On the 26th of September, 2017 a group of anonymous artists had made an attempt of restoration saying it was an artistic campaign “The Step” (Ukrainian “Krok”). In their opinion, the reconstructed leg is a metaphor, the very picture of successful steps of the country in the European direction. The country which remembers the past, makes conclusions and believes in the future. The restored part is of a white-colour symbolizing peace, and on the hoof, there is the national symbol: the state emblem.

Photo by: Radio Svoboda / Twitter

If we make a brief excursion into the history, it becomes clear that the battle for the statue is a battle with a myth on the “legendary winner” which had been artificially created by Soviet propaganda.

The native of Chernihiv Region, Mykola Shchors participated in the First World War as a member of the Russian army. After returning to Motherland in 1917 he joined the rebel movement against the Hetman Pavlo Skoropadskyi and Austro-German military forces. Then he joined Bolshevists and participated in the formation of their subdivisions. In 1919 the bands of “The Red” entered Kyiv, and Mykola Shchors became the city major. He cancelled all the provisions of the previous regime, proclaimed outside the laws the representatives of the Directory and the Government. After invading Kyiv Shchors lead the 1st Ukrainian Soviet division which as a result of the rapid attack forced Zhytomyr, Vinnytsia and Zhmerynka and in August 1919 was killed under mysterious circumstances. Most likely, Shchors had been killed by the very Bolshevists.

Ironically, in the 1920-s the name Mykola Shchors had been known to the very few people. The peak of his popularity had been in the 1930-s, when the government of Soviet Union seriously had dealt with creating a heroical epos aimed at mythicizing that Ukraine voluntarily accepted Bolshevism as the main doctrine. This is a myth of the revolution and the Civil War on the basis of which new generations of Soviet citizens should be brought up. The Sosnovsk Town in Chernihiv Region in 1935 had been renamed in honour of Shchors. The monuments had been erected and factories, schools and collective farms had been named in his honour. Talented artistic creators: writers, artists and musicians are also involved in the perpetuation of the figure. In 1937 the first part of Semen Skliarenko trilogy “Way to Kyiv” (Ukrainian: “Shliakh na Kyiv”) and a year later its second volume “Shchors” had come out. In 1938 the similarly-named Borys Liatoshynskyi opera to Maksym Rylskyi and Ivan Kocherha libretto had been performed by the Kyiv Opera and Ballet Theatre. In 1935 J. Stalin awarding the order of Lenin to film-maker Oleksandr Dovzhenko pointed out that it would be good to shoot a heroic film about “Ukrainian Chapaiev”, Mykola Shchors. Preparation to film-making had been lasting for four years because the rewriting of history of the “eminent person” and its adjusting to the new party’s areas of activity was going on, and each time Dovzhenko had to transform the myth. The researchers of film-maker’s creative work know four versions of the picture scripts. It is also interesting that during writing a work Oleksandr Dovzhenko communicated with people who had known Shchors personally, in particular with his brother Hryhorii. According to some statements, to the comments of the close associates that a real Shchors was not such a person whom people had been trying to portray, the artistic creator replied: “If we make a good film, people would believe that he really had been such a person”. Therefore, a film-maker had created one of numerous myths of the Soviet history accomplishing the government’s political order[1].

Dovzhenko’s “Shchors” had been the beginning of a grandiose myth forming some reality for decades. Shchors had become a piece of art. Or, rather, hundreds of artworks glorifying the killed revolutionist. However, the regime producing these artworks, was the everything Shchors had been fighting with. When the cult of Shchors was instituted, this regime had already liquidated most of his comrades in revolution, cruelly exploited the citizens and starved millions of Ukrainian citizens”, — writes in his manifest “Against the national vanguard” Oleksii Radynskyi[2]. In 1954 the image from Dovzhenko’s film had been used for the sketch of the Shchors monument at T. Shevchenka Boulevard in Kyiv.

The myth of Shchors had gone through numerous changes until the collapse of the Soviet Union and after almost 30 years of independence it had not been de-mythicized in the contemporary Ukrainian history. The myth created of his personality raises many questions unlikely hard to answer as it passed almost a century after his killing. At present it is more valuable to be able to see what is happening nowadays and understand that the monument is an irritator putting together widely differing opinions. Certainly, it is necessary to terminate the discourse of the Soviet myth and deemphasize its further influence on the society. The project of Shchors de-mythicizing is aimed at zeroization of things set up by the Soviet propaganda and creation of the new image that may become a symbol of the recent significant events. The city needs scars and irritators for history to be remembered and national memory not to be erased under the influence of political changes. Although, it is absolutely clear that such an irritator in its present form may not be accepted by the local community. The statue is closely related to the Obelisk to the Hero-City Kyiv, — in contrast to the snow-white marble a new sculptural decision should encourage to some duality of the images. White memorial to the city which survived from many attacks and wars and the monument to the commander connected with the people killing. After depriving the statue of the created myth, it would not become the perpetuation of the Red Commander, but the sculpture reminding about the war cold reality and its consequences.

Art varies and may trigger different emotions. The challenge is in learning to treat it in a proper manner. Art may be and should be the subject to discussion: it is not always easy, but still better than closing eyes to the significant for society matters. The ability to perceive arts with humour without unnecessary pathos and aggression and have own critical opinion is the best tactics for analysing arts of the Soviet period. Questionable pages in the history of arts of any country is always the opportunity for search of the new perception, but not а creation of the problem for erasing memory of the past. Prohibiting, destroying or hiding the cultural heritage instead of discussing and rethinking is not the best practice chosen in most cases by totalitarian regimes of the past. A new demythicized sculptural decision of the artwork should return it to the social medium where everyone may see and stand near it. Such an approach provides an open access to the arts for the maximum number of people. The art attracts attention and triggers various reactions, but we should not be afraid of this as it may become the beginning of a dialogue with the society and the opportunity to ask a question: “What, do you think, the art should be and why? Would you like to see it in your city/town?”. The question is an opportunity to get the answer.

[1] Boiko О.D. The issues of Ukrainian revolution 1917–1921 (in Ukrainian: Problemy ukrainskoi revolutsii 1917–1921): Сollection of scientific articles. – 10th edition. – K.: The Institute of History of Ukraine of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, 2014. – Page. 210.

[2]  O.Radynskyi. Shchors, vanguard and world revolution (in Ukrainian: Shchors, avanhard i svitova revolutsiia). [Electronic source] // Prostory: online magazine.  2017. The 15th of August.

URL: https://prostory.net.ua/ua/krytyka/220-shchors-avanhard-i-vsesvitnia-revoliutsiia (reference date: 06.05.2019)

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Venue: Museum of History of Kyiv

Address: 7 Bohdana Khmelnitskogo Str.

Time: 19:00 – 21:00