By the time Evgeniya Kuleba comes to meet us in The Heavenly Hundred Garden in central Kiev, night has fallen. Despite the first signs of spring, an icy wind has pushed the temperature down to -5 Celsius. Two years after the Maidan Revolution of 2014, that many refer to as the Revolution of Dignity, the garden has become one of the enduring symbols of both the violence of that period and its potential. From the wall of one building overlooking the garden in Mykhailivska Square, just beside the golden-domed monastery of St. Michael, the bearded face of Serhiy Nihoyan stares down. Nihoyan was the first protestor to be killed by shooting on 22 January 2014, but the mural was intended to represent all subsequent victims too.
Much of the effort to create both garden and memorial came from Kuleba, an arts manager, activist and former resident of the square. But the initial motivation came from rubbish. ‘It was piling up high,’ she says, ‘and nobody was doing anything about it.’ Since then, the rubbish has been cleared and the garden has been transformed into a civic space, complete with trees and children’s playground. Transformation is synonymous with revolution but the speed at which it happens can be critical to the outcome.
What civic society means, how to develop it, how to build and sustain national identity, and how to dispose of the rubbish, whether literal or metaphorical, are still major questions. Central Kiev is, after all, replete with living memory. Just around the corner from Independence Square, the focal point of much of the violence from the barricades to the snipers who shot citizens indiscriminately, there are chalk marks on the pavement. They are the outlines of bodies. Beyond them, on what has come to be called Heavenly Hundred Alley, are the semi-permanent memorials, with photographs, candles and bricks, showing those who lived and died in the protests. This visual necrology has become a fundamental part of national identity, both as reinforcement of collective memory and also as part of an emergent Ukrainian narrative.
As Olesya Drashkaba, artist and illustrator, puts it: ‘When you see a sniper, it changes your idea of life.’ Red-haired and with a hearty laugh, she sits in Cupidan, a basement bar, café and bookshop on Pushkinska Street that was, and is, a meeting point for protestors and artists. ‘Before Maidan,’ she says, ‘there was a lot of kitsch. During Maidan even the barricades became art.’
One of the principal effects of this confluence of art and politics has been the gradual surfacing of an if not new then certainly repurposed national narrative. Who controls the narrative and how it is propagated raises many issues. History is full of examples of narrative, myth and legend put to the service of extreme ideologies with often murderous objectives. Yet the culture and history of a territory is integral to forging national identity and direction. Two years on from Maidan, a major exhibition has opened at Mystetskyi Arsenal National Art and Culture Museum Complex that addresses identity, and places Maidan in a broader cultural context.
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors takes its title from a ground-breaking film made by Sergei Parajanov in 1964, based on Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky’s 1911 novel of the same name. Based on the culture and customs of the Hutsul people of the Carpathian Mountains, the film made the Armenian-born Parajanov something of a celebrity outside the Soviet Union, and made him many enemies inside. The film was anything but socialist realism, using religious symbolism, folklore and dialect to document in rich and dramatic fashion the life of an obscure people who lived – and whose descendants still live – far from the ideological sensitivities of the Cold War era and its aftermath.
Its revival suggests an appropriation of culture for political rather than artistic purposes. But where the line can be drawn between artistic vision and political context is one with which more or less any culture wrestles on a daily basis. The film was partly shot in the sprawling Dovzhenko Film Studios, named in 1957 after the Ukrainian film director and producer, which still has its Soviet-era sound stage, one of the biggest in Europe, and its own museum. The revival of the film is as much about rejecting its troubled Soviet past as about distinguishing the culture of Ukraine from that of neighbouring Russia.
Apart from stills and backstory, the exhibition about the film includes many examples of the kind of folkloric art that breathe life into post-Maidan Ukraine. Woodcuts, engravings and linocuts by Heorhiy Yakutovych, who was both illustrator of the original novel and art director on the film, are reminiscent of some of the works on display at the National Art Museum, in particular those of Taras Shevchenko, the mid-19th Century artist, folklorist and political exile so central to the cultural history of Ukraine. And it’s important to remember that the National Art Museum was itself on the front line of Maidan. Outside, as tyres burned and soldiers from the provinces arrived in the capital, the staff slept at their posts while works were stored out of harm’s way. Art and politics always seem to find each other, no more so than in the question, ‘Whose art is it?’ To an outsider, this not unlike trying to pin down who invented borscht. To some, the answer to both questions is clear: Ukraine.
One of the key supporters of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is the Borys Lozhkin Foundation. Lozhkin, a 44-year-old media multi-millionaire, is Head of the Presidential Administration. A dedicated collector of Ukrainian art and patron of new artists – he has several contemporary paintings in his office – Lozhkin represents a new generation of political figure, one that is able to embrace art, politics and business. This can raise irreconcilable conflicts of interest but he is as keen to emphasise the importance of art as of reform. State management, including the overhaul of the civil service and judiciary, and the drive against corruption are crucial if the Revolution of Dignity is to be the lasting foundation of the new Ukraine. So-called Lustration Law, which has become familiar to anyone observing post-Soviet East European politics, is ultimately aimed at transforming – literally clarifying, cleansing and purifying – the old dispensation. Inevitably, the devil is in the detail. For Lozhkin, one of the keys to the process is ‘political will’. As he emphasizes, ‘We need to be more united.’
Unity requires not only the development of cultural narrative and national identity but also the continued activism of citizens. For Nataliya Popovych, one of the co-founders of Ukraine Crisis Media Centre, an independent news service established by activists and funded by international organizations as well as the Ukrainian diaspora, ‘civil society only woke up after Maidan’. Popovych says that, like many activists, she thought she would return to her former life after Maidan. The opposite is true. Pro bono work has become a way of life in an atmosphere of uncertainty, especially in the disputed, and still dangerous, eastern part of the country. Citizens needed guidance on what to do if soldiers appeared on their street or what to prepare in case they needed to flee. But Popovych stresses the role of culture, how under-represented it is, and how important it is to emphasise what makes Ukraine different from its overbearing neighbour.
Again, narrative is vital, and whose narrative is ascendant makes all the difference. Yevhen Fedchenko, director of the Mohyla School of Journalism and co-founder of Stopfake, a fact-checking website launched in March 2014, knows only too well how Russia tries to manipulate that narrative. The website has been the victim of hacking and denial of service attacks, with Russia being the most likely culprit. Debunking fakery becomes as necessary as projecting and developing the national story.
The piles of rubbish may have diminished in The Heavenly Hundred Garden but Evgeniya Kuleba knows that ‘lustration’ does not end there. ‘Politics and money,’ she says, ‘are still too close.’ The heat and smoke of Maidan have also cleared but Ukraine’s narrative remains a work in progress that is dependent on the continued vigilance and activism of its citizens.
With special thanks to Oksana Kyzyma.