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28 December, 2015  ▪  

Out of Sight

Decommunisation as a way to decolonise the visual space of Ukrainian cities

Our conception of the past, its heroes and anti-heroes, of our present-day selves, as well as the basis for our understanding of future trends, is set by official historiography and the state's politics of memory. They exist alongside the personal memory of individuals and collective memory of social groups, which is reflected in memoirs and numerous oral history sources that often preserve a different understanding of historical events.

Political strategies to visualise history, memory and ideological guidelines have always been and remain the strongest ways to influence an individual's subconscious, the formation of their beliefs, perception of reality, and evaluation of actions and historical facts. All these strategies appeal to a person's outlook and feelings. Reinforced by numerous rituals and ceremonies, such as laying flowers, raising the flag, pretentious patriotic speeches next to monuments to the fallen and music performed by brass bands, they are firmly imprinted into memory for a long time.

Political strategies for visualising history, memory and ideology

Cities are able to express and transmit certain ideologies and value systems to their residents. Scientists and thinkers call this ability symbolic urban space. The main components of this space are city planning, architecture, place names, monuments and the elements in the design of streets, squares and buildings, including outdoor advertising.

The state, in all its manifestations, has always had a monopoly on forming symbolic urban space and filling it with content. The authorities would take particular care in monitoring the implementation of official historical memory policy through targeted measures. Recently, society started to get involved in this process, at least at the level of public debates.

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If you do not take into account such global elements of the city's symbolic space as its planning and architecture, since that is a separate topic for analysis, then the main strategies of the state in visualising its policies, forming an official historical memory and broadcasting certain ideologies to society are the erection/dismantling of monuments, museification of the historical memory, i.e. creating and supporting various museums, and naming/renaming urban objects. This set of measures worked just as well at the times when Ukrainian lands were part of other states – the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian or Austro-Hungarian Empire and the USSR – as it does today. Authorities in other European countries acted in the same way in both their own cities and towns, and in colonised territories. This is common practice for any state.

If we recognise that other states followed a colonial policy in relation to the Ukrainian lands, their natural resources and population, we understand that the construction of monuments to czars and emperors, the museification of battlefields where these czars were victorious and the naming of streets and squares as a reminder of the territory’s provincial status compared to the imperial centre were commonplace for the coloniser and a necessary action. The same thing happened when Ukraine was part of the USSR. Through monuments to the "Leaders of the International Proletariat" and the "International Revolutionary Movement", by creating a new type of "revolutionary museum" and developing a new technique of constructing expositions and excursions based not on artefacts, but their ideological interpretation, through numerous street signs with the names of questionable heroes or information about the "3rd Soviet Lane", "5th Communist Alley" or a "Red Policeman", the government imposed on society its vision of the history, present and future of the community that found itself under its leadership. In this way, the authorities tried to visualise the way each citizen should picture their past and future and imprint it into their heads. The monumentalism and gigantomania of the Soviet era were intended to testify to the immutability of the situation and its eternity in time and space, which was in turn supposed to lead to the belief of every citizen in the stability of their lives "forever and ever".

When Ukraine at last gained independence, its authorities should have also taken care of the visual markers from past eras in good time. That is what happened in Central Europe and the Baltic States, which is why they have managed to develop their own states over the past quarter-century and we have not. Ukrainians still do not know what sort of state they are building, what their national interests are, who can be considered the spiritual leaders of the nation, in which direction they would like to go or which values ​​are fundamental to them. That is why the visualisation of the official policy in such a state – one that cannot decide on its own priorities – looks rather strange. Some regions carried out decommunisation almost 20 years ago, leaving a minimal number of monuments and place names as witnesses of the colonial past. Others, even with a legal basis in the form of the Law on Decommunisation passed in May 2015, continue to manipulate, for example by changing the name of a district or street after Felix Dzerzhinsky (an initiator of the Soviet Red Terror) to that after Vladislav Dzerzhinsky, his less “prominent” brother who was a doctor – such was one of the latest tricks by the Kharkiv city authorities. Following in their footsteps, Volnovaklha Town Council in Donetsk Oblast renamed the local Monument to Chapayev (Vasily Chapaev was a military figure of the Russian Empire and the Bolshevik Russia) into the Monument to a Cossack.

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European experience of decommunisation

In order to be convinced and confident in one’s actions, it is important to have an idea of ​​how others acted in similar circumstances. We can say that Ukraine is lucky in this sense, as there are numerous positive and negative experiences in Europe. In contemplating how the Hungarians, Czechs, Poles or Lithuanians freed themselves from the imposed idea of Communist paradise, it is possible to both adopt their methods and avoid falling into the same traps.

The civilised way in which European cities removed their monuments and symbols of the hated regime, which Central Europeans associated exclusively with the figure of Stalin, was preceded by traditionally spontaneous and emotional actions that could be called "acts of vandalism". For instance, in the spring of 1956, with revolutionary fervour and on a wave of reprisals against the Soviets in Budapest, the Hungarians demolished the most hated symbol of Soviet presence in Hungary, a symbol of the harsh regime and neglect of the Hungarian people's own ideas about their "bright future" – the Stalin Monument, leaving only his boots.

The Czech struggle against the Soviet presence, the historical development and way of life that was forced on them – for the freedom and independence of their country – did not avoid a "war" against Soviet-era monuments either. Most of the monuments to Czech communist leaders suffered the same fate: activists painted their hands red to symbolise the blood of innocent victims. The dismantled monument to staunch Czech Stalinist Klement Gottwald that stood in the town of Blansko, near Brno, can serve as an example. Today, the Czech Republic battles with the remains – so to speak, the relics – of the communist past through desacralisation, decoding meanings and ridiculing these monuments. That is exactly what they did with the monument to communist president Antonín Zápotocký. The sculpture of the politician in his native village, practically the only one remaining in the Czech Republic, was painted red and white (red jacket and white shoes). Social network users commented on this piece of news with a sense of humour: "At least Mr. Antonin won’t get cold in the winter". The white shoes of the statue could be interpreted as an overt allusion to the direction in which the Czech Republic's communist past should go – into oblivion.

However, the most ambiguous and controversial event was the appearance of a pink tank in Prague. This was the Soviet IS-2 (Joseph Stalin), installed on Kinských Square in the Prague district of Smíchov to commemorate the city's liberation by the Red Army in 1945. It took place on the night of 28 April 1991. A large finger suggesting an obscene gesture was erected on top of the tank's turret. According to the "author", famous sculptor David Černý, his goal was to make fun of the symbols of Soviet military monuments, which were interpreted as a threat to use force against the civilian population. The Soviet tank was imprinted in the Czech consciousness as a symbol of the suppressed Prague Spring in 1968 and the subsequent period of Soviet occupation, which then ceased to be an attribute of the liberation from Nazism. Following an official protest from the Russian government, the tank on the square was returned to its original state. However, as a sign of protest against this decision and the arrest of the sculptor, who was charged with disorderly conduct, 15 MPs took matters into their own hands and painted the tank pink again. Černý was subsequently released, and the tank was removed from its pedestal and transported to the Military Technical Museum in Lešany near Týnecnad Sázavou. Later, David Černý made a proposal to set up the pink tank as a permanent monument in Prague, but Prague City Hall refused to implement his idea under pressure from Prime Minister Miloš Zeman and Russian Ambassador Vasily Yakovlev.

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Unfortunately, the civilised methods of liberating European cities from the monuments and names that symbolised the communist period of the twentieth century actually differ from the image presented to us. The outdoor Memento sculpture park in Hungary, Grūtas Park in Lithuania and the Socialist-Realist Art Gallery in Poland originally had very different goals to the ones they follow today. Their initiators almost unanimously declared the need for these parks, so the younger generation could have a look, be horrified and strive to make sure those totalitarian times never return. In reality, all these centres gradually transformed from cultural and educational facilities into purely commercial, tourist organisations. The youth of Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Lithuania does not visit them. Without a special tour and explanations, a young person born during independence is unable to understand what the horror of the communist era was and what these ugly sculptures in the park, the red bunting on the museum walls or the ridged glasses and aluminium utensils in the cafe signify. Representatives of the older generation that sometimes visit use these museums as a place for nostalgia about the past. At that, they are often nostalgic not for the demonstrations, queues, shortages or total unification and regulation of life, but for their own youth. For this reason, the parks and so-called Museums of Communism have turned into objects that serve only the needs of moneyed tourists from Germany, France and Great Britain, for whom these are places of entertainment, rather than reflection. Is this sort of "civilised decommunisation" really necessary in Ukraine?

Liberation of city space as a condition for the liberation of consciousness

Therefore, if we want to decolonise our territory and liberate the minds of people who live there from their stereotypes and inferiority complex, it is necessary to accept that decolonisation is primarily a return to one's true self. So we must learn to be honest and responsible to ourselves, and only then to the next generation.

The mechanism of liberating consciousness, starting mental evolution and transitioning from stagnation to progress is very easy. Education, the development of multiperspective approaches to the study and appraisal of the past, and the formation of critical thinking should come to the fore. Next, the need should arise for a clear hierarchy of relationships between society and the authorities, the constant tenet of which should the thesis that an MP or civil servant is just a representative of a "customer service department" that is designed to meet the needs of society. However, Ukraine’s diverse and politically polarised society should be given a unifying idea, such as "a society of equal opportunities", "a spiritually healthy society means a prosperous state" or "self-fulfilment is the key to a healthy society". Even more important is the emergence of the firm belief that only civil society can be the driving force behind any change and, therefore, must be cultivated. Under such conditions, the state will be forced to abandon its addiction to monuments as part of its historical memory policy. The need to glorify individuals or certain events will disappear by itself. Spiritual values should take centre stage, ​​not the ambitions or wallets of certain persons.

The design of urban space should be defined by notions of beauty, aesthetics and harmony, not the political and ideological principles of government. However, this process cannot begin without liberating the symbolic space of modern towns and cities from the visual markers of past eras. We must learn to be a lizard that, when losing its tail, does not weep for it, museify it or build a monument to it, but continues to move forward, confident that a new one will eventually appear, which will equally be useful for only a certain time. I am not calling for the demolition of all monuments or displays of our attitude towards them using paint and ridicule, although this is also sometimes necessary, in order to prompt society to discuss certain pressing problems. We should not go to the other extreme and send everything that was created between 1922 and 1991 to museums, because that would turn them into scrapheaps. Instead, a certain amount of this rubbish should nevertheless take its place in museum collections, so that historians, art experts, philosophers, sociologists and cultural anthropologists will have sources for their research. It is equally impossible to nod and remain silent when statements about the completed decommunisation of place names are used to cover up a real conservation of the Soviet past in the worst sense of the word, because this is the result of a desire to preserve and prolong the old ideological guidelines, foreign beliefs and imposed ideas. We must find the strength and will inside ourselves to shake off the shadows of the past once and for all. The visual markers that shape the space of our towns and cities should trigger positive emotions in us and meet our need for information about valuable events in our national history, as well as encourage us to understand mistakes made in order to avoid them in the future.

 

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