Decommunization is about removing ideological ‘layers of old paint’ and creating environment that allows drawing own conclusions – activists


Law on decommunisation is often misinterpreted, thus it raises many questions at the stage of its implementation. Yet this change shall come through all the regions of Ukraine, starting from inside of museums and form of presenting historic information should change.  

Kyiv, April 13, 2016. “Conducting decommunization today […] means removing all the ideological ‘layers of old paint’, clearing absolutely every word, every message, creating environment that allows every visitor to draw his or her own conclusions,” said Lesya Gasydzhak, editor of the web-portal “Muzeinyi Prostir”, head of the Information and Analysis Department of NGO “Ukrainian Centre for Museums Development” at a press briefing at Ukraine Crisis Media Center. Only then we will have real civil society and democracy, she emphasized. According to Gasydzhak, people, not only museum workers, cannot read and analyze, so they wrongly interpret the law on decommunization. The law reads that the prohibition does not apply to the cases of using symbols of communist totalitarian regime in museum exhibits, said Gasydzhak. “There are emotions, reflexes regarding the necessity to change everything during decommunization and that presumably there are museums where red stars on Soviet tanks and garrison caps were covered with paint. What is it for? Will they stick tridents instead of stars?” asks Gasydzhak. “Isn’t it the same recall of the Soviet Union, only even worse than the one we condemn”. According to her, we must understand museums in Soviet times were ideological mouthpieces and it was their main task.

“Museum as an institution must be a flagship in a certain way,” said Leonid Marushchak, Arts department curator at Ukraine Crisis Media Center. Following organization of a cultural artistic residence in Vinnytsia, it became evident that museums in Ukraine remain conservative like they were in Soviet times, said Marushchak, sharing his impressions. “There is a number of treasures that not many people saw, but the most important and problematic for me as a person from Vinnytsia is the fact that there are no contemporary things,” explained Marushchak. Within the framework of “DE” culture workshops in Sloviansk, Severodonetsk and Mariupol, the curator of UCMC Arts department saw a number of examples of local museums still ‘breathing’ the Soviet past. A museum in Sloviansk for him was the most striking. “The most interesting exhibits date back to 1917, there are several stuffed wolves, bores and foxes, and then there is immediately 1917. Everything that was before is a mystery,” recollects Marushchak. “We were overwhelmed that there was not a single mention that there was huge amount of foreign investments in Sloviansk in early XIX – late XX century”.

There is a problem of Soviet influence not only in the Eastern Ukraine but also in Central and Western Ukraine. It still takes ‘lion’s share’ of exhibits in museums, there are displays dedicated to “people who in reality were punitive explorers,” said Vasyl Rozhko, chief of Museums and Cultural Property Directorate at the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine.  According to him, our present-day museum system is a remnant of the Soviet system. “There is a certain blend, when there is no party, and no vertical structure, and the regions are not subordinate to Kyiv, […] but we are stuck somewhere, when there is no more “old” and yet nothing “new”,” believes Rozhko.  At the same time, is not enough to say that for past 70 years of the Soviet power 70 percent of exhibitions in many museums were made of Soviet things. The problem is much deeper, as there were no inventories, there is no list of the museums, there are no communications, systematic vision and mechanism of future work of the museums,” said the official. He believes that all museums must become independent. “We must condemn crimes, form public attitude towards crimes […] and, correspondingly, we would have to assess whether we honour murders of people during Soviet times, but not presence of Soviet artifacts on display,” said Rozhko. The problem is that the Soviet ideology was forced upon people for many decades, and it ‘sprang’ in people’s minds. “We can’t simply condemn, we must deeply reconsider,” emphasized the ministry representative.

Oksana Barshynova, art critic, head of the Department of Art of the XX – beginning XXI centuries at the National Museum of Art of Ukraine, said that there is a human resources problem and the problem of incorporation of modern art as an instrument of change in museology.  In terms of decommunization, such towns as, say, Vinnytsia and Severodonetsk are similar, despite opposite circumstances. “People in Vinnytsia are convinced that decommunization has taken place there, they are absolutely calm. When you come to a museum, you see that some pieces of information materials were torn up by the roots and new materials were put in, those materials which are contemporary. Nevertheless, in general it looks barbarous,” said Barshynova. On the opposite, people in Severodonetsk do not suspect that decommunization is necessary at all, said the art critic. Considering the lack of human resources, it is necessary to introduce change from several directions, said the head of the museum department. First of all, the change must be made from the inside of the museum, which means critical thinking of museum workers themselves must be developed. Secondly, it is necessary to cooperate with the surrounding environment, in particular with artists who can be a voice of the society,” said Barshynova.

“People are so much afraid of repetition of the 1937, that they are getting ahead of themselves to do what does not need to be done,” said Anastasiya Gaidukevych, Head of the Museum Affairs Department at Ukrainian Institute of National Memory. She said museum workers are afraid and do not know what to do when 90 percent of their museum fund relates to the Soviet times. The keynote of the law is that museums must stop performing propaganda function they were performing before, emphasized Gaidukevych. She believes presentation of information in museums must be changed. For instance, there is often biased coverage of history, for instance, events of 1917 – 1921 only in the Bolshevik interpretation, or simply torn out fragments of Ukrainian history, such as relating to the Holodomor, said the museum worker. It must be reconsidered not from the forced standpoint that it must be done in this or that way, the audience must receive full scope of viewpoints and positions relating to some events. Only then will people be able to think and form their own attitude, said Gaidukevych.