Decommunisation laws require additional methodical recommendations for their implementation – arts experts

UCMC reference: On August 19 director of the Ukrainian House that is state-owned, initiated dismantling of bas-reliefs from the building’s façade, referring to “decommunization laws”. Bas-reliefs that portray workers in a heroic Soviet manner were installed in 1980s as part of the Lenin museum – what the Ukrainian House actually was at that time. However, the bas-reliefs were not included into the list of objects that the scope of laws covers. Under the pressure of expert community and close media attention, dismantling process was stopped. UCMC uses the case to demonstrate an array of opinions on decommunization existent in the society as well as the problems that emerge in course of implementation of the laws.

Kyiv, August 22, 2016. The situation around the attempt to dismantle Soviet bas-reliefs from exterior walls of the Ukrainian House on the European square showed that, firstly, decommunization laws require additional explanation and methodical recommendations as to their implementation. Secondly, there is a deep split in the Ukrainian society in this regard. These are the results of a public discussion held at Ukraine Crisis Media Center.

“This law is lacking a methodical handbook. Some legal contradictions actually emerge at the implementation stage [between decommunization laws and laws for protection of cultural heritage – UCMC],” noted Ganna Bondar, acting director of the Urban Construction and Architecture Department at the executive body of the Kyiv City Council. Another problem is the lack of public discourse on decommunization.

According to Yuriy Stelmashchuk, director of the Ukrainian House, who issued the order to dismantle the bas-reliefs, they need to be dismantled as they are a symbol of the totalitarian epoch and thus get into the scope of action of the laws on condemnation of totalitarian regimes. “All (communist) elements are present in this artistic piece. They include the phrase “Study, study, study” of Vladimir Lenin, while the Institute of the National Memory (that compiled a list of objects that are subject to dismantling), listed exact names of the torturers who were killing people not only in Ukraine but all across the post-Soviet space. We were probably not careful enough when dismantling the bas-relief, but we were doing so being firmly convinced that in order to build the future we need to remove the lies that were imposed on us,” he stated. According to Stelmashchuk the suitable way out of the situation is to “work out a procedure that will move them out of here.”

At the same time representatives of the expert community noted that the bas-reliefs were not included into the dismantling list formed based on decommunization laws. It was also stated by the Institute of the National Memory. “In our opinion these bas-reliefs are not within the scope of action of decommunization laws, that’s why we did not include them into the dismantling list,” quoted the message of Volodymyr Vyatrovych, director of the Institute of the National Memory, moderator Vladyslava Osmak, Head of the Center for Urban Studies of the National University Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. From the legal standpoint to launch the dismantling procedure more than the director’s order would be required in the view of the status of the Ukrainian House. “The building is a newly discovered architectural and urban heritage piece, it is an integral part of the square’s built-up area and is an interesting example of Soviet modernist architecture – of the architectural period. And these bas-reliefs as well,” emphasized Olena Mokrousova, chief specialist of the Kyiv scientific and methodical center for protection, restoration and use of the historic and cultural heritage items, areas of conservation. Moreover the agreement for protection of the object was supposed to have been made with the local body for protection of cultural heritage. According to Mokrousova such agreement was never made.

According to historian and expert on Kyiv Mykhailo Kalnytsky, the scope of action of the laws on decommunization do not cover the objects that were recognized works of art before the decommunization laws came into force. “There are sculptures that were being created as part of mass production, there are also art works. In this case it is a unique artistic piece and part of the architectural artistic piece,” he noted.

The second problem that came into the spotlight is how to find a happy medium between the strive to get rid of reminisces of the totalitarian past and at the same time to not get to the totalitarian “cleansing” of a certain period of history. Olena Mokrousova reminded that priceless churches embraced the similar fate in the 30s, art nouveau architecture was also targeted by Bolsheviks as “bourgeois” and “decadent”.

“I am surprised by the role of those who protect the art that is part of the communist heritage, because my first monumental work was made in cooperation with Mykola Malyshko – it is a cross in Sandarmokh forest massif in Karelia (site in Russia where political prisoners of Soviet labor camps were executed – UCMC). I am not defending the system itself, by no means, however, I am worried about the logic that is formed as a result of such attitude to the heritage. One needs to consider how these art works were produced and if they are of artistic value. We are not against decommunization, we do not support its ‘barbarian’ application,” said Nazar Bilyk, sculptor, grandson of Valentyn Borysenko, author of the bas-reliefs on the Ukrainian House.

Artist Lilia Borysenko, daughter of the artist, noted that her father was actually a patriot and was sticking to the happy medium as much as he could under those circumstances. Even at the communist party’s sessions in Moscow he was speaking Ukrainian. “He portrayed our entire family. The figure with a book is me – ‘Study, study, study’. I think this bas-relief needs to be dismantled indeed. It is a heritage piece that relates to that epoch, but we need to do it with respect, because these were the times when our parents were born, when they lived and worked,” she noted.

Artist Volodymyr Melnychenko, co-author of the destroyed bas-reliefs of Kyiv crematorium, spoke against the dismantling. “I am against the idea to destroy the bas-reliefs on this building. I advocate for the idea to leave them and place an explanation sign beside it.” An example of such a compromise is already existent on the building of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy where there is a mosaic that has a quote on it saying “Study, study, study”. “At the initiative of the University President Vyacheslav Bryukhovetsky a sign was installed saying that it is an object that is left to remind of the totalitarian heritage so that the history does not repeat itself. I think this wise step could become an example for these bas-reliefs as well,” Kalnytsky noted.

According to Ganna Bondar, a rational way out of the situation is to suggest the issue for discussion of specialists from the expert council within the executive body of the Kyiv City Council. “All risks need to be carefully analyzed. If in the future it will be decided that something needs to be done on this place – it definitely needs to be made through an artistic competition,” she noted.

Establishing of the totalitarism museum could become a step forward to the compromise between supporters of various approaches to decommunization. Dismantled heritage pieces of the Soviet epoch could be brought there, however this idea is currently at the discussion stage only.