A Camp in a Lobby

The Motherland Monument is the fifth biggest statue in the world and overwatches south-central Kyiv and the Dnipro from it’s elevated position on one of Kyivs steep hills. It is embedded in a park-like complex that houses numerous museums and memorials. Green hills, bendy paths and the old exhibited tanks and war machinery almost make the visitor feel like one is witnessing an invasion in J.R.R. Tolkiens »The Shire«. After bypassing massive bronze statues and relievos one slowly approaches the main monument which has been looming over the hills from the very beginning of the complex. The bombastic statue depicting »Ukraines Mother« stretching up sword and shield stands on a dark pedastal made from marble and granite which houses the War Museum. It honours the Ukrainian and Russian forces that fought together in the German-Soviet War between 1941 and 1945.

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With Ukraines army not having fought a war since then, there was no need to add another chapter to the story the museum tells – until 2014, when Russian forces and Ukrainian separatists annexed Crimea and started the conflict in Donbas. The new chapter about this ongoing conflict is located in the dark, big and gloomy lobby beneath the statue, which was the only free space the building provided. Originally the lobby was an empty space that lead the visitor to two levels with orbitally arranged rooms for the exhibition. One would walk through the lobby on dark red marble and underneath a dark bronze ceiling with stars and bronze torches on the walls before walking through an empty space to the stairway. Now this whole lobby space is turned into what seems to be an encampment out in the field in Donbas. The contrast between this new part of the exhibition and the original architectural design is striking: improvised war machinery and personal objects from the conflict zone meet the anonymous original design that guides the visitor in the dramatic and belittling way, typical for Soviet monuments.

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The biggest conceptual difference, however, is found in the basic ideas of both exhibitions through which the history of the conflicts is told. History between 1941 and 1945 is told in chronological order of invasion, resistance and defeat and in a highly aestheticised way. Original objects from the war are arranged in a visual context that obviously aims to recreate the terror of World War II. This visual context is created through dramatic paintings, bronze relievos and recreated objects in dark rooms without natural light. With the transformers of the old lightning system embedded in the ceiling humming loudly the visitor sees uniforms, medals, motorbikes, parts of warplanes, original and recreated objects from concentration camps and tons of propaganda of both sides. While photos of various sizes fill the gaps the most personal objects one can find are a few letters and service books, the rest of the effect is created through the architecture of the monument. After passing by the victory party symbolized by a long dining table one finds itself in front of a second stairway, now distinctively made of white marble and ascends on wide stairs into a light-flooded room with a panorama view over Kyiv. The high ceiling is decorated with a huge red star and golden mosaics and the names of dead soldiers are written in golden letters on the white marble between the windows offering the humbling view over Kyiv and the Dnipro. It is hard to evade from this effect that the architectural design is forcing onto the visitor.

After coming down the stairs into the lobby again the contrast to the new exhibition becomes unmissable. It seems to occupy a space that was not meant to be taken by anything that is supposed to transmit meaningful content other than the humbling experience of entering the museum and monument. Which is why especially now the details of this new chapter about Ukraines recent conflict catch the eye. Everything in the lobby is linked to specific individuals and telling the story of the Ukrainian fighters. The biggest items are vehicles with improvised armour in the centre of the lobby that each tell the personal stories of the soldiers who drove them in Donbas, for example of an officer who was killed by shrapnel in an ambush. Smaller items are mostly personal belongings of fighters next to their weapons that are arranged in military boxes to illustrate their everyday life in the conflict zone. Every collection also provides a photograph and a text to each fighter, with text on green background meaning that the fighter is still alive and black background meaning that the fighter has been killed in action. The selection of photographs is remarkable as they do not portray them in heroic or staged poses but seem to be taken from social media. Wide smiles and subpar lightning and quality appear to show them in their everyday lives as soldiers and as who they are or were. Most distinctly for this highly personalized exhibition concept are the »Four Cyborgs«, wax figures depicting four soldiers that defended the Donetsk airport against separatist forces to who the exhibition is dedicated. They stand together behind their original equipment and are extremely realistically portrayed and look the visitor into the eyes friendly but affirmatively. Further in the back of the lobby space also civil aspects of the conflict in the occupied oblasts are addressed. One very emotional example being photos of a Ukrainian woman pinioned to a lamppost and shamed and abused as traitor by pro-Russian individuals. Other examples for more civil aspects of the conflict are the portrayal of a female army doctor and the support by the Ukrainian orthodox church.

Especially through a collection of Ukrainian flags and camouflage netting on the walls it therefore seems like these soldiers constituted a camp and occupied the monument. This occupation creates an ironic image of Ukraine annexing a part of this monument that has been shaped by Russias power over Ukraine during the existence of the USSR. But furthermore this new element of the War Museum creates an image for the Ukrainian people to identify with and provides a narrative supporting Ukrainian nationalism. On our day in Kyiv we met with Ukrainian politologist Volodomir Fesenko and in his talk he stated that the Ukrainian army is the most trusted branch of the government. Since before the conflict in Eastern Ukraine in »Soviet tradition« the army was seen as trustworthy and as a not corrupted institution. This image was then steadily reinforced by the ongoing conflict since 2014 and generated a story of Ukrainian volunteer battalions that fought with inferior and improvised armoury against the Russian aggressors. With this story giving Ukraine a young and distinctive chapter of history the army ended up being the most trusted governmental institution. Although the style of the new exhibition is highly personalized and tells the story of the conflict on a very personal level, Fesenko argues that these stories of individual heroes and martyrs altogether create more of an »abstract hero cult« without individual heroes. Even with some of the soldiers from the exhibition and other heroes and martyrs being present everywhere in Kyiv, he states that most people couldn’t name a single one of them when asked. Instead Fesenko points out that by creating such an »abstract hero cult« it is being avoided to glorify a single leading figure from the military – like a general for instance. As such a figure would instantly gain huge support from the Ukrainian people due to the army enjoying the public confidence, especially since the conflict began in 2014.

In the context of the dramatic and belittling complex of Soviet-time monuments this new, very personal exhibition creates a space that tells a story of a Ukrainian army that Ukrainians can identify with as a whole – but on a personal level. The contrast between the old and the new exhibition provides an image that fits the anti-Russian narrative of Ukrainian nationalism that is very present in all of Kyiv. A city where you can buy toilet paper with Putins face printed on it in places like the Maidan and a young pro-European bar keeper calls Russian the »language of the occupants«, when asked about the languages he speaks.

When exiting the monument one now sees the one tank painted in blue and yellow facing two green ones again, an installation reminiscing the famous picture from Tiananmen square. From this new perspective leaving the exhibition it very much fits the story of the inferior, rebellious Ukrainian army fighting the mighty Russian invaders. After walking out of the whole complex through its green hills and back to the bus station one also passes by the Russian tanks captured in Crimea and Donbas again. The yellow signs in front of them telling that this weaponry is proof that Russian forces invaded Ukrainian soil. At the latest at this point one should wonder where the aspect of Ukrainian separatist movements within the eastern oblasts is thematized.

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