A Battle for Public Space | Kiev
This article is an adaption of a larger analysis of notions of national identity in public art in Ukraine. I have selected a few notable examples that illustrate the role city streets can play in the development of social consciousness, and which can thereby influence politics in a way that is both seemingly trustworthy and unique in our current age of alternative facts and media framing.
by Julia Muller
Since the 2014 Revolution there has been a noticeable increase in the creation of public art in various parts of the city of Kiev in Ukraine. Public art proves to be a great source of public contestation against a dominant power or idea. Because of its anonymity, a statement can be made without it being directly connected to an artist.
What's more, an artist can simply claim that his work is non-political and that interpretation is up to the viewer and thus subjective. However, regardless of the author’s identity or intentions, promoting either side of the conflict in public art might be able to reveal some underlying assumptions about a possible national identity. I wonder whether public art can indeed hold the key to unravelling the complexities that surround national identity in Ukraine. What does it mean to be Ukrainian? How do public artworks play with different versions of national identity in post-Soviet Kiev? And what is the role of the city of Kiev in establishing social consensus on a Ukrainian identity?
In the fall of 2015, Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s current president, gave an interview in the Dutch newspaper NRC Next. According to Poroshenko, Ukraine and its people have to get rid of the post-Soviet syndrome they are suffering from. However, what if a notable part of the Ukrainians does not want to get rid of that syndrome because it is instead cherished? The 2014 revolution demonstrated that the country, 15 years after its independence, is utterly divided, both politically and culturally. These divisions can be traced back easily; Ukraine’s history shows numerous occupations by different empires and many redistributions of territory. It is no coincidence that ‘Ukraine’ literally translates into ‘borderland’. Symbolically, Ukraine has been trapped between western Europe and Russia for centuries. As a result, Ukrainians have always, but especially since the fall of the Iron Curtain, struggled to find an identity of their own.
What has remained after Ukraine’s independence in 1989 is a Russian majority in Crimea, a linguistically Russian majority in the Donbas - a western Ukraine that is drawn to other Eastern European countries -, and a central Ukraine including Kiev, that remains hard to define even in terms of affiliations. In post-Soviet Ukraine, language became something heavily politicized and institutionalized. Ukrainian is the official language and thereby excludes Russian speakers. Linguistic pluralism can be seen as a threat to national identity, which is why there is still a battleground over language today. In Ukraine, state territory, national territory, national culture and state language do not match; they're just completely separate entities.
According to French public artist Roti, who has ‘decorated’ Kiev with his work ‘New Ukraine’, public artworks become barometers for social consciousness in times of political crisis, protest or conflict: they reflect changing attitudes towards the government. Pieces of graffiti may achieve impact through imagery that reaches a diverse audience through combining graphics with emotionally engaging political statements. Public art thereby continuously challenges the status quo and invites audiences to think critically.
Now, what does this mean in a city like Kiev, full of mixed identities and cultural affiliations?
To the European Union - and even more so in the Trump-era - Putin is an evil dictator who stands in the way of Ukraine’s struggle for liberal democracy. But in Ukraine, where Putin is sometimes impersonated as God, there’s another side to this story.
This image shows Putin painted as Hitler, holding something resembling DNA tissue between his hands. The right part of the DNA tissue is colored in Ukrainian colors. The left part has been crossed out in the same blue color as the writing. Small patches of the original colors, symbolizing the Russian flag, can be seen at the edges of the blue marking. Written in Ukrainian, the blue text reads ‘Ukraine above all’, which became the nationalist motto during the Euromaidan revolution. The graffiti also says ‘Fuck Putin’, in really coarse Ukrainian, along with ‘Glory to the Nation’ and ‘Death to all Enemies’. The last two are slogans used by the nationalists.
How to interpret this? The original image shows a Putin who is enforcing an ethnically intertwined Ukrainian and Russian identity upon Ukraine through fascist practices. It's a reference to the shared origins between Ukraine and Russia. However, by crossing out the Russian part of the DNA tissue, this shared identity is rejected. This graffiti is street art at it's best. It provides an opportunity to question the status quo. Through this, a social truth might be established.
This second work of art was painted on Euromaidan just before the Crimean referendum on Russian sovereignty in March 2014 took place. The image shows Putin in front of the Russian flag, wearing a uniform that resembles that of the old Russian tsars. Many Russians compare Putin to Peter the Great: he behaves as an elected emperor. The nationalists, on the other hand, seem to associate Putin with tsar Nicholas II, who was the last Emperor of Russia. He was executed in 1917 by the Bolsheviks. After that, the Russian Empire collapsed and Ukraine enjoyed three years of independence. This piece expresses the nationalist desire for Russian withdrawal and Ukrainian independence, which is emphasized by the text beneath the image: ‘Have a good journey, Putin’.
Apart from Putin, public art in Kiev tends to depict another figure: poet Taras Shevchenko. This literary legend is of fundamental significance to the development of modern Ukraine. Born in 1814, he was one of the first writers to use the Ukrainian language for a purpose other than daily communication. The loss of Ukrainian freedom is a central theme in Shevchenko's poetry, and his literary heritage is worshipped all over Ukraine, even in the Russian-speaking southern and eastern regions. The nationalist political party Right Sector has used the image of Shevchenko to promote a certain vision of national identity. ‘Those who experienced difficulties in life, won’t be scared by fire’, the image reads, accompanied by Right Sector’s symbol.
In his poetry, Shevchenko inspires Ukrainians to resist the tsarist rule. This way, he laid the foundations of Ukrainian nationalism. Right Sector’s appropriation of his legacy makes sense, because Shevchenko's Ukraine is an oppressed nation struggling to resist Russian imperialism. A larger mural, in which Shevchenko is accompanied by two other Ukrainian literary heroes (Franko and Ukrainka) reminds people of Ukraine’s history as a sort of social consciousness. In this way, the struggle for liberation overrules Russia and its cultural, demographic and linguistic legacies.
The last image reads ‘In this house, there’s truth, and the power, and the will’, again with the Right Sector sign. The graffiti directly connects Shevchenko’s words to the revolution, as if Shevchenko himself gave the nationalists his blessing to violently oppose their enemies. What's clear is that Ukraine’s national identity is at stake. Right Sector has very consciously chosen Shevchenko as their symbol, implying that language and ethnicity are the main constitutive factors of a Ukrainian national identity.
The graffiti depicting Putin represents a national identity that is based on the idea that ethnicity and language are an inseparable part of the Ukrainian state. The images of Shevchenko offer a much more 'culturalized' version of this same identity. However, both call for an independent Ukraine, glorifying the struggle for freedom and denouncing Russian influence. In this way, graffiti in Kiev shows some sort of consensus on the answer to what it means to be Ukrainian, excluding Russian speakers from that definition by using the Ukrainian language. Yet, to interpret this specific form of Ukrainian nationalism as a rejection of Russianness and a cry for help from western Europe would be far too simplistic.
First of all, Kiev’s political affiliations are not representative of the rest of the country. Further research has shown that in regions such as western Lviv, nationalist affiliations that reject both Russia and Europe prevail. On the other hand, in the Donbass and Crimea, Russian-speaking minorities are much more drawn to Ukraine’s Soviet past.
Secondly, Right Sector’s promotion of a Ukraine freed from both Russian and European influence is often ignored by western media coverage because it does not fit the idea of Ukraine as a democratic buffer-state between the EU and Russia.
Finally, we need to recognize that, although capital cities are often a cross-section of society, they also attract an internationally-oriented and artistic younger generation that is looking to escape from the countryside. The capital offers these people the opportunity to express themselves freely and contribute to the city’s development into a New City.
Kiev is Ukraine’s political and cultural centre. Controlling the urban space therefore means controlling public opinion, which in turn is communicated to the outside world through the media. Since Kiev’s public art scene is dominated by a generation of liberal youngsters - who indeed long for the opportunities offered by closer ties with Europe - it is tempting to overlook the actual complexities of identity in post-Revolution Ukraine.