Ukraine’s past is a chaotic, but deeply moving one. As a gateway between Europe and the East, it has been under the rule of and influenced by various empires before gaining independence. Between 1917 and 1991, the Soviet Union impacted not only the fate of the Ukrainian people drastically, but also transformed their cities and way of life. Now Ukraine is able to control its own fate and heading for a new European future. The Soviet remnants in the shape of buildings and monuments pose a question: How should this past be remembered, if at all?
Getting off the train in Kyiv somewhat resembles disembarking from a time machine. Only that you’re not entirely sure whether you have travelled into the future or back into the past.
Looking up into the air, glass-covered skyscrapers representing international tech industry giants dominate the surroundings. On the other hand, concrete blocks reek of the impact of the communist rule, their facades symmetrically decorated by air conditioners. Futuristic-looking buildings designed by renowned Soviet architects round off the grotesque mixture.
The current political climate in Ukraine is tense. With Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ongoing armed conflict in Donbass, a region in the Eastern part of the country, anti-Russian sentiments have increased. This development is also reflected in a stronger sense of Ukrainian nationalism; one that rejects any association with the former Soviet Union. This progression towards a strong nationalistic sentiment becomes apparent throughout Kyiv. The feeling is also seen in arts and architecture.
A monument symbolising the friendship between Russia and Ukraine features a crack painted on by activists. Soviet statues have disappeared and unique communist buildings are neglected by the state or modified by wealthy developers. These developments demonstrate Ukraine’s transformation into a young capitalist state.
Old tram wagons and buses follow the route of the power lines hanging above the porous streets. The pulse of the city is the metro, which began operating in 1960. A remnant of Soviet times and crucial to Kyiv functioning properly. A long escalator ride carries the passengers deep underground and leads them through lavish corridors illuminated by chandeliers. As you reach Khreshchatyk street through Maidan Nezalezhnosti station, you are engulfed by imposing Stalinist high-rises, constructed until the dictator’s death in 1953.
The promotion of Khrushchev as the new leader of the Soviet Union brought further types of communist architecture, most commonly associated with the USSR today. So-called Khrushchyovkas provided labour- and cost-cheap mass housing, before space limitations forced a switch to high-rise panel buildings, or paneleks. Due to financial circumstances, Khrushchev and the Central Committee of the Communist Party decided to stop further construction of Stalinist architecture. It paved the way for the rise of Soviet Modernism that is so recognisable and unique today.
“For some time, the architectural establishment was in chaos because they didn’t know what to build,” says Oleksandr Anisimov, political scientist and founder of the group Understanding Soviet Podil, a group that organises walking tours and discussions tracing the past of a neighbourhood of Kyiv. “For twenty-something years, you had an official style. Now they had to put every decoration off. It took four to five years for architects in the Soviet Union to start working in the Modernist style.”
If you exit at Lybidska station, you are met with one of Kyiv’s unique Modernist structures. A sign inside the metro indicates an architectural sight for passengers to see at a respective station, owing to the commitment of several activists. Near Lybidska, the Institute of Scientific, Technical Research and Development is situated. Shaped like a flying saucer hovering above the ground, it was designed by Russian-born architect, artist and musician Florian Yuriev in 1971.
Kyiv’s younger generation of architects, including Sasha Burlaka, fights for the preservation of Modernist structures. Since the drastic switch from communism to a free market economy, big businesses and developers have claimed the city as their own. The rapid construction of office and retail complexes threaten the existence of Soviet architectural heritage, a process enabled by Kyiv’s political leaders. The so-called UFO building bears a special significance and is exemplary of the current developments in the city. Currently, a shopping centre is being built into it. The building is characteristic for everyone in Kyiv, according to Burlaka, even those not into architecture. It has become a landmark that a shopping centre could never turn out to be.
“Talking about the Scientific Institute, this flying saucer, it has a cultural meaning,” says Burlaka. “Yuriev designed a hall with good acoustics to have concerts without amplifying. It was and is still needed for Kyiv.”
The newly re-found appreciation for Modernism by younger generations is due to the mystery of an unknown era, as well as its unique visual style.
“I think it is the new ruin. There is nostalgia and romanticism in it. Also, there was a huge professional level of the architects of the time. They were designing much more, they were building. Architecture was kind of important for this day. So were the budgets they could use and be disconnected from the ideology.”
“Now it is just good architecture. They are not thinking about the millions of people who were cutting stones for the facades for the Khreshchatyk buildings from the 50s, but they’re just watching from the Roman heritage. They were very skilled, the architects.”
Many of the young generation of architects are a part of Save Kyiv Modernism. As an initiative they dedicate themselves to preserve these Modernist constructions in their original shapes and functions. These young architects connect to the profession’s generation of the 60s and 70s, fighting against the re-construction of their works by developers and Kyiv’s city council.
“There are mass housing and shopping mall developments in Kyiv,” says Burlaka. “Many construction developers are in power. Klitschko, the mayor, is a developer himself. He invests in buildings.”
“Right now, these constructions are the main economic factor here. Every building can be a victim of this approach. Soon, all of Kyiv will be a shopping mall.”
“For the public eye, the city shows that they are caring for the people. For example, a pedestrian bridge from Volodymyrska Hill to the People’s Friendship Arch is being built; just so they have something to cut the red ribbon for. That is the style in which the municipality is working.”
“Cinemas or palaces of culture are losing their functions. Everything is changing and in decay or being transformed to some commercial use. The Scientific Institute is just one of the cases.”
But it is not only Modernist-style architecture that is in danger of radical change or destruction. Without a doubt, monumental art is the most controversial tangible remnant today, becoming a casualty of state-funded eradication movements. Soviet mosaic artwork throughout the city centre, for instance, are either being modified or removed entirely. In 2015, so-called Decommunisation laws were passed by the Ukrainian parliament. The acts grant the public free access to the documents of the former KGB archive, revealing 74 years of crimes committed against the Ukrainian people. Beyond that, usage of communist symbolism is prohibited, officially classifying the Soviet government and historical figures as criminals. The laws were written by the Institute of National Remembrance. One of the institute’s current tasks is to provide historical information to municipalities around the country. Their aim is to rename streets and squares carrying the name of Communist personifications such as Lenin. They also hope to tear down statues and other monuments.
“It’s not logical to ask to glorify the people who were responsible for these crimes, such as Lenin or Stalin,” says Sergii Riabenko, chief of the institute’s legal department. “There are some people who say that if we condemn the communist regime, then we should demolish everything connected to this. Every building that was built in that time, every plant, every road, every bridge. For these people, the answer is very simple.”
The institute, however, distances itself from actively intervening. Despite the legislation, every town in Ukraine would have a certain extent of freedom in their decision.
“It’s not our business to tell the mayor of a small city in some region how he should name the street there. It’s their business to decide what they want.”
“Some Soviet monuments are surely interesting from their historical and cultural part. Surely, they should be preserved for the future, our future citizens. One of the ideas that were commonly used in Hungary or the Baltic states was to create so-called parks of Soviet monuments where they put them up for everyone – tourists and citizens – to look at. But it’s also not the point of the institution to tell them to create a territory for a park with 100 monuments of Lenin, for example. It’s up to the decision of the local community, what they want and their financial resources.”
“It is a really barbaric institution,” says Burlaka, the architect.
“During the last year, their director said that there were no Lenin statues left. But where are they? There were about 5,000 different communist statues in Ukraine five years ago and now you cannot find them. Everything just disappeared.”
The institute’s law pressures municipalities throughout Ukraine into rash decisions, claims Burlaka: “There was the town of Boyarka in the region of Kyiv. People there said that they had monuments and if nobody takes them, they would put them in the forest. The locals didn’t have any money for dismantling the monument, they couldn’t afford it, so they were afraid to be sued by the state. And the state would act based on the law that this institute wrote.”
“In some towns, it is ridiculous,” Burlaka says. “They just put different plates on the monuments and say that it’s ‘The Monument for the Youth of the 20th Century’, not for some communists.”
But who is even interested in the past?
The younger generations, those who have not experienced the Soviet Union at all, “are more likely to like it”, says Oleksandr Anisimov, founder of Understanding Soviet Podil.
”For some reason, people who won’t live in it any longer want to destroy it, because they expect that we wouldn’t have any memory of this. At some point, it would be refurbished, remade and left, saying something like: ‘We didn’t have this time in history at all. It didn’t happen.’”
For Sergii Riabenko, from the Institute of National Remembrance, the feeling of nostalgia is mostly disconnected from the political past and just attached to personal memories: “It is not exactly some kind of nostalgia for communism or the communist regime. It’s just like: ‘Oh, it wasn’t such a bad time. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, we were young, we were happy.’ Now they are old, they have problems with their health and so on.”
The issue around missing monuments indicates the way Kyiv is heading in regard to its Soviet heritage. While the municipal powers simply neglect the Soviet achievements in architecture in favour of today’s capitalist construction developments, the Soviet monuments are targeted and removed from the public sphere. The methods Ukraine is using to remove symbols of propaganda and shift power away from communists resembles a politically motivated and deliberate disregard of the country’s own history. The current movements on either side of the issue to either embrace or erase these remnants are both active and visible, with political powers clearly favouring the latter party. These questions of: “How do we carefully handle our past?” will require an open dialogue, possibly for generations to come – not just here, but throughout all of Europe.