In a town with so much to remember – and so much to forget – memorials mean much. While in Western Europe statues and plaques serve more as decoration, in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, they breathe with the people’s hopes and fears.
Green buds spray the silver birches and, overnight, the cherry trees have exploded in white blossom; the acacia’s shoots are more sluggish in coming and the oaks are yet to wake. This corner of Kiev looks like any other European city enjoying the first days of spring; in the cool, bright sunshine people amble, still in their winter wear, and vehicles rush to and fro. Above, a huge portrait of a young man – bearded and Christ-like – looks down with kindly eyes.
The man is Serhii Nihoyan, the first victim of a sniper’s bullet during protests in the city’s main Maidan Square. The demonstrations began in November 2013 when the then President, Viktor Yanukovych, suspended a trade agreement with the European Union. Initially peaceful protests turned bloody when unidentified snipers shot over one hundred demonstrators – commemorated as Ukraine’s ‘heavenly hundred’ – and a number of policemen, hailed as martyrs by those with closer allegiances to Russia.
Yanukovych fled the chaos to Russia, which used it as a casus belli to annex the Crimea, a peninsular in the south of the country with a majority of Russian speakers, and sponsor a guerrilla war in eastern Ukraine, which continues to today at the cost of thousands of lives. This month (April 2016) a referendum in Holland has stopped the ratification of the very same EU trade agreement, whereby indifferent Dutch voters may have achieved what innocent blood attempted to halt.
Memorials to the fallen quickly sprang up and, though these have now been removed from the main Maiden square as authorities discuss more permanent structures, they are common in nearby streets. Some built ramshackle shrines of wood and now faded photos, others commissioned carved stone tablets, while artists have daubed walls with spray-paint and masterly frescoes. In towns throughout Ukraine, streets have been renamed in memory of the lives lost.
Perhaps here in Kiev, the cradle of the Orthodox church, there is an atavistic need for icons, to be honoured and venerated with candles, ribbons, caresses and kisses. During Soviet times, society was more controlled; the churches were side-lined and plaques were put up around the city to extol the virtues of stalwart comrades. After the collapse of the USSR, Lenin’s statue on Maidan (which had replaced one of Tsar Nicholas II) was moved to a less prominent location, only to be torn down, a year or so ago, in rage as Russia’s interventions in Ukraine became more brazen.
Independence gave cause for reflection. Like Lenin’s, portraits of foreign revolutionaries were smashed, leaving empty plinths in public parks, while those considered faithful to the Ukrainian cause are still honoured with flowers and flags. The Great Famine – Stalin’s mass starvation of millions of Ukrainians – has been commemorated with touching memorials throughout the city. And the sacrifices made during the Second World War have also not been forgotten and Kiev remains proud of its ‘Hero City’ status.
The new Ukrainians, freed of political control, spread their creative wings in sculpture: there were new materials, new motifs, new moods. Classical bronze and stone was replaced by driftwood, netting and broken plates. Portraits of Soviet high-achievers gave way to cartoon characters and heroes of cinema and children’s books. Worthy themes were ignored in favour of bathos and frivolity.
Wearing their heart on their sleeve, some of the new street art is positively dripping with schmaltzy sentimentality. There’s a much-loved restaurant cat that died in a fire and war-time lovers, separated for sixty years, and reunited on live TV. Changes in scale produce popular, game-for-a-laugh sculptures, with oversize seats, hats and animals … the perfect setting for fun family photos. Yet, all scream the same message: this is democratic art for the people, not didactic homilies, directed from above.
This new mood left planners puzzled as to how to commemorate the Maidan martyrs. A competition was launched last year which stressed that memorials should not be “of death in the shape of wreaths and crosses” and avoid “naturalism, nationalistic kitsch and Soviet symbols”, and to reflect the diverse backgrounds of those that took part in the “Revolution of Dignity”. While many entries included pietas and quotes from Shevchenko (the ‘national poet’), in direct contradiction to the competition guidelines, winning entries included a “path of memory”: maple trees, each representing a deceased protestor, sprouting from a ‘wound’, a triangular gash in the path’s surface.
With their sacrifices still so keenly felt, Ukrainians reacted to the news of the Dutch vote with remarkable equanimity. While many still pin their hopes on a future within the EU and out of the sway of Putin’s Russia – especially the young – they were both fatalistic and matter-of-fact. “I don’t blame them [the Dutch voters],” said Liza, a student “there’s a war here in Ukraine … it’s a dangerous place”. Dima, a waiter, was more pragmatic: “it’s a set-back, of course, but discussions will continue and we will join one day,” he said.
But pressures are building. Wages and pensions are stagnating but the cost of living keeps rising. The current President, Petro Poroshenko, was swept to power promising an end to graft (his predecessor, Yanukovych, was named as the world’s top example of corruption by Transparency International) yet this month he was exposed in a global money-laundering scam, while EU officials describe corruption in Ukraine as “endemic”. Increasing frustration and desperation may see Ukraine’s citizens once more taking to the streets in protest.
As Ukraine struggles to move on from its Soviet past and its successor in Russian authoritarianism, wouldn’t the best memorial to the ‘Heavenly Hundred’ not be in stone and steel, or even an avenue of trees, but in EU membership and a secure place in the community of European nations?
Martyr’s eyes: Serhii Nihoyan was the first to die in the ‘Euromaidan’ protests.
Starry-eyed: many of Ukraine’s young see their future in the EU.