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Meet the man in charge of Ukraine's national memory

What is “national memory” – and how should we (re)interpret it? An interview with Anton Drobovych, new director of Ukraine’s Institute of National Memory.

Kateryna Iakovlenko
11 June 2020
Drobovych's recent appointment as director of the Institute of National Memory has caused much debate in Ukraine.
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Photo from Anton Drobovych's personal archive.

The young Ukrainian philosopher Anton Drobovych has been appointed head of Ukraine’s Institute of National Memory, replacing Volodymyr Viatrovych a historian known for his nationalist views. Drobovych won the job after an official competition, and was appointed to the post on 4 December by Ukraine's cabinet of ministers. Viatrovych has described his successor's appointment as “a U-turn”: unlike Vyatrovich, one of the drivers of the move towards decommunisation, Drobovych proposes “creative decommunisation” – in other words, not an eradication of the USSR’s legacy but the creation of new research centres to reinterpret and preserve Ukraine's Soviet heritage.

One such centre, according to Drobovich, could be the I.D. Bukhanchuk Art Museum in Kmytiv, Zhytomyr region, whose collection was formed in the 1970-80s. In 2019 the contemporary art historian Yevhen Molyar, together with artists Nikita Kadan and Lev Trotsenko, began working on modernising the museum's collection to broaden its appeal. Kadan spent about a year working as Drobovych’s research deputy and ran a series of exhibitions under the heading of “Movements in the Making”, which brought a large number of artistic issues to the fore and revealed the enduring relevance of the Soviet context to today's Ukraine. For a while, Kmytiv even became the focal point of the intelligentsia of Ukraine's capital Kyiv, drawing Drobovych’s attention and interest in working with the museum. However, this work with contemporary artists and curators drew criticism from conservative groups, in particular the Svoboda and Samopomich political parties, whose members threatened museum staff and curators. Consequently, the museum’s leadership put their experiments on hold and reverted their old ways of work.

Kateryna Iakovlenko spoke to Anton Drobovich about his work with history and memory, what creative decommunisation might look like, and his thoughts on memorialising Babi Yar, a ravine outside Kyiv where Nazi occupiers massacred nearly 34,000 Jewish men, women, and children in 1941.

What is your conception of "national memory"?

Memory and history have always been instrumentalised by the present, and our times are no exception. History is more complex than we can imagine, and this is its attraction. However, we must be exceptionally cautious with it, since independence was preceded by a monstrous empire that constantly manipulating memory and falsified history. These manipulations were systemic, meaning that the task of our institute (and its equivalents in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland) is to restore this impaired memory. And given its systemic distortion, we require a similar systemic approach to its restoration.

Given the systemic distortion of memory in the past, we require a similar systemic approach to its restoration today.

Take the example of somebody serving in Ukrainian nationalist organisations during the Second World War. The Soviet government did all it could to destroy or distort the memory of such people. We now know that there were people in these organisations who opposed both the Nazis and the communists, and also cooperated with, for example, the partisans against the Nazis or with locals against the Red Army. None of this could ever chime with the USSR’s propaganda, so these people all ended up the same way: they fell into the hands of the Soviet security services and were arrested, tried, and either exiled to Siberia or shot. The system did everything it could to present them as traitors. No one ever mentioned their co-operation with the partisans or their armed opposition to the Nazis. The line was that these people killed Red Army members. And if they killed Red Army members, that made them Nazi accomplices, which was untrue or less than completely true. Our task today is to discuss history's complexities without oversimplifying them.

What mechanisms do you use to restore the lost pages of history?

We Ukrainians have lived through various complex periods. There was the Bolshevik Red Terror, the Russian Civil War, and the man-made Holodomor famine of 1932-3, as well as the Holocaust, when the USSR ignored the Nazi extermination of almost 34,000 Jews because they feared that revealing information about the Holocaust might consolidate the Jewish community. It was the same story with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the Chernobyl nuclear accident. These events are steeped in lies, and the only way to reveal the truth is to speak about them. And if the truth is complex or unpopular, it has to be revealed through the media, educational projects and so forth. And the best way to do that is to rely on objective truth and make your knowledge available to everyone.

What is your conception of “creative decommunisation”?

I have been drawn into “creative decommunisation” through a series of discussions about the preservation and reinterpretation of our Soviet legacy. One of them was devoted to the reinterpretation of the site of the Tachanka monument in the Kherson region of Ukraine, which takes the form of a horse drawn machine-gun carriage used in the Russian Civil war. We have involved various people who had experience of reinterpreting the Soviet past and who came from a left-wing perspective that doesn’t quite chime with the rules and regulations imposed by Ukrainian legislation. But this experience has been very important, as it incorporates the creation of disciplinary fields in which Soviet art can exist. We welcome these developments and wish to take them into account.

I still see potential for creating a museum in Kmytiv. Forward-thinking curators and researchers have worked with this museum and created an open and creative discussion around its legacy and its reactivation in the field of contemporary art. However, both the museum’s management and the regional government have announced that they are no longer interested in such a development.

The best way to work with history is to rely on objective truth and make your knowledge available to everyone.

The Kmytiv Museum is planning the creation of a multi-disciplinary space where Soviet art can be exhibited. This wouldn’t be a “Soviet Art ghetto”, but a space in which a reinterpretation and understanding of the emotional, political, civil, aesthetic and ethical experience of the lives of people who lived through Soviet reality can take place. You can’t just simply remove a sculpture or other work of art from a public space – that doesn’t provide any profound level of reinterpretation of the past. Of course, people need to understand the criminal nature of the Soviet regime, but we won’t achieve that goal by removing works of art.

On a day to day level, memories are often contradictory: people in the same town or village remember events differently. How can a dialogue be created between them?

A dialogue can arise in any situation, as long as everyone wants it. Memory is very subjective: people can hold diametrically opposite views of the same event. And there’s no guarantee that either of them will be right. In some cases, none of the participants in a conversation remember the true facts of the matter.

The Institute runs several oral history projects, including some devoted to the Maidan and the Revolution of Dignity, as well as Ukrainian dissidents and the democratic movement at the end of the Soviet era: we even cover memories of the Holodomor and the Second World War. Very often the most interesting – and at the same time, the most complex – way of working thing is to list memories in chronological order in such a way as to adequately evoke the era. When I say “adequate”, I mean providing a multifaceted view of a situation, a broad range of opinions. We know, for example, that people were killed during the Revolution of Dignity. We have the memories of witnesses and participants, as well as family members. But the oral history format is inadequate on its own. It’s essential to also study documents, video and facts, as well as archive and other documents and materials that confirm these facts. All these elements are necessary to construct a complete picture of events.

So how can memory “hot off the press” be verified?

The most important thing is to take note of new facts and keep them safe in your memory. An awful lot of details held in one's memory only become substantial and important later. Memories need to be recorded while they are still fresh. Thinking through them and making sense of them is also important, and needs to commence as soon as possible. This is also one way of coping with trauma. We know that traumatic memory is a different kind of memory than heroic memory. And working with it creates a number of things, including a social-therapeutic effect. When institutions (state and non-state) work with people experiencing traumatic memory in a systemic way, it helps to lessen general social tension. And this kind of work helps conserve knowledge about a certain era. It is, after all, the bearers of memory who go on to create snapshots of certain eras. And working to record memories straight away is the best way to conserve shared values.

Tell me about the work of the Museum of the Revolution of Dignity

The museum runs two projects. The first is the Museum of the Revolution of Dignity, which is located inside the Institute. We held an international competition to choose the architects for the design, won by the German firm kleihues+kleihues, who should soon start work on the project. The museum itself has been in operation for several years, with its staff putting together collections of artifacts and oral history materials, run conferences and so on, effectively providing for the institutional growth of the museum.

People need to understand the criminal nature of the Soviet regime, but we won’t achieve that goal by removing works of art.

The second project is a memorial, to be built on the Avenue of the Heavenly Hundred, at the point between the Khreshchatyk Metro station and Maidan Nezalezhnosti where most victims died. The question of the memorial is more complex. There is a concept for it; a chief designer has been chosen and plans drawn up and confirmed, as well as a chief engineer, and the necessary materials have been bought. All we need to do is to build the thing, but all development of the land plots has been frozen whilst court actions relating to them are still ongoing Everything's hanging in the air: first the General Prosecutor's Office was holding the project up, and now it’s the Bureau of Criminal Investigation. So construction will have to wait.

I would like to bring up one more sensitive issue: the Holocaust and Babi Yar. What do you think about the government’s approach?

The idea of building a memorial, museum or social centre at Babi Yar is nothing new. But there has never been any consensus on the subject: some people always approved of the idea, others always opposed it; some on business grounds, others on financial or ideological. These discussions have lasted decades. The state’s interest in the memorialisation of this space has been stated many times; everybody from presidents to mayors of Kyiv and individual members of parliament have proposed initiatives. What has actually been built is a historical memorial site, known since 2007 as the Babi Yar National Memorial Park. The site contains a park area with wooded avenues; people are lobbying for public toilets, thanks to them commercial premises have also been removed. In short, the area has been cleaned up and put in order. Work is now progressing on several projects, including the creation of an Alley of the Righteous, but funding is insufficient and completing it will require support either from the state or philanthropists.

Meanwhile, construction of the Babi Yar Museum in the zone of the old Jewish Cemetery on Melnikov Street continues apace. There is a project, and there is land laid aside for it. If you drive along the street, you can see it being widened and modernised; soon there will be a small, but modern three- or four-storey museum which will house an exhibition and education space. The government has also developed plans for a memorial complex at Babi Yar. There are questions around this, but in general it should work, and it should now be forwarded for further international review. We at the Institute work very closely with the Babi Yar memorial site and I really hope that they will have the museum up and running by 2021.

What do you think about the possible re-naming of the Dorohozhychi Metro Station to the Babi Yar Metro Station?

I don’t think it’s particularly necessary. There is already a memorial site there and the local trolleybus stop is named after Babi Yar. When public discussion of the issue took off, our institute consulted the Kyiv Metro company and asked them to provide useful information about routes to the Babi Yar memorial site. It would be a mistake to claim that the toponym “Babi Yar” is somehow under threat – nor is Dorohozychi or any other Kyiv place name, so I see no need to rename the metro station. Could it happen in the future? It’s a possibility. But there has to be public discussion and expert consultation before anything else happens.

When it comes to preserving memory, it’s much more important to create a high quality museum complex, memorial centre or park on the site – something that would provide people with better information about the place.

The menorah monument at Babi Yar, Kyiv. | Photo (CC): Wikimedia Commons

What do you think about film director Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s role as artistic director of the Babi Yar Memorial Centre? What's your assessment of his work and projects?

As you know, I was a member of the previous team at the Memorial Centre. And the last thing that we did together was to producing a large concept book laying out how it should be done. All our work was centred around a basic historical narrative that provided the historical and philosophical framework for the project. But a new management team appeared in 2019 and most of the original team left. Max Yakover was appointed as general manager and Ilya Khrzhanovsky as artistic director, and they are now in charge. As far as I know, the centre still has no guiding concept: at any rate, literally a few weeks ago the new team announced that they were working on a new development plan that they would make public by the end of the year. The projects that they completed over the last few months were old ones initiated by the previous team. These new people have now been in charge for nearly a year, so by autumn their project should be ready and we will be able to see and properly assess it.

We know about many historic tragedies not from our own experience, but from what we’ve heard from parents, grandparents, other relatives, as well as films and so on. How do you work with young people? What strategies have you developed to get them involved in complex periods of history?

Post-truth affects every generation, but the trendy products that young people use today are even better at disseminating it. This post-truth “delivery system” operates thanks to today’s communication media, creative activities and so on. We plan to increase our cooperation with schools, developing special projects for them, among other things. The institute used to create board games and mobile apps, and we will continue working in this area with the aim of bringing little-known pages of Ukrainian history to a wider audience. We use the same tools to popularise literary genres. In fact, our book, “Girls are Cutting off their Plaits”, about women’s participation in various roles during the war [in eastern Ukraine] won this year’s Shevchenko Prize: [the country’s highest award for works of contemporary culture and the arts – ed.]. We are also trying to develop visual and informational products that can attract as broad an audience as possible.

How do you strike a balance between the entertainment function of such content and its role in informing the public?

I think that with products such as games, the entertainment function will always predominate over the informational – that’s what games are for. The products produced by the institute used to be education-heavy: information predominated over games.

Creating games on the basis of historical material is a little easier than, for example, working with artistic material. There are many blank pages in Ukrainian history. One good example are the years 1917-22, a formative period when Ukraine rapidly transformed from one state into another: a Directory, a Hetmanate under Pavlo Skoropadskyi, the Ukrainian People’s Republic, the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic. Through the mechanism of games, or simply by introducing characters, people might get an impression of that time: who differed from whom and how, and what they were all fighting for. But it’s essential to develop a clear order of events or links of cause and effect, as well as examining the motivations of historical figures. A game shouldn’t constrain interpretations or exclude anything. Games like this could be accompanied by a catalogue or supplementary material that can add some conditions, spelling out what is truth and what is invention. We just need to provide a concrete task for the planners and designers.

Translated from Russian by Liz Barnes

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