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A storm in a paint pot

The Russian Orthodox Church has, since the late 1990s, become an increasingly powerful force in Ukrainian politics and society. But the violent desecration of a piece of modern art shows it is also increasingly intolerant of different viewpoints.

The director of a Kyiv museum throws a tin of black paint over an artwork she herself commissioned because it criticises the present symbiosis of regime and church. Members of the Femen women’s rights group ask the Interior Ministry for police protection after being attacked on the street and in a café. The abbot of the world famous Kyiv Pechersk Lavra [Monastery] has Ukraine’s only up to date HIV clinic removed from its grounds after a smear campaign in the media where a senior churchman referred to its users as ‘sinners’. And all this is happening in a country which has never been known for religious fundamentalism. So what’s behind these attacks on secular values and freedoms?

The Kyiv Pechersk Lavra serves both as an important Orthodox holy site and a state museum. Photo: CC flickr.com/photos/micurs/

The driving of the nonconformists from the temple

The expulsion of the HIV clinic is just the first step in the transformation of the unique cultural and civic centre that is the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra into a bastion of aggressive, inward-looking Orthodoxy. After the clinic, we could well see the closure of most of the seven museums and all the other non-religious buildings on its territory. The monastery was founded almost one thousand years ago and has through its history contained elements of both religious and secular culture within its walls. The current gradual transformation into a kind of Orthodox Vatican is a symptom of deeper processes typical of post-Soviet society.

Since the collapse of the USSR, the Orthodox Church has exploited its role as victim of the godless Soviet regime to enormous symbolic, and financial, effect. It is still doing so, victimising secular culture and anything that doesn’t conform to its notions of good and evil. Church bodies, enjoying immense privileges at the hands of Russia and Ukraine’s new rulers, are increasingly successful at presenting themselves as the victims of persecution by the West and its local ‘agents’. The most obvious example of this is, of course, the Pussy Riot case. The immensely powerful Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), hand in glove with the Putin regime, was able to pass off a brief dance in the Church of Christ the Saviour as a deadly attack on everything holy, capable of shaking the Church to its foundations.  

Since the collapse of the USSR, the Orthodox Church has exploited its role as victim of the godless Soviet regime to enormous symbolic, and financial, effect. It is still doing so, victimising anything that doesn’t conform to its notions of good and evil.

Here the ROC is repeating a scenario already played out in many other countries where religion plays too prominent a role: the more power it enjoys, the more sensitive it is to criticism, however mild. In Poland, where abortion is banned and the Catholic hierarchy has an enormous influence on public opinion, this same hierarchy complains constantly about persecution (over cautious attempts to investigate paedophile priests, for example). 

Cultural Cold wars

A Cold War between Orthodoxy and contemporary art is, of course, nothing new in either Russia or Ukraine. The present situation in Russia goes back to the late 90s, but for a long time antagonism between art and the Church in Ukraine took the more constructive form of cautious, if strained, co-existence. The best example of this is the story of the Soros Centre for Contemporary Art at Kyiv’s Mogilyan Academy University, founded in the 1990s as part of a support and development programme for Eastern European art. The Centre, attached to the then most progressive university of Ukraine, was housed in the 18th century baroque building of a former seminary with its own, still functioning, church. Questions inevitably arose about an art venue that frequently showed radical and nonconformist art sharing a building with a church. They came most often not from the clergy, but from students and visitors to the Centre, who couldn’t see what a functioning church was doing in a university building, which contravened Ukrainian law. The situation changed in the late 2000s: the Centre lost its funding and its space was occupied by the Visual Culture Research Center, founded by the university’s students and teachers and combining critical theory and artistic practice with social activism. A few conferences, discussions and exhibitions critical of the Church and conservative trends in society were enough to have the Centre thrown out of the university, and its gallery, an iconic space for contemporary Ukrainian art, turned into a home for the book collection of the nationalist historian Evgen Bilokon, known for his anti-Semitic publications.    

Housed in Kyiv’s enormous historic arsenal, this institution has the ambitious aim of fitting international artistic practice into the context of Ukrainian cultural politics, whose main characteristic is complete parochialism.

A similar story, this time of national significance, is being played out before our eyes in the uneasy co-existence of the Kyiv Pechersky Lavra, one of the holiest sites of the Orthodox world, with the massive new Mystetskyi Arsenal complex. This was designed as a showcase for Ukraine’s official arts policy, and answers directly to the Presidential administration. Housed in Kyiv’s enormous historic arsenal, comparable in size to the Venice arsenal, home of the Biennale, this institution has the ambitious aim of fitting international artistic practice into the context of Ukrainian cultural politics, whose main characteristic is complete parochialism. The institution's top management are all closely linked to the ruling Party of Regions. They are trying hard to reconcile their enthusiasm for contemporary art, a prestigious sector that is increasingly popular among post-Soviet oligarchs, with the Church and other guardians of the nation’s moral purity. 

The omnivorous commercial nature of the international modern art scene makes it an easy target for manipulation by authoritarian regimes. This has allowed the Mystetskyi Arsenal to have it both ways, opening with Kyiv’s first Biennale, organised by British curator David Elliott, and following on with the nationalist and religious exhibition ‘Great and Grand’, which ended up at the centre of the biggest art scandal of recent years.

The Day of Judgment …

‘Great and Grand’ was, according to its curators, intended to ‘demonstrate the civilising influence of Christianity on the development of culture in Ukraine’. Spanning 15,000 years of artistic development, it was officially tied to the 1025th anniversary of the conversion to Christianity of Kievan Rus (the medieval kingdom covering parts of modern Russia, Ukraine and Belarus). The oldest exhibit is a decorated mammoth bone, the newest a mural by the young non-conformist artist Volodymyr Kuznetsov. This draws on historical and artistic references to comment on post-Soviet reality and is entitled ‘Koliivschina: Judgment Day’.       

Koliivschina was a bloody uprising by Ukrainian peasants and Cossacks against their Polish overlords in the 18th century; in Kuznetsov’s version, they are represented by victims of corruption and lawlessness in Ukraine today. These include Chernobyl emergency workers who died of cancer in their thousands, ignored by the government, and Irina Krashkova, whose savage rape and beating by two police officers this summer sparked protest marches and has become a symbol of police impunity. Kuznetsov represents the burning Chernobyl reactor as the gaping mouth of hell on the Day of Judgment, familiar from religious art, with priests, judges and other contemporary figures half submerged in it. 

The black rectangle that was Kuznetsov’s 5 x 11 metre work has become as much a symbol of confrontation between protest art and bigoted conservativism for Ukraine as Pussy Riot’s coloured balaklavas are for Russia.

The mural became the most discussed work of the exhibition, despite the fact that it didn’t survive until the opening. The day before this ceremony, timed to coincide with the anniversary celebrations and attended by President Yanukovych and church leaders, museum director (and exhibition curator) Natalia Zabolotna destroyed the work by covering it with black paint. She later described her action as ‘a performance, intended to punish artists who go too far.’ But what was done, was done: the black rectangle masking Kuznetsov’s enormous (5 x 11 metre) work has become as much a symbol of confrontation between protest art and bigoted conservativism for Ukraine as Pussy Riot’s coloured balaklavas are for Russia. 

Kuznetsov's controversial piece 'Koliivvshina: Judgement Day' was destroyed by museum director Zabolotna

But it isn’t Zabolotna’s vandalism that has amazed the many commentators who have written about her action, so much as the initial acceptance of such a provocative artwork for an official exhibition tied to a religious anniversary. President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, both came to Kyiv for the anniversary and the ceremony itself had a marked pro-Russian character, as if to stress the unity of these ‘brother nations’. What made the organisers invite an artist known for his uncompromising views to take part in an event with such a clear political subtext? The curator’s ‘performance’ summarises in a nutshell the dilemma of the Ukrainian political elite, whose whole life is a balancing act between ‘Western values’ and ‘traditional Orthodox spirituality’, with all that that implies. 

…isn’t far away

The creation of the Mystetskyi Arsenal offered the government a convenient means of absorbing contemporary art into its ideological framework. Nothing unusual in that – Ukraine has after all traditionally straddled two cultures. On the one hand, it can’t disappoint the West, which in this case means ambitious, if risky, artistic projects and the creation of a cohort of ‘Young Ukrainian Artists’ with an international reputation. On the other hand, it can’t afford to offend the Kremlin, which means from time to time diluting the effect of cutting-edge international exhibitions with small doses of intolerance, autocracy and spirituality. Sadly, the combination almost worked – it was only derailed by a single artist’s simple, uncompromising gesture. 

The curator’s ‘performance’ summarises in a nutshell the dilemma of the Ukrainian political elite, whose whole life is a balancing act between ‘Western values’ and ‘traditional Orthodox spirituality’, with all that that implies. 

The ‘Great and Grand’ exhibition was a crude attempt to create a false image of contemporary Orthodox culture as being open to criticism, dialogue and outside influence. The presence of Kuznetsov’s provocative work was supposed to demonstrate that the Orthodox Church, like the artistic community, had acquired humility and tolerance. In fact its chief activity is hunting down ‘dissidents’, business competitors and gays. Its representatives threaten their opponents with eternal damnation and expel an HIV clinic from the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra. Its political agents draft laws banning abortion while surreptitiously filling what’s left of the city’s parks with ugly little churches. This is, after all, the same church that forced the state to send the Pussy Riot members to rot in prison (their images, by the way, were among those hidden beneath the black paint on Kuznetsov’s mural). It’s no surprise that this church, and its agents in secular governmental institutions, are so sensitive to symbolic, artistic criticism. They are perceptive enough to realise that the Day of Judgment on the hierarchy they represent is just round the corner.     

About the author

Oleksiy Radynski is a journalist, media activist and videomaker based in Kyiv, Ukraine. He is a member of Visual Culture Research Center, an initiative for art, knowledge and politics founded in 2008. He is an editor of Political Critique magazine (Ukrainian edition). 


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