by Benjamin Tallis
The news that Pro-European, anti-Yanukovych protestors in Kyiv had toppled the Lenin statue at the corner of Kreshchatyk and Shevchenko brought to mind a story told to me by the artist and activist Nikita Kadan.
It was merely days after Yanukovych’s Party of Regions along with their allies, the Communist Party of Ukraine, had secured victory in the parliamentary elections, gaining the majority that saved Yanukovych and Azarov in the Verkhovna Rada this past Tuesday. It seemed a long time since the Orange Revolution had failed; a long time since we had given up on Yushchenko; a long time since some of us realized that an oligarch, even one with a golden halo of wheatsheaf hair, could not be trusted. Now, it is that November night that seems a long way away.
As we wandered, frozen through Kyiv, in search of a bar for a warming brandy, we walked past the Lenin statue and Nikita told me the story of the Black Lenin. The statue of VI Ulyanov that stands at the opposite end of the Kreshchatyk to the Maidan was richly rendered in red Karelian marble and Kadan told me then about the last time it had been attacked, when acid had been thrown onto it, disfiguring the face and hands. The Communist Party of Ukraine, whose posters, tents and videos had been all over Kyiv that summer, paid for the restoration and arranged for a protective vigil to be kept close by.
Typically, however, not all went to plan. The marble ordered to put right the damage was of a significantly darker shade than the original. Given that the damage had been to the face and hands, the botched restoration had the effect of changing the statues ‘skin’ colour, giving birth to a historical miracle – to the legend of ‘The Black Lenin’.
Since then I have often thought about the Black Lenin. At the time it seemed to somehow symbolize what I felt about Ukraine, about the work of Nikita and the REP, of Maksym Butkevych and Vasyl Cherepanyn, about the conversations with Denis, Mariya and Julia and more recently with the Ukrainian students in Odessa, Lviv and Prague. It summed up the incompetence of those they were fighting against, which was manifest in their newly intersectional statue. It seemed in its own, amusingly surreal way to invert the old Viennese saw: “the situation is serious, but not hopeless” said Black Lenin.
The energy, decency and courage in adversity of those who I have known in Ukraine has come shining through to a wider audience in the last week. This is a second chance. A chance to put right what happened when the future turned out to be orange, but not bright. Apart from my friends there, my love of the diverse history, culture, food (yes, even salo) and drink I have found there, my engagement with Ukraine has been almost entirely through the prism of the EU. In my professional work and in my research or in relation to thinking through the direction that the country could take, for better and for worse; in reflecting long and hard on the perils of ‘transition’ and of stagnation; in weighing up the merits of association and isolation, of subjugation and sustenance. And it was the EU that triggered this wave of protests, finding that, almost despite itself, it was popular; that in official rejection it was still desirable as a counterpoint to Putinism and to the self-interested elites who have dominated Ukraine’s two decades of independence.
That evening, last November in Kyiv, Nikita who was recovering from a cold, was more subdued than usual, but had been a perfect host as he guided some friends and I through the exhibition at the Pinchuk Centre. He was featured twice in the show, which showcased the shortlist for the ‘Future Generation Prize’, once for a solo work ‘The Small House of Giants’ and once as part of the REP Group who were nominated for their work ‘Evro-remont’ – ‘Euro-Renovation’. Both stand as suitable prisms through which to reflect on the rubble of communist icons.
Cloaked as ever in a disarming simplicity and precise control of material, Nikita’s ‘Small House of Giants’ comprised a classic, rusting iron-sided workers shelter, spliced with a clean, all too familiar, yet still unknowable neo-modernist façade of the type that a museum from the Soviet 70’s might take. This juxtaposition of depth and surface, of rich texture and subtle sheen are united through the myth of the heroic worker. Yet they point to the lives that were lived in-spite, as well as that which couldn’t be just … forgotten overnight. Kadan has long tried to mourn the loss of the Soviet art institution, replaced by the ‘prosthetic limbs’ of gallery’s like Pinchuk’s. This mourning drifted to melancholia because of the void that followed what was lost; because of the failure of ‘transition’ in Ukraine; because of the failure to replace and renew; because of Ukraine’s Euro-Renovation.
The REP’s piece in the exhibition consisted of a series of gypsum walls, each decorated in a hastily adopted and discarded style from sometime in the last twenty years, with matching carpet or lino. Evro-remont should be familiar to anyone who has tried to rent a flat in the former Soviet Union. The cheaply rendered, hollow imitations of styles that might, briefly, look the part but won’t go the distance – “the kind of walls that you could put your elbow through in a good conversation” was how Nikita once described it to me. This prioritization of surface over substance has come to stand as a metaphor for Ukraine’s ‘transition’ – superficial imitations of elsewhere’s new cover the old core which rots underneath. “Eurorenovation is a style for people who are now stealing what they see and plan to run away in a very short time. From interior design from these super kitschy interiors of 90s it turned into everything.”
Now, Black Lenin is gone, the first to go in the protestors hastily-cobbled decapitation strategy. All the interpretations of anti-Russian-ness, all the overly simplified ‘finally, the victory over communism is complete’ rhetoric that will undoubtedly follow this highly symbolic moment, will miss the point. This was the tearing away of a euro-renovation, hastily authored by the rotten post-communist communist party. Rejecting Putinism is not to reject Russia – many Russians would like to do the same. Similarly, embracing the EU need not be only an embrace of imbalanced neoliberalism, as many in current EU states would agree. Ukrainians have shown the EU a way back to its better sides and given it a chance to resurrect and re-boot its Eastern Partnership. It should grasp it with both hands.
As well as looking to the future, a proper reckoning with what was lost in the past is needed if a more solid foundation for progressive politics is to be built in Ukraine. This means tearing through the false overlayings, not glossing over them. If such a foundation can be built, then Ukraine can be build a better future for itself and become a bridge between the EU and Russia, not a gypsum buffer zone for either.
Ukrainians are fed up with Euro-renovations, this time they want Europe.