“At least they can’t divide the sky.

– [No], the sky divides first”

CZ_TV_Vez_Zizkov2

Manfred and Rita, in Christa Wolf’s DDR novel Der Geteilte Himmel (Divided Heaven), may have been discussing the problems of a nation, a city and a couple torn asunder by the Berlin Wall and all it stood for, but their words call to mind another symbolically divisive piece of architecture. The construction of the Prague TV Tower began more than 20 years after Rita’s gloomy response to Manfred’s forlorn optimism, but now, a further 20 years after its completion, it still divides opinion as it divides the Bohemian sky.

Looking across from the vantage points of Hradčany, visitors to Prague’s famed castle district visually retrace their routes across the city, eagerly picking out the gothic highlights of the old town, the neo-renaissance splendour of the national theatre and the crème-chantille of Malá Strana’s baroque. However, their affable ocular perambulations are disturbed by the tower, which sits on the opposite lip of the bowl that encircles Prague’s inner core. Both the size and shape of the tower – a 216m-high ideal home for an urban spaceman – are disconcerting for those seeking to lose themselves in dreamy, historical reverie.

TVTower1

The TV Tower is one of Prague’s few genuine ‘cloudscrapers’ [2] and the only one in the ring of historic suburbs surrounding the inner core and, as such, is a dissonant presence. The high-point of Václav Aulický’s architectural oeuvre has attracted considerable derision, being named in a list of the ‘world’s 21 ugliest buildings’ by the Daily Telegraph and as the ‘2nd ugliest building in the world’ by tripadvisor.com, to which the Daily Mail added “As if Prague’s television tower was not ugly enough, it now sports statues of crawling babies on its exterior.” Local architect Martin Krise who is part of the ‘Club for Ancient Prague’ agreed, “the TV tower is a crime against the old town.”

But for me, it was love at first sight; a condition, which, in retrospect I can see was partly brought on by the circumstances of our meeting. Arriving on the late train from Berlin, without local currency and in need of abed, I was wandering through the decaying depths of the main station[3], when a Czech student, upon seeing my backpack, asked me if I was looking for a place to stay. This stranger’s kindness was not limited to a mumbled tip and a biro’d cross on a map, instead helping me get a metro ticket and guiding me to the Clown & Bard in Žižkov, which he had heard was a good place to stay.[4]

churchtower

Taking what I now know to be a slightly unusual route, we changed to the A-line and rode underground to Jiřího z Poděbrad. I was first struck by the expanse of the square, ringed by secession town houses, and by Jože Plečnik’s masterpiece, the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord, but my eye was quickly drawn upwards. Rising, massive, yet elegant, was the TV Tower and the affect was instantaneous. I lost sight of the tower as we walked on towards the hostel through a five-storey valley of apartment buildings. Then we entered Škroupovo Náměstí, the peaceful circle where Václav Havel spoke to great effect in 1988 and, crossing the quiet garden in its centre, I looked to the right and there it was. In the space and time between the two squares, the Tower had drawn itself up to full height and, illuminated in the Prague night, I could get a clear look at what it was made of.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA           tv_tower_prague

The battleship-grey high-tech tubes, between which the pods of its three gantry-like decks are slung, the porthole and ribbon windows, the elongated cream hand grenade of its aerial mast reaching skyward, its climbing babies and its perfectly balanced asymmetry all played a part, and I would come to appreciate these aspects of the Tower over time. However it was the Tower’s sheer size and incongruity with its surroundings that impressed me most; the sheer chutzpah of doing that; there – exactly what Krise complained of! In a Herzogian moment of aesthetic ecstasy I had stopped in my tracks. My companion waited patiently before telling me that the tower had been built by the communists and while it was pretty unpopular, he liked it and was happy to see that I did too. We walked on to the hostel, where despite my offer of a beer by way of thanks, he had to go home and study. I’ve never seen him again, but I wish I could thank him.

I have subsequently spent a good part of the last decade living in the neighbourhoods around the TV Tower, which stands close to the border between ‘Red’ Žižkov, that formerly working class warren of bawdy pubs, and bourgeois Vinohrady with its broad boulevards, secession villas and charming cafés. Returning to Prague, the sight of the tower always brought an excited feeling of arrival, of coming home. Many nights I walked there: in the warmth of the summer after times with friends at the Riegrovy Sady beer garden, with the lazy air lapping slowly around its masts; in the winter, with biting cold and frozen breath, the ground crisp and unevenly reflecting the tower’s lights. The stillness, the preternatural silence, testify to the respect and wonder that the tower commands, of the shock and awe of approaching an architectural sublime.

babies_tv_tower    bizzare_sculpures_by_david_cerny_15

Innovations (tricolour lighting from 2006) and renovations (new interior, bar and restaurant) speak of an ongoing commitment, of a recognition of the need to deal productively with the tower as it is, as well as where (and when) it came from, and reflect a wider trend in negotiating Prague’s painful pasts. The Miminka, the terribly deformed enfants that artist David Černý attached to the tower add a further layer of reflection. The babies, with their television shaped heads, bisected by a deeply embossed barcode can be read as comment on what came after ‘89, on the strange contradictions of neoliberal ‘freedom’ and the consumption-entertainment nexus. While most of the babies appear to be making their way up the tower, some are heading the other way, having seen the view and decided to come back down.

It seems that even in applied critique, the tower divides opinion, but its functional magic and architectural daring are now combined with a sense of humour that softens its hubris without denting its pride. It is all that its critics and boosters say it is and as such lives up to its nickname “Jakeš’s finger” and so follows in a long Prague tradition, called into appropriately stark and beautiful relief by the surrealist poet Vítězslav Nezval.

Hundred-spired Prague
With the fingers of all saints
With the fingers of perjury
With the fingers of fire and hail
With the fingers of a musician
With the intoxicating fingers of women lying on their backs

With fingers touching the stars
On the abacus of night[5]

     Prague_030612_-043 a-prague-beauty-2

This piece was initially published in Issue 10 of The Modernist, Published in Manchester by the Manchester Modernist Society in 2014. The final image is taken from http://www.jenniferlynking.com/2013/02/05/snow-charles-bridge-and-the-beauty-of-pragues-spires-in-winter/

[1] Cloudscrapers is the literal translation of the Czech word mrakodrapy which is used in the same way as ‘skyscrapers’ in English.

[2] Which has since been restored to stunning effect – bringing out the beauty in both Jan Bočan’s brutal high-tech fusion and Josef Fanta’s Art Nouveau original

[3] It was – and Geoff Berner agrees https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wX8Ss0P7Bq8

[4] As fully translated in Stephan Delbos’ stunning collection ‘From a Terrace in Prague’ Litteraria Pragensia, 2011.

Commentary on Timothy Snyder’s talk ‘Russia, Ukraine and the Central Significance of Civil Society’, Charles University, Prague, 27/01/2015.

 

By Benjamin Tallis

On 27th January, the renowned historian Professor Timothy Snyder spoke to a packed hall at Charles University on the central role of civil society in understanding the Ukraine conflict and what is at stake in wider tensions between Russia and the West. Snyder compellingly made the case for critically re-examining received wisdoms about what civil society is, what it does and why it matters. He situated his analysis of the need to re-invigorate and actively enact civil society in relation to the complacency of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ thesis. Snyder claimed that following the great upsurge in civil society activity of 1989 we have allowed ourselves to become complacently post-historical in expecting both a vibrant civil society and ‘progress’ (towards liberal market democracy) to occur “automatically”.

Snyder based his argument on discussion of the convergence and divergence of Russian and Ukrainian histories and national myths. He then presented insightful analyses of certain aspects of the Ukraine conflict and their links to civil society, history and collective memory, particularly with regard to the driving forces and goals of Euromaidan and the obstacles to achieving these. Snyder also provided an illuminating contextualization of the Ukrainian conflict with regard to the wider objectives and orientations of the Putin regime’s domestic governance and foreign relations. However, this led into a discussion on propaganda, which, I argue below, was became less credible the more it was pursued and actually showed the flaws in Snyder’s own arguments and methods. This was particularly the case when he linked the fight against Russian propaganda back to the importance of believing in history, which, he had earlier asserted, provided the platform for effective civil society. Snyder also repeatedly contradicted himself – something he accuses Russian propagandists of doing – and was also guilty in some instances of aping their dissembling tactics, while trying to slip through claims that do not stand up to further scrutiny.

 

Civil Society and the Malleable Communities of History and Memory

The presentation began with a very reasonable definition of civil society as occupying the space between the level of the individual and the level of the state and as providing a way to translate private concerns into meaningful collective action. The collective aspect of this necessitates the delineation of communities within and for which with such action can take place. As Snyder argued, an important example of such a community is a nation, although he dismissed related although different ideas of ethnicity and language as “silly.” For Snyder (and many others), the role of history and the nation’s collective memory is a key aspect of community cohesion, which can also help it bond with other communities or create distinctions from them. This led into a discussion of the contested legacy of the Kyivan Rus, which Snyder pointed out was populated by “Vikings and Jews” yet is nonetheless claimed as a part of both Russian and Ukrainian heritage. He identified the formation of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth in 1569, as significant because it meant that the sizable parts of Ukraine that were included in it experienced ‘normal’ European development – “the renaissance, reformation, counter-reformation” – while Russia did not. Despite Snyder’s ostensible rejection of Fukuyama, this analysis points to an acceptance of some aspects of the ‘historicism’ that were smuggled in with ‘the end of History’, specifically the notions of natural or correct paths of development.

 

Snyder then jumped to the divergent experiences of Ukraine in the early Soviet period, with particular reference to the industrialization and collectivisation of Stalin’s first 5-year plan, which led to the Holodomor, the starvation famine that affected Ukraine to a far greater extent than Russia. However, Snyder then noted that the experience of the Second World War served as a unifying force, with narratives of great patriotism obscuring the activities of Ukrainian nationalists to a significant extent. Echoing the arguments made by Andrew Wilson in a recent book on the Ukraine crisis, Snyder then claimed that the events of the last 18 months had “overwritten and overwhelmed” memories of WW2 as the intense experience of (Euro)Maidan and then the conflict with Russia had been such an intense experience that it had created a new socio-political national myth that left Russia and Ukraine “as different as any pair of European countries”.

Crucially, Snyder emphasized the role of civil society in this process and countered claims that EuroMaidan was led or dominated by Ukrainian-nationalists or Ukrainian-speakers by asserting that it’s driving force was Kyiv’s Russian-speaking middle class. Language, had thus gone from “silly” in other analyses to significant in Snyder’s and was about to become even more so. He plausibly identified a confluence of Ukrainians’ desire for ‘European’ governance and disgust at the “oligarchical pluralism” that had characterised governance in independent Ukraine. The failure to sign the Association agreement meant the continuation of the latter at the expense of the former and provoked a spontaneous surge in civic activism, culminating in the overthrow of the Yanukovych government. Snyder argued that this showed exactly why civil society was so threatening to Putin-type governance, at home and abroad, particularly because the protestors shared a common language (and much else) with Russian citizens, again seeming to contradict some of his previous claims. He then went on to talk about various dimensions of the conflict that ensued, focusing on its military, strategic and propagandistic elements.

 

Dimensions of Conflict: Military Tactics, Strategic Worldview and the Propaganda War

With regard to military tactics, Snyder termed the well-described ‘hybrid’ warfare of the Eastern Ukrainian separatists and their Russian allies as ‘reverse asymmetric warfare’. This label implies that the state (normally the ‘stronger’ party in asymmetric conflict) has in effect adopted the tactics of ‘the weak’, of guerrillas and irregular combatants. This analysis jarred with Snyder’s assertion, when trying to emphasise the magnitude of the conflict earlier in the talk, that Eastern Ukraine had witnessed the largest tank battles since the Second World War (between Russian and Ukrainian regular forces). However, the notion of reverse-asymmetric warfare fits Snyder’s overall analysis of Russian strategy, which he describes as “strategic relativism” – an idea that has long been common currency in the discipline of International Relations, but was presented by the Historian as something new. Snyder argued that Russia sees itself as relatively weak compared to the powers supposedly aligned against it: the West (in various configurations) now joined by a corrupted or kidnapped Ukraine. According to Snyder, this is why the seemingly stronger side in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine adopts the tactics of the weak, although there are also plenty of other reasons for doing so.

Snyder also argued that this self-perception of relative weakness, which does fit with narratives of victimization and humiliation in international affairs that have been prominent in much Russian discourse since the end of the Cold War, also lies behind Russia’s propaganda war against the West. In this analysis, a weak Russia can become stronger by weakening other powers, particularly the EU. This weakening has taken two forms. Firstly, Snyder claimed that Russia has sought to undermine European unity by supporting anti-EU parties and groups on both the far-right and far-left, many of whom have bought into the type of propaganda discussed below. Secondly, Russia has sought to undermine the confidence of Europeans and their political leaders in the EU and in their own societies, branding them as decadent. As Snyder cleverly pointed out, this term not only differentiates the EU from Russia in terms of values – “gay latte drinkers [vs.] true defenders of Christianity” – but also implies the decay of Europe and European societies. If true, this would weaken the basis for political action, by states and by the EU, as well as by civil society actors, which Snyder claims requires a re-assertion of true ‘history’ rather than the nihilistic relativism that he sees as further weakening Europe.

To achieve the goal of a relative re-balancing of power, Snyder claimed that the Kremlin has employed methods of dissembling and confusion, throwing up enough lies (of varying degrees of plausibility) to obscure what Snyder sees as ‘the truth’ in the long run, or even ‘facts’ in the short term. He claimed that this type of propaganda not only effective in Russia, where it falls on favourable ears and eyes, but also in the West where rather than trying to get us to believe something in particular, the propaganda further “corrode[s] our ability to believe anything.” Snyder links this to the West’s embrace of what he sees as a radical postmodern skepticism that has not only undermined our ability to read the present, but has also undermined our “confidence in history.” Crucially, Snyder sees this undermining of history as having a doubly detrimental effect in that it hinders the action by both civil society and states (and the EU) in the face of situations such as that which has developed in Ukraine, as both interests become obscured and communities fail to bond or to believe they should or even could act.

 

History, Politics and Critique

In responses to questions, which unfortunately were required to be in written form which hindered the level of critical engagement, Snyder discussed how Russian propaganda could be countered, while emphasising the importance of not resorting to counter-propaganda. Instead, Snyder made a convincing argument for the need for reporters on-the-ground to provide information and for academics and others to point out the contradictions or inconsistencies in propaganda and political messaging. Both measures are attempts to re-assert the value of ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ in opposition to the confusing “postmodern” “cacophony” that Snyder bemoans. It was unfortunate therefore that when answering a question on the supposed presence of right wing or ‘fascist’ elements in Eastern Ukraine, Snyder resorted to the same tactic. He offered a bewildering list of those that have been alleged combatants, ranging ranged from the Polish army to Blackwater and the (non-existent) NATO foreign legion, in order to cast doubt on the validity of claims that the those such Azov battalion, which has been pictured using fascist symbols, are indicative of a right-wing presence.

This essay has shown some of the inconsistencies in Snyder’s own positions, which do not necessarily undermine the overall thrust of his argument, but do cast doubt upon some of the foundations upon which his scholarship is based. This is particularly the case with regard to the inconsistent treatment of ‘language’ and ‘ethnicity’, which move from being “silly” constructs to ‘real’ factors in explaining conflict and community as suits the argument. This is perhaps linked to Snyder’s unwillingness to talk about intersectional identity politics for fear of its proximity to the postmodernism he so abhors, but it is not good scholarship and nor were his quasi-orientalist remarks about Russian and Chinese propensities for skulduggery and cunning respectively. Despite criticising the complacent assumptions and conclusions of the ‘end of history’ Snyder reproduces many of its aspects, particularly regarding its liberal goals, while somewhat incredulously claiming to be “true left wing”.

More worryingly, Snyder also smuggled in big, political claims under the banner of academic scholarship, such as the questionable assertion (particularly in the EU context) that “you cannot have a foreign policy if you don’t have an army.” Taken together with Snyder’s argument that we need to believe in history rather than fall prey to dangerous critical relativism, this amounts to an attempt to put his own politics beyond the pale of serious critical questioning. This sits uneasily with the first point Snyder made – the need to critically examine received wisdoms or stabilised concepts, such as the notion of civil society. This inconsistency is the most serious critique of his talk as it undermines his own challenge to the propagandists, who he is more similar to than it would be comfortable for him to admit. There is much to admire in the detail of Timothy Snyder’s scholarship, as the astute observations reported above testify, but we should also hold his work up to the critical standards that he applies to others, rather than allowing it to be off-limits to thoroughgoing critique.

A Full video of Timothy Snyder’s talk is available here

By Benjamin Tallis

As the situation in Ukraine swung from hopeful to horrific and then from tentative victory for people power in Kyiv to Russian power play in Crimea, it has been difficult to keep pace with events. Excellent reportage from brave journalists has, as usual, come side by side with witless simplification and reprehensible cynicism. However, with the media understandably chasing the storm, it is too easy to get caught in the whirlwind where ‘high’ politics and low morals blur some of the most important factors that led Ukraine into this situation, as well as obscuring potential ways out. As well as offering my own analysis, I provide links to insightful or informative commentaries on recent events and try to draw out the wider or deeper points they raise.  Based on my long-standing interest in and experience of Ukraine, as well as on academic and journalistic writing and research, the following issues stand out amidst the maelstrom of information and ideology circulating in both traditional and social media.

These four, linked yet distinct, pieces address different aspects of the crisis that has arisen in Ukraine.

  • The first looks at the achievements and significance of  EuroMaidan and how they have been traduced by prejudiced or ideologically blinkered commentators. I argue that  we must reject these analyses and nurture the new post-Maidan Ukraine that is emerging.
  • The second piece challenges the fixation with Ukraine’s ‘territorial integrity’ arguing that it ignores issues of legitimacy and obscures the symbiotic relationship between borders, identities and orders. It asks whether Ukraine’s long-term interests would be best served by being more flexible about its borders.
  • The third piece examines the ignorance that has characterized much of the commentary and reportage on Ukraine and arguing that this has been politically exploited by the Putin regime.
  • Finally, the fourth piece looks at the role of the EU in the crisis, arguing that while it could and should have done more, it should not change its overall approach, but rather should re-affirm its belief in its own values and methods and its commitment to Ukraine as a European country.

In each piece, embedded links connect to freely accessible articles that are mentioned in the piece or which provide interesting substantiation, elaboration or contextualization of the themes discussed.

1. EuroMaidan is a triumph for the power of the ‘powerless’ & must be supported not smeared

In the face of a brutal crackdown by a repressive government, propped up by an even more brutal Russian regime, the protestors of the Maidan made a mockery of the asymmetry of the means at their disposal. By staying true to the principles that sustained their protest through the freezing nights and fiery days since November and by refusing to be intimidated they have shown the cracks in the façade of Putinism. As Vaclav Havel argued in ‘The Power of the Powerless’ authoritarian regimes depend both on the illusion of their own invincibility, which makes resistance seem futile, and on the de facto complicity of large numbers of the population, to sustain their power through conformity and the small, everyday actions that performatively re-affirm the regime’s grip.

Ukrainians have refused to be governed like that, believing that another way is possible, expressing themselves peacefully but defiantly and ultimately demonstrating their willingness to die for this cause. The crucial defections of police and military forces to the side of the protestors were triggered by the steadfastness of Maidan’s belief, the attraction of its hope and the practical example it set. In a country where for far too long too many have lived without hope, the fact that the protests could topple the government is a highly significant and welcome development. It is no wonder that Andrew Wilson described a new Ukraine built on these foundations as “Putin’s worst nightmare.” If Ukrainians can do it, Russians can too. It is no wonder therefore that Putin’s response has been to significantly up the ante, in his latest attempt to disguise weakness as strength.

Predictably however, not everyone has recognised or celebrated the success of the EuroMaidan for what it is. This failure stems from two main sources: anti-Eastern European prejudice and ideological blinkering. Chrystia Freeland exhorts us to treat this as 1989 all over again and make sure we are on the “right side of history” but, as Andrew Wilson points out, narrow-minded scepticism surrounding intra-EU migration and further EU enlargement means that it might be like 1989, but with an overwhelming response of cynicism rather than hope, as if it was Nigel Farage rather than Vaclav Havel setting the agenda.

The archipelago of prejudice against Central and East Europeans extends from the distorted debates about mobility in the EU as well as the Union’s hesitancy over confirming that Ukraine would, as any European country, have the potential to join the EU in the long run. The liberal broadsheets are not immune to this prejudice; Boyd Tonkin patronizingly dismisses the history of Ukrainian independence as “a primitive peasant throwback” and one wonders if he would be comfortable describing Irish or Scots nationalism as “backwoods chauvinism.” This prejudice has also made fertile ground for the slurs thrown at the EuroMaidan, primarily in relation to the supposed dominance of far-right groups.

Highly selective and sensationalized reporting has bought into Putinist propaganda and grossly exaggerated the role and prevalence of right wing groups in the protests. That nationalist parties with some extremely distasteful views are present is undeniable, as is the use by some extremists of Nazi or fascist insignia. However, Timothy Snyder and Anne Applebaum, both scholars of the holocaust and the latter with Jewish roots, have strongly criticized the disproportionate reporting of these elements. BBC Newsnight seemed to make special efforts to seek out teenagers espousing views that would not sound out of place in the fringes of ‘eurosceptic’ parties in the UK. Moreover, it says much about the Maidan that its broad church has remained just that, with only those who support the Yanukovych and Putin regimes excluded. The vast majority of the millions involved in EuroMaidan are not right-wing and certainly not extremists. It is a disgrace that their courage and dignity has been dragged through the mud by others who are prejudiced or, at best, gullible.

Aside from the contemptible ranting of the Putin-regime and its media puppets, further criticisms of EuroMaidan have come from the left. One form of this is a critique of the goal of closer integration with the EU, which is interpreted as merely a neoliberal stitch-up. There is serious merit to the critique of unfettered neoliberalism – the economic crisis of the last 6 years should have convinced anyone who previously held any doubts about that – but the EU is about much more than neoliberalism; it certainly is to the majority of Ukrainians who support integration, even if it needs to do a better job of showing this. Even the avowedly left-wing activists that I interviewed, while highly critical of the neoliberal aspects of the EU still saw integration as the best option for Ukraine and highly valued its guarantees of rule of law and freedom of movement.

Apparently the left critics of Maidan either don’t care about the views of the majority of Ukrainians who support integration with the EU, or they patronizingly see them as dupes of false consciousness, one of the great dead-ends of left-leaning analysis. Another is dogma, which, to paraphrase the geographer Derek Gregory, too often serves to do the victims of injustice the indignity of making them the objects of theory. Sadly this is not confined to the fringes, with journalists like Seumas Milne and academics such as Immanuel Wallerstein reducing Ukrainians to mere pawns in their ludicrous interpretation of the greater games they see being played. Dr. Lee Jones, pronounced on twitter that “both sides [Euromaidan and the Putin regime] are equally ugly” and called for a “plague on both their houses”. This inability to distinguish between people coming together to overcome a repressive regime in order to seek a better future and the murderous, repressive kleptocracy of Vladimir Putin is shocking but not surprising. Dr Jones cites libcom.org as backup for his claims, particularly an article branding EuroMaidan as a “right-wing, reactionary” movement and thus “unsupportable from a radical, libertarian communist point of view.

This speaks volumes for the confusion that occurs when dogma replaces reflexive thought as it has also done in claims that the changes brought by Maidan are merely the switching of one oligarch guard for another. It is simply too early to tell if this is the case and it will remain so until after elections have been held. Ukrainians are not blind to this danger. They saw a stolen election followed by a stolen revolution ten years ago. Nonetheless, the way that that the temporary, transitional government has gone about its business, the distinctly frosty reception given to Yulia Tymoshenko’s release from prison and the presence of many left leaning and highly critical groups in the Maidan gives cause for optimism in this regard. However, optimism is one thing that the cynical contemporary Western left seems to struggle with; it will be an all too predictable shame if it continues to provide useful idiots for Putinism.

At the time of writing, as we wait anxiously to see what follows the illegitimate invasion of Crimea, it is too early to tell what the final outcome of the revolution born at EuroMaidan will be. It will be easier to tell after the elections in May, if they go ahead. However, what is certain is that what has been achieved should be celebrated as a triumph in the face of adversity. The victory of the EuroMaidan should be cherished and nurtured and has come as a timely reminder to the EU of what it stands for. In order to deliver on its promising start and ensure it does not succumb to the fate that has befallen previous attempts at progressive change in Ukraine, we must stand with Ukrainians and their Maidan.

2. Self-determination & legitimacy, not ‘territorial integrity’ are key to Ukraine’s future

As any scholar of Ukraine knows, the name of the country means ‘Borderland’. Orest Subtelny begins his majestic history with this and Anna Reid used it as the title for her journey through Ukrainian history, to give just two examples. Ukraine’s borders are again the subject of much interest, but one possibility hasn’t been seriously considered – that for Ukraine to have a sustainable future as more than a borderland, it may need to change its borders.

Much of the opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has come on the basis of respecting guarantees about Ukraine’s territorial integrity. This territorial integrity is based on borders that, like those of other countries, are not natural, but rather are distinctly political constructs. This does not mean they are not ‘real’ or important, but it does mean that they are neither permanent nor sacrosanct. Borders are intimately related to Identities and Orders; reflecting and reinforcing who the people within them are and how they live with each other. US ambassador to Russia Jack Matlock is only the latest  – although surprising – addition to the long list of those to point out that US and EU respect for the principle of territorial integrity  – and national sovereignty – has been distinctly flexible in the past. Border change should not be ruled out in this case, but only if it reflects the democratically expressed wishes of Ukrainians.

Crucially, much of the legitimacy of the Maidan protests has been based on the desire to live differently. The protests were sparked by the desire of many Ukrainians to intensify integration with the European Union, which Yanukovych (backed by Putin) so callously disregarded. However, as Timothy Snyder has compellingly argued, they developed into a more general protest against a corrupt and violent governing elite and in favour of democracy, the rule of law and accountable government acting for the population rather than for itself. That these are values generally embodied by the EU, for all its faults, is no coincidence. Many of the Ukrainians who disagree with this approach and have stated that they don’t want these things have identified with Russia and some have openly called for Russian intervention to ‘save’ them from the new regime growing out of the Maidan. These people have the same right to self-determination as the people of the Maidan and should also be able to choose how they want to live.

Calls for a referendum on the status of Crimea have been widely denounced, with one comment on facebook comparing it to being asked to vote with a gun to your head. However, it could instead be used as a way to help find a long-term solution to some of the problems Ukraine currently faces. A referendum could be held in each region of Ukraine posing a simple question asking whether the people want their region to be part of the state of Ukraine. It is possible that this would mean that several regions – probably in the South and East – would choose not to be part of Ukraine. They would then be free to choose their own future, potentially allowing them to seek integration with Russia. This would indeed challenge the integrity of Ukraine’s territorial borders in their current form, but more importantly it would massively boost the viability and legitimacy of the newly bordered state and give a clear mandate to a post-election administration in Kyiv to govern for the people who chose to be live on its territory. It would also let people who – rightly or wrongly – feel threatened in post-Maidan Ukraine to leave and put the lie to claims that they are being kept in the state against their will.

The various grievances voiced by different groups, often in different parts of the country reflect to some extent the shifting borders that characterized Ukraine’s pre-independence history. Even though divisions in Ukraine are often exaggerated or wrongly identified (see 3), speculation about them has been a significant source of instability, which has been ruthlessly exploited by the Putin regime. Giving Ukrainians the chance to choose would remove this possibility either by confirming that they don’t exist or, if they do prove insurmountable, by giving them legitimate political expression. Ukrainians across the country voted for independence in 1991 and now it’s time to check again. If post-Maidan Ukraine is to stand a chance, it needs a solid foundation based on not internal mistrust and division and destabilization from outside.

Clearly these plebiscites would raise many practical issues, but none that are unfamiliar or irresolvable in a democratic context. They would in fact give Ukraine the chance to prove that it can deal with difference by p the rights of Russian speakers who want to remain part of Ukraine. Such a vote would also provide the platform for real public debate, a comparison of the options on the table, and as such would give Ukrainians a very good reason to cut through what Snyder calls the ‘haze of propaganda’ that has distorted the debate. If having done so, some people still prefer Putin’s tender mercies to life in the new Ukraine, then good luck to them. They will need it.

3. Useful Idiocy: Western Ignorance is a significant obstacle to a new Ukraine

The sheer level of ignorance about Ukraine in the West has been one of the most striking features of the media coverage of events in Ukraine since November. From Evan Davis’ astonishment at the size of Ukraine’s population, to the repeated confusion of Yanukovych and Yushchenko and Germaine Greer’s identification of Ukraine as a Northern, Baltic country, basic, yet indicative ignorance abounds.

There are other levels of ignorance that are equally damaging, such as the uninformed prejudice and general stereotyping as well as the willfully ignorant and innumerate smearing of the Maidan (See 1). However, it is also ignorance that fuels the claims about linguistic and ethnic division repeated ad nauseum across so much of the mainstream western media and in supposedly critical commentaries such as those of Immanuel Wallerstein. This supposed schism might fit nicely with the new-cold-war and Russia vs. the West narratives that infuse much of the reporting on the issue but do little justice to the complexity of the lives lived by most Ukrainians, ignoring them in favour of the seductions of ‘the great game’. The eagerness to switch the discussion to the geo-strategic level and to focus on the role of Russia is perhaps another symptom of ignorance born of the (relatively) greater familiarity with Russia, and of a press-corps based in Moscow rather than Kyiv who feed information to their often simplifying and sensationalist Western hubs.

As discussed in point 2, this is not to say that there are not divisions, but that they are not necessarily and certainly not exclusively along the ethno-linguistic lines that are normally given. Thankfully, more nuanced analyses are available. Peter Pomarantsev’s explanation of Ukrainian linguistic complexity gives substance to claims such as those made by the eloquent Ukrainian translator who explained to her hosts on the BBC’s Weekend Live that growing up, her family had spoken Ukrainian at home but that she had gone to a Russian speaking school and was comfortable with and happy in both languages. Ellie Knott’s research in Crimea also complicates the clear narratives coming out of the propaganda machines and questioning the simplistic analyses offered up by much of the media. Age, relation to current and previous regimes, material and financial benefits and possibilities, desire for certain types of lifestyle or other forms of preference and prejudice play significant roles in producing a political spectrum that straddles ethno-linguistic divides.

As Mary Dejevsky points out, it also underplays the ties that unite Ukrainians across  ethnic or linguistic lines. This rings true from my own experience in Ukraine when, in the course of living, working and subsequently researching I found significant commonality between the young people I met, regardless of whether they spoke Ukrainian or Russian as their first language. I also found significant difference between them, but this was the kind of difference that one could find between people in any country, a sign of healthy plurality of opinion and not determined by ethnicity or language. As Anne Applebaum has pointed out, Ukraine’s differences – like those of countries elsewhere – are primarily political and Pomerantsev is right when he says

“The big winner from the conceptual division of Ukraine into ‘Russian’ and ‘Ukrainian’ spheres may well be the Kremlin. The idea that Russia is a separate political and spiritual civilisation, one which is a priori undemocratic, suits the Kremlin as it looks to cut and paste together an excuse to validate its growing authoritarianism. So every time a commentator defines the battle in Kiev as Russian language v. Ukrainian, a Kremlin spin doctor gets in another round of drinks.”

4. The EU should stick to its (lack of) guns

For many people, the development of what is now a crisis in Ukraine has been an indictment of the EU as a failed foreign policy actor and a sad confirmation that old fashioned power politics will inevitably trump the values, laws and standards that lie at the heart of the most successful peace and prosperity project in European history. Andrew Wilson, author of many of the best-informed and insightful commentaries on Ukraine, coined a catchy phrase in this regard when claiming that the EU had ‘brought a baguette to a knife fight’. Indeed, for anyone who believes in the potential of the EU to be a force for good in Europe – within and beyond the Union’s current borders – closely watching the unfolding of events since November has been a deeply painful process. The guarded, hesitant support; the words rather than actions; the missed opportunities and slow response times highlight significant problems in the way that the EU has conducted itself as well as about its attitude to Ukraine and Ukrainians.

However, properly analyzing and identifying these shortcomings is essential if EU Foreign Policy action is to be improved – both generally and specifically to offer real and effective support the emergent post-Maidan Ukraine. Rather than being a problem of strategy or tactics, the main problems relate to belief and commitment: EU belief in its own ability to act effectively and a commitment both to its own values and to recognising Ukrainians as Europeans.

The Eastern Partnership, launched after the Russia-Georgia conflict in 2008 sought ostensibly to deepen integration between the EU and its Eastern neighbours, including Ukraine. However, despite the negotiation of the association agreement  – rejected by Yanukovych, prompting the EuroMaidan revolution – progress on opening up the benefits of the EU to Ukrainians was too slow. A ‘Deep & Comprehensive Free Trade Area’ had been negotiated but not enough progress had been made on visa liberalization or on other measures that matter directly and deeply to Ukrainians. Dubious security concerns had come to dominate the mobility agenda and a general climate of populist hostility to Central and East Europeans in the gutter press was reflected in the lack of official EU recognition of a membership perspective for Ukraine in the long term. This is something that I have written on before, and which is a central concern of my research. Tim Judah also examines this and one of his interviewees, Hanna Shelest, a researcher at the Ukrainian National Institute for Strategic Studies put it succinctly when explaining her reasons for supporting the association agreement “it is a question of self-identification. Sometimes we don’t feel ourselves European but what is worse is when Europeans don’t see us as European.”

The key to effective EU policy in Ukraine is confidence in its own attractiveness that would allow for a combination of commitment to its own standards with the principled openness that allow these to be shared with other Europeans. This is not asking for a lowering of standards to fast-track Ukrainian membership – it is precisely these standards that make the EU so appealing to Ukrainians – but rather for a clear demonstration that Ukrainians belong in Europe. A good way to show this in the short term would be to offer visa-free travel and in the long term to make clear that Ukraine does have a chance to join, but only if it reaches the necessary standards. The former will also help in achieving the latter.

However, the EU can  – and belatedly has – taken other actions in regard to Ukraine, but again it could go further and could have acted sooner. Travel bans, sanctions and asset freezes are crucial sticks to add to the carrots mentioned above. Canadian MP Chrystia Freeland, quotes a Russian joke about Putin seeming to want to rule like Stalin and live like Abramovich and that this is facilitated partly by allowing others (like Abramovich), to live like Abramovich. As Freeland notes, the EU and its member states, particularly the UK, are complicit in this and could take action to limit the activities of Russia’s super rich, which would lessen the appeal of their tacit support for Stalin-like rule.

Banning autocrats and their oligarchs from travelling, studying, banking and partying in the west poses no such dilemma. We don’t need to allow autocrats to outsource the domestic demand, and their own desire, for the perks of democratic capitalism. Without them, they may find that ruling like Stalin loses some of its allure.

Timothy Snyder goes further,

“Soft power can hurt. General restrictions on tourist visas, a few thousand travel bans, and a few dozen frozen accounts might make a real difference. If millions of urban Russians understood that invading Ukraine meant no summer vacation, they might have second thoughts.

However, while this may be effective, the ethics of punishing people for the actions of a regime they may not support need to be seriously considered here. Targeted focus on the elite would seem a fairer way to proceed. By contrast, the oligarchs and their entourages, who maintain the Putin regime and conspicuously enjoy its trappings, at the expense of others, must however bear their share of responsibility for the crisis that is unfolding. As Ben Judah compellingly argues, the EU and its member states need to their game in enforcing their own laws and upholding their own standards rather than kowtowing to the obnoxious wealth of this toxic plutocracy. UK politicians (and population) might wish to consider the nature of the real migration problem from Eastern Europe – the

Both the EU and Ukraine must be careful not to slide into anti-Russian rather than anti-Putin stances. Doing so would only be grist to Putin’s mill and would alienate ordinary Russians, many of whom also suffer under the current government. Given the views of Navalny, et al on Ukraine, it is not surprising that the Russian opposition has not made more of the current crisis. It is perhaps, slightly wishful thinking, but it would certainly be refreshing to see a broader based opposition movement emerge in Russia, as the practical contrast between authoritarian nationalism and the way chosen by Ukrainians becomes clearer. As in Ukraine, punishing ordinary people for the sins of a regime they have little connection to is not only unjust, but also ineffective in securing support for change.

Notwithstanding the slings and arrows of the twittersphere, arguing for EU engagement to support the goals that it purports to share with the EuroMaidan is not the same as war-mongering. As Andrew Wilson observes, the EU does not do geopolitics in the classic sense, and nor should it. Some, like Robert Cooper, have suggested previously that it should, patronisingly stating that “Among ourselves, we keep the law but when we are operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle” while advocating the creation of a ‘post-modern imperium’.

Such an approach would if course undermine the EU’s own values and thus its legitimacy, but we should also ask if there would have actually been a better outcome if the EU had brought a knife or a gun to the fight, or had thought of the issue as a fight in the first place? The EU’s very credibility (and indeed its success) rests on eschewing those tactics and the perspectives that underpin them. The Union has the whip hand in soft power in the region, something that Putin also knows – otherwise he would not have resorted in desperation to hard power. If only the EU were as confident in itself and as willing to live up to its principles and goals in order to do well by doing good in Ukraine.

Review by Benjamin Tallis

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Jessica Serran’s conversations with Czechs about their identity tell us much about their individual interests and concerns, about where they come from and are perhaps going to, but also point to ways of exploring wider notions of both ‘Czechness’ and identity itself. The sensitively pitched inquiries that Serran makes to her (generally) sympathetic subjects and their responses to these promptings provide both the raw material for the work and the mainstay of its documentation. However, this documentary material, as well as the paintings that interpret it and the other images that punctuate it, draws attention to its porous, yet still constitutive borders, reflecting in its form the theme and stake of its inquiry. Clearly comfortable in her company, many of the interviewees reveal insecurities alongside fond memories, as well as hopes for and frustrations with others with whom they are grouped by nationality. From recollections of a Teplice childhood and the fulfillment of a happy home life to post-89 gender trouble and the ambiguous possibilities of travel.

The Field Guide captivates as it illuminates.

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Although she explicitly rejects the mantle of the sociologist, Serran has created something akin to a cleverly-bounded, yet open-ended aesthetic anthropology. The artist makes no claim that her ‘Field Guide to the Czech Psyche’ is representative, but far from robbing the project of socio-anthropological purchase, this reflexivity actually enhances it. Serran spoke at length to Czechs of different ages, in small Bohemian towns as well as in Prague. As she sought these peoples’ reflections upon themselves, she was introduced to friends and family and allowed access to minor mnemonic treasure troves; to personal archives of pictures, letters and stories. This process opened up a rich seam of experience and expectation particularly at intersections between the particular and the common.

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Edited versions of the conversations are buffered by photographs of both the artist and the participant – separately – considering the painting that ensued from their discussion. This formal device both highlights Serran’s presence in the work and makes a more general point about the inter-subjective construction of identity – we don’t do identity on our own, we do it in relation to others, rendering it dynamic and fluid, yet still authentic over time. The conversations repeatedly touch on different facets of this inter-relationality: of the participant and their family; across frontiers and between different nations; between Czech generations and across different societal groups; between ideas of ‘I’ and its various communities imagined or otherwise – shifting constellations of us and them.

Serran often guides the conversations to her interests, noting how long before or after the velvet revolution each participant was born and asking many of them specifically about the experience or impression of communism and its legacy, as well as inquiring about their relation to feminism. However, the conversations also escape these frameworks, allowing deeper and wider insight into the lives and concerns of the people involved. This is typical of the work as a whole, which recognizes both the utility and futility of categorization and generalization. At the thankful expense of a clear, unifying narrative, Serran’s work rejects simplification in favour of nuance and complexity. Her participants get to tell their own stories in their diversity as well as similarity, from which emerge the narratives they each rely on, as we all do, in making sense of and giving meaning to our lives and the ways this is made and given to us by others. Serran too, locates her work in an overlapping, uneasy relation with a personal myth of return to lost heimat, part of her family having left the Slovak countryside for Canada two generations previously.

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The pleasingly solid book, which documents the project, contrasts with the ethereal paintings, the swirls of rich yet muted colours, revenant images and deceptively simple words, that form Serran’s visual ‘translation’ of each conversation. The book includes images provided or suggested by the participants, ranging from family photos to the logos of state-owned enterprises from the communist period. These personal snapshots are like pearls on the string of the narratives woven through the conversations. Snatched glimpses exceed their framing like Tarkovskian polaroids, drawing us in, inviting to look deeper; to come closer. Other photographs, of landscapes, historical objects and events, ground the work, giving it the particular sense of place that allows Serran to reject a unifying notion of Czechness, while justifying the specificity of the Field Guide. 

Serran’s translations are painted mediations and connectors, which, like their subject matter, confound facile categorizations, rendering highly particular combinations and permutations of traits and fates recognisable yet mysterious and open-ended, redolent with possibility. Seemingly blank space is as important as figure and abstraction; elsewhere and elsewhen haunt the here and now. The participants’ questioning of supposed moral and historical certainties, their steadfastness and hesitance, passion and fragility provide a resolutely human counterpoint to many of the received wisdoms of the post-communist period and its dominant politics of memory. Real, lived experiences of Czech society both before and after the velvet revolution tell us something about the high-politics of transition, but more about the politics of the everyday and how people relate to it, to each other and to themselves. Serran’s work is a valuable – and beautiful – contribution to a burgeoning field of inquiry in post-communisms.

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Too often, supposed political or social engagement provides a superficial crutch for poor art, but Serran deftly and potently combines responsible social inquiry with arresting aesthetic expression and exploration. The combination of words and images, pre-existing pictures and newly created paintings emphasizes the dynamism and diversity of this work, which manages to be sympathetic and comforting as it destabilizes and disturbs preconception and prejudice. Serran’s ‘Field Guide’ pushes boundaries yet still gives borders – of self as much as state – the respect they deserve. She has, to paraphrase one of her participants, struck upon a compelling combination of logic and magic.

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Clashes In Kiev As Police Try To Clear Protest Camps

The EU can seize the moment created by the protestors on the EuroMaidan to help Ukrainians and help itself 

by Benjamin Tallis

The barricades on the EuroMaidan have been reinforced with snow-filled sandbags, following the sneak attack by chainsaw-wielding police and protestors are holding firm in Kyiv city hall having repelled the riot squad. The protestors must be hoping to avoid a repeat of what Carl Bildt, the Swedish Foreign Minister yesterday described as “Eurasia versus Europe in streets of Kiev tonight. Repression versus reform. Power versus people.”

Bildt, like his Polish counterpart, Radek Sikorski has been steadfast in support of the pro-Europe protestors and EU foreign policy Chief Catherine Ashton also paid a morale-boosting visit to the Maidan. Using its unexpected popularity, the time is now ripe for the EU to seize the moment and act decisively, but, as Bildt tweeted, “the Government of Ukraine has discredited itself in terms of economic help from the EU.” Geopolitical eminence grise Zbigniew Brzezinski agreed, commenting in the FT that “Ukrainians have to realise that European taxpayers are not enchanted by the prospect of paying for the misdeeds and corruption of the current Kiev elite.”

However, there is an option that would allow the EU to give real support to the protestors not the regime, remain true to its values and revive its best traditions and, in the process, potentially resuscitate its Eastern Partnership, of which Ukraine is the centerpiece. The EU should lift the requirement for Ukrainians to have a visa for short-term travel to countries in the Schengen zone, a step known as Visa Liberalisation.

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If Visa Liberalisation doesn’t sound like a big deal to you, then you probably don’t need a visa to travel to too many places. For average Ukrainians, this is THE hot button issue in relation to the EU. Although many visas are granted each year, the experience of the laborious and humiliating procedures and many people are put off from applying because of them. Activists and the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry agree that current practices amount to “consular sadism” and leave many in no doubt that they are considered ‘second-class’ Europeans. It is a sad indictment of everyday perceptions of EU neighbourliness that the artist and activist Nikita Kadan could suggest that the section of the Berlin wall symbolically displayed outside the German embassy in Kyiv should be relocated to the Polish-Ukrainian frontier, which, because of current visa policy, marks the border of “real Europe.”

Removing the need for Ukrainians to have a visa for short-term travel to the EU would not only make life easier and better for millions of people, it would send an important message – we recognize you are Europeans, we are with you and you are welcome to visit us. Too often the EU has sent the opposite signal to Ukrainians, betraying a fear born of ignorance and chauvinism. This has been compounded by an overly cautious approach to security in its neighbourhood that has failed to balance the risks of closer engagement with the opportunities that it brings for people on both sides of the current border.

The EU has been dragging its heals over short-term Visa Liberalisation for several years, blaming the failure of the government to ‘do its homework’ and implement necessary reforms. However, the current situation actually rewards those in power, the corrupt officials and their cronies, who can already travel freely thanks to special dispensations – this effectively welcomes the winners from and friends of the Yanukovych regime as wealthy tourists.

A visa-free policy for short-term travel would benefit ordinary people, not oligarchs, and would provide them with a tangible sense of European belonging, putting clear blue (and yellow) water between the EU’s democratic magnetism and Putin’s cronyism and coercion. Many Ukrainians – like those on the Maidan – are determined to change skewed perceptions of themselves and their country. They also want to learn about the EU, its standards and values by experiencing it for themselves, so they can bring the best of what they find back home. Visa-free travel would let them start to do both of these things.

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Doing Well by Doing Good: Embracing Ukraine is in (Almost) Everyone’s Interests

For the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who have turned out on the freezing yet fiery streets of their capital, whatever Putin is ‘offering’ cannot compete with the long-term potential of integration with the EU. They are willing to bear the inevitable costs and hard work of making change in order to transform their prospects and those of their children, but need help and support to do so. The EU rightly defends democratic standards as the best expression of its values, but the best way that it can support the demonstrators in Kyiv and help Ukrainians choose the hard but worthwhile road of reform would be to be inclusive in both principle and practice. In the short-term this means Visa Liberalisation.

The vast majority of protestors in Kyiv are not only demanding integration with the EU, but are rejecting their self-serving government’s brutality and guarding against attempts by right-wing extremists and nationalists to hi-jack this moment. They demand the type of benefits that association with, and eventual accession to, the EU would bring and which were built by eschewing old style power politics and embracing value-driven, democratic development to deliver real economic prosperity for people. The EU should trust its instincts and its capacity to act as attractive force for change from the bottom-up, rather than punishing Ukrainian people for the sins of their governing elites.

By being bold and acting in the interests of Ukrainians, the EU can revive its tottering Eastern Partnership and re-invigorate itself by returning to the values that made it the world’s most successful peace and prosperity project. The Eastern Partnership was launched in order to help spread this peace and prosperity further and faster, making both EU citizens and their neighbours richer and safer through closer co-operation and deeper integration. This is the logic that has driven the EU’s own success and it remains sound. The EU needs a Ukrainian government that is serious about reform to be a partner in a free trade area, but the best long-term security move that the EU can make is to take seriously Romano Prodi’s old phrase about creating a ‘ring of friends’ around it. By treating the Ukrainians on the Maidan this way, the EU might soon find that it also has friends elsewhere – in Belarus and even in Russia, where it should be made clear that opposing Putinism does not mean being anti-Russian.

Visa liberalization can help gain the popular buy-in for long-term change, convince skeptical Ukrainians that the EU cares about their interests and help pro-EU and pro-people politicians build a serious platform to oppose Yanukovych. Encouragingly, the penny seems to have dropped with EU leaders that this is a chance for change, for themselves as much as for Ukrainians, as Commission President Barroso recently stated “When we see in the cold streets of Kiev, men and women with the European flag, fighting for that European flag, it is because they are also fighting for Ukraine and for their future […] Those young people in the streets of Ukraine, with freezing temperatures, are writing the new narrative for Europe.”

Its time for the EU to put its policy where its mouth is and bring Ukrainians in from the cold.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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by Benjamin Tallis

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A tourist strolling down the right bank of the Vltava, contentedly absorbing the gothic and baroque splendour of Malá Strana and the Hradčany, might, a little further down the river, be forgiven for thinking ‘Where the hell did that come from?’ Downstream of the decorative Hanavský Pavilon, something that looks like it could be a modernist hermitage nestles in the trees at the Northern end of the Letna park, its minimal chic obtrusive among the expressive edifices of downtown Prague.

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The arcing glass and shining steel of the kidney-shaped, elevated gallery grab the viewer’s attention from the riverside, with the subtle grace of the glazed pedestal only becoming apparent upon closer inspection. In answer to the tourist’s question, this light triumph came from Brussels, although, despite the flags fluttering in front of it, this building has nothing to do with the EU. It dates from a time before the Belgian capital became synonymous with the administrative HQ of the European political project, when Brussels hosted the World’s Fair: Expo ’58.

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This cold-war Expo was a highly politically charged event, a symbolic showcase for the superpowers, keen to trumpet their technical prowess and trump the progress of those on the ‘other side’ of what had yet to become a wall. The ’58 Expo was also the first major international exhibition to be held since the end of World War 2 and, despite being planned in the dark days of the 1950s, it was a modernist materialisation of hope, giving snatched glimpses of better futures.

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Although held less than two years after the both the Suez crisis and the crushing of the Budapest uprising, the World’s Fair came in during a brief thaw in open hostilities, the lull before the storm of the proxy war in Congo and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Briefly it seemed that the cold war could be won by science and culture, by those who could not only divide heaven, but who could also harness technological progress to deliver better living.

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This was the time of both Sputnik and Saarinen, of Laika and the Lever Building; a time when Mad Men set about bringing the gains of Mutually Assured Destruction and the space race into mid-century living rooms. In the soviet bloc, Khrushchev’s 20th Congress denunciation had opened a narrow window of opportunity for architects and designers, as they were called upon to provide visual and material distance from the stodgy confections with which Boris Iofan and others had tried to sugar-coat tyranny.

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In Czechoslovakia, many of the golden generation of interwar architecture found under the new regime that they flew too close to the sun and so this rare possibility to reconnect to the international style was an alluring one. With the accent firmly on the modern, visitors to the Expo were invited to spend ‘One Day in Czechoslovakia,’ in an exposition that cracked the western-manufactured façade of communist-era culture being uniformly dull and grey.

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The light and voluminous spaces of František Cubr, Josef Hrubý and Zdeněk Pokorný’s pavilion set the scene for the most striking avant-garde theatre of the Expo. Josef Svoboda’s Polyekran (multiscreen) and Laterna Magika (magic lantern) combined projection and performance to stunning effect and stood proudly alongside the Corbusier –inspired Poeme Electronique as highlights of the festival. Function was not forgotten amidst these effervescent forms, with the pavilion’s elegant lines providing the backdrop to the best of contemporary Czechoslovak public and interior design, such as the classic T3 tram seat (heater included for those cold Prague winters) and the Hedgehog tea set.
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While the political focus was on the potential standoff between the neighbouring American and Soviet showgrounds, it was the Czechs and Slovaks who took home the prize for the best pavilion. But that wasn’t all they took home, as the beautiful, curving structure that now sits in the Letna orchards, was the pavilion restaurant, where millions of visitors made sure that their one day in Czechoslovakia included a pint of the original and best Pilsner.

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The Saaz-laden suds of Bohemia’s best-known export undoubtedly helped things go with a swing, but it was in successfully marrying such traditional craft with cutting edge technological achitecture, that the comfort with which interwar Czechoslovakia had ascended to the world’s cultural top-table.
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Unlike the American pavilion which rejected the “anonymity, uniformity and all the things that go to make up modernism[1]” or the confused Soviet pavilion which encased a thoroughly retrograde exhibition in a steel and glass shell, Czechoslovakia showed how modern architecture could both spur new socio-cultural possibilities and accommodate more traditional pursuits.

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At the end of the Expo, the restaurant was transported back to Prague and fulfilled this function throughout the communist era, including the repressive period of normalisation, where it must have been a mirage-like reminder, a sleek, shimmering and somewhat unreal reminder of what Czechs came to know as the Bruselský Sen (Brussels dream). In 1991 a fire destroyed the interior and like so many buildings realised under the socialist regime, it was not properly valued in the heady tumult of what followed.

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Today, although it is well signposted in the park, visitors cannot enter the restaurant building, as it is now the offices of an advertising company. The company found itself embroiled in controversy in 2008 when it ran the Prague Mayor’s unrealistic vanity campaign to bring the Olympics to Prague under the slogan ‘We are all on the National Team.’ This was parodied on the ‘Art Wall’ under the Expo restaurant by artivists Guma Guar who used the same artwork and slogan, but instead of lauding faux-noble equestrians perched ludicrously atop mountains, they applied it to well known Czech criminals.

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Is it too much to hope that the advertising agency would seek to show that they too are part of the national team and return this beautiful building to public use? In doing so, they would gain their greatest PR success and provide a welcome reminder of a time where modernist substance triumphed over superpower spin.

The text for this piece originally appeared in The Modernist – Issue 6: ‘Cuppa’ in December 2012


[1] ‘Citizens and Architects’, Architectural Forum, 110: January 1959