Arts Explorers Summer Series: Ukraine’s new identity | Work of Arts
Arts Explorers Summer Series: Ukraine’s new identity | Work of Arts

Arts Explorers Summer Series: Ukraine’s new identity

A summer series about travel that transforms lives

Arts people are Citizens of the World, many viewing travel as more than just a vacation. For the next few weeks, WOA blog will be featuring several guest blog posts by Arts alumni, faculty, staff or students about how travel gave them a new perspective.

 

DRM, Kyiv, Cyril&Methodius monument

Marples in front of the Cyril & Methodius Monument

I first visited the Maidan, the central square of Kyiv, over 25 years ago. At that time, members of the Green World ecological association were handing out leaflets about unfeasible projects in Ukraine, several linked to the Chernobyl disaster a few years earlier. Nearby red-helmeted coal miners were sitting on cobblestones, publicizing the reasons for their crippling strike, which paralyzed the Soviet coal and steel industries. In the background was the massive monument of Lenin, like a silent and critical watchdog overlooking events.

Last month, I visited Ukraine once again. Today the Maidan is like the aftermath of a battlefield, the casualties present in spirit and their sacrifices pervading the gloom of what is now a morgue of sorts. One can barely take a step without encountering some memory of the mass protests of 2014: the commemorations of those who died in the square, hapless victims of marksmen for the most part; the photographs of the dead, resembling an open-air museum.

Today the Maidan is like the aftermath of a battlefield, the casualties present in spirit and their sacrifices pervading the gloom of what is now a morgue of sorts.

Everywhere there were people asking for money for the Ukrainian army, with boxes swinging around their necks. Two were soldiers who were standing at the juncture on Instytutska Street where the memorials are displayed. Others were clearly not part of the regular army and stalked visitors relentlessly. Young soldiers walked between parents, home on leave from the front.

Glory to Ukraine banner

A public banner stating “Glory to Ukraine!”

In 1989 there were no mass billboards with the slogan “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to our heroes!” There were no tridents, which now appear everywhere, most often on the t-shirts of passers-by. Residents of the capital are suddenly more assertive, determined to emphasize their national identity.

On my last night in town a friend gave me an account of life in the war zone, where he has been “embedded” for the past weeks, on both sides of the border. Somehow he has managed to keep a balance, without commitment to either side. These conflicts have superseded Euromaidan, which occupied world attention for so long, and the violence is remorseless. As one separatist fighter put it on Vice News: “We don’t care about the [peace] agreements, we just follow orders.” There is no end in sight and the fighting rages on just 500 kilometers to the east.

Perhaps the most lasting sentiment I took with me upon leaving was the collective failure to recognize in 1991 that the peaceful fall of the Soviet Union was only the beginning of a process that is culminating in the violence of today. The battles are about identity and the future, but also about the past and the Soviet legacy.

The relative calmness of this beautiful city in this sense is illusory.


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About David Marples

David Marples

David R. Marples is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History & Classics. He is author of 15 single-authored books and three edited books on topics ranging from 20th Century Russia, Stalinism, contemporary Belarus, contemporary Ukraine and the Chernobyl disaster. His recent books include "Our Glorious Past: Lukashenka’s Belarus and the Great Patriotic War" (Stuttgart: Ibidem Verlag, 2014), "Heroes and Villains: Creating National History in Contemporary Ukraine" (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2008) and a co-edited book, "Ukraine’s Euromaidan: Analyses of a Civil Revolution" (Stuttgart: Ibidem Verlag, 2015), with Frederick Mills.