"Lenin Goes Down, Art Comes Up: The Evolution of Space and Image" by Grace Mahoney

Jessica ZychowiczNotes on the lecture by Jessica Zychowicz

On Wednesday, July 20th, Dr. Jessica Zychowicz, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, gave a talk at HURI on rethinking post-colonialism in contemporary Ukraine through the lenses of media and gender. Zychowicz demonstrated that images and media (be them iconic, documentary, or representational) produced in Ukraine today may be in dialogue with, in response to, or an evolution from media of the past, and they create a plurality of readings and identities that go beyond the binary terms of post-coloniality.

One interesting example Zychowicz brought forth, the Lenin statue—and its destruction — has become a prescient image of the Revolution of Dignity events and their aftermath in Ukraine. A monumental icon in itself, Lenin’s image was ever-present in Soviet spaces—and to a large extent remained in these places, including in Ukraine, long after the end of the Soviet Union. In many ways, Lenin’s image has evolved from cult to kitsch, but even more so, its removal from public space or its destruction signals a popular break from Soviet history and its legacy. These removals and destructions happen in different ways. In Budapest, for example, Lenin statues populate a park-museum filled with other condemned relics of the past. In St. Petersburg, however, a vandalized Lenin statue in the titular Lenin Square was promptly boarded up and repaired as if nothing had happened (2009). The fate of Lenin statues across Ukraine made headlines during the 2013-2014 revolution. Dr. Zychowicz illustrated many of the complexities and processes of one of the most significant ‘Leninfalls’—the monument on Khreshatyk Street in Kyiv.

Russell 4 Euromaidan Rough CutZychowicz first showed a segment of the documentary film, Euromaidan. Rough Cut (2014). The short piece, titled "Lenin’s Teeth" directed by Kateryna Gornotsai, shows a crowd gathered in the aftermath of the statue’s demise. Protesters parcel and pose with the statue, and a young Ukrainian man holds a small, curved piece of the statue and jokingly calls it the teeth. The focus of Gorontsai’s film, however, is less the statue itself, than the public conversation about it. One woman laments its falling because it was part of her daily walk. An old man breaks down in tears and is comforted by younger protesters. There is conflict, but more so there is dialogue, a dialogue between people who may have never spoken otherwise.

After the end of the statue comes the question, Well, what now? In spring 2014, the Ukrainian government passed a set of ‘de-communization’ laws, which were partly aimed at doing away with the monumental vestiges of the Soviet Union. Many more statues have been destroyed or undergone transformation in accordance with these laws. But so much ‘unmaking’ merely leaves empty space. Recently, however, as part of a larger project titled "Social Contract," the art platform IZOLYATSIA (a group in exile from Donetsk) successfully curated an installation by artist Cynthia Gutierrez in the empty space of Kyiv’s former-Lenin monument. Called "Inhabiting Shadows," Gutierrez’s piece—a pedestal with steps straddling the site of the former statue—allows visitors to inhabit the space of the former monument at the same level as Lenin’s line of vision. Zychowicz aptly noted that thinking of Lenin’s line of vision recalls the surveillance agenda of the Soviet Union, yet, however ironically, now visitors at the top of the pedestal photograph themselves and post these images to social media—our own contemporary form of social self-surveillance.

Inhabiting Shadows

Gutierrez’s installation was only in place for a few days, but I imagine it added a rich piece to the ongoing discourse of the Lenin image in Ukraine. Zychowicz demonstrated the complexity of this image and many more as they are being engaged with by artists and activists operating in Ukraine’s multi-faceted, post-Soviet society.

Grace MahoneyGrace Mahoney is a PhD student of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on Russian and Ukrainian literature and visual culture from the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. She is particularly interested in institutions of memory, such as museums, and forms of cultural dissidence and public expression. Grace is taking the subject courses at HUSI this summer.