"Material and Immaterial Revolutions: Reflections on Kateryna Ruban’s Talk on Ukraine’s Decommunization Laws and 'Soviet Exorcism'" by Sandra Joy Russell

Russell 1 seminarHow have decommunization efforts participated in a larger Ukrainian history? In what ways have they shaped Ukraine today, and to what extent have they become part of its memory politics?

These were some of the questions posed by Kateryna Ruban in her talk, “Ukrainian Decommunization from Above and Below: Lenin’s Heads, Ideological Exorcism, and Demons of the Soviet Past,” on Wednesday, July 11th, 2018. A PhD Candidate in History at New York University, Ruban’s presentation explored some of the ways in which decommunization laws have sought to provide a moral framework for a post-Soviet Ukraine. She spoke to the challenges related to the phenomenon known as Leninopad (or “Leninfall”)—a decommunization effort initiated in December 2013, following the toppling of a Lenin monument in Kyiv during the 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution. Since then, nearly all of the Lenin monuments in Ukraine have been removed, and, for the most part, the empty plinths have not been replaced.

Ruban’s broader analytical interest lies in understanding what decommunization laws reveal about contemporary Ukraine. She suggests that the popularity of Leninopad reflects the failure of the October Revolution, and the urgency that accompanied the removal and demolition of Lenin statues (along with other forms of Soviet symbology) was an attempt to correct this failure and fully claim Ukrainian independence. Moreover, the public (and often forceful) performance of removing a monument created a powerful metaphor for a “new” society, one that has been used to mobilize a mass political movement throughout Ukraine. Since Euromaidan, this movement has been further motivated by the ongoing war in Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbas, a correlation that Ruban referred to as “the logic of political emergency”—the idea that if Lenin monuments were removed in cities like Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk, the spread of war and Russian occupation of these territories would be prevented.

Russell 2 from Anna Jermolaewas 2017 LeninopadYet, as Ruban emphasized, there is some room for critique. The association of decommunization laws with Ukraine’s national moral framework risks creating a caricature of the past. It rewrites Ukraine’s Soviet history as tied exclusively to Russia, and thus it overlooks the work of Soviet citizens as active subjects in building a Ukrainian Soviet state. The language embedded in the decommunization laws, she observed, sounds exorcistic, focalizing on the “eradication” of Soviet evils. However, such an approach contributes to magical thinking about the statues’ power: remove the symbols and create a new nation, one that emerges without any radical political, economic, or infrastructural changes. Problematically, she stressed, this mentality risks perpetuating a singular, state-imposed historical narrative as well as placing nation-building power into the hands of politicians rather than people.

Russell 3 poster for Sergei Eisenstein 1927 October Ten Days that Shook the WorldAs a way of contextualizing and historicizing some of these challenges, Ruban used excepts from several Soviet and post-Soviet documentary films, including Sergei Eisenstein’s 1927 October: Ten Days that Shook the World (Октябрь: Десять дней, которые потрясли мир), footage from the August 1990 removal of the Lenin statue in Chervonohrad, a segment from Kateryna Goronostai’s 2014 Euromaidan: Rough Cut (Евромайдан. Черновой монтаж) entitled “Lenin’s Teeth” (“Зуби Леніна”), and Anna Jermolaewa’s 2017 Leninopad. In these examples, she focused on the reactions and responses of either Ukrainians who were present at the moment of a statue’s removal or, as in the case of Jermolaewa’s film, locals interviewed about the vacant monuments. Such visual examinations of revolutionary actions evoke discussion about the future of these material and symbolic spaces, giving greater insight into Ukraine’s present. Likewise, in her trans-temporal comparison of these revolutionary moments, Ruban posed a critical question: “In the destructions of these monuments, who is the revolutionary political subject of Maidan; who destroys the old regime?”

One way of responding to this question, Ruban asserted, is to consider what has replaced the empty monuments. For now, there is little to no consensus as to how or with what to more permanently fill this space. Most of the plinths have been covered by crosses, national symbols, or flags, or else left completely empty. Additionally, the Lenins themselves are either discarded or become objects for sale, treated as a fetishized relic or “bounty” from a bygone Soviet era. Regardless of what ideological symbols are used to cover the plinths, Ruban attests, ultimately what Lenin represented cannot be replaced—his image was the signifier of a class revolution for which the working class was the political subject. As a way of formulating or even reframing a national identity, such local, public responses promote martyrological thinking about a post-Maidan Ukraine. Ruban, moreover, expressed some concern over the kind of nationalism that motivated the toppling of Lenins, and how this has potentially legitimized or brought immunity to other forms of violence by far-right paramilitary groups whose members have attacked LGBT people, pro-Russian journalists, and Roma people.

Russell 5 Confederate statue Kate Medley ReutersIn my own consideration of Ruban’s questions, perhaps it is worth comparing Leninopad to the removal of Confederate monuments and memorials in the United States in 2017—a movement that similarly caught the eye and ire of a divided public. Many supporters and activists hoped that eradicating the symbols associated with slavery, white supremacy, and the Jim Crow era might reorient American memory politics, or, at the very least, de-emphasize white supremacy and bring greater attention to the contributions of people of color. Many who opposed their removal clung to the idea of a “cultural heritage,” and one that should not be “erased” or forgotten. Yet, despite the powerful message conveyed though the monuments’ removals, the institutional legacies of slavery and white supremacy remain, and they require deeper, more radical transformations. This includes a reorientation of power and of the innumerable, yet often overlooked, ways in which whiteness in the United States has benefited from this inheritance; that is, the unpaid and exploited labor of black Americans that has built the institutional and generational wealth and stability from which white Americans continue to benefit. These legacies, while often material, are equally (and more insidiously and immeasurably) immaterial, and it is for this reason that we both desire and demolish the monumental: it is a location for containing and communicating a past that is, in many ways, unrepresentable.

Russell 4 Euromaidan Rough CutThere is no easy answer regarding the future of these spaces or for determining what is the best way for Ukrainians to negotiate a Soviet past in a post-Maidan Ukraine. The complexity and consciousness elicited in Ruban’s discussion brings thoughtful attention to the complicated relationships between symbols, people, history, and ideology. To borrow from Susan Sontag, I wonder how we might develop an “ethics of seeing” within the public spaces that serve not only as historical representations, but also as formations of a national idea. Moreover, is it possible to produce a visual ethos that avoids a singular narrative, or the “illusion of consensus,” with respect to the symbolic representations (and re-representations) of violent or traumatic histories? We ought to consider the failure of monuments and memorials to represent a rigid and monolithic past. As forms of public engagement, they are often expected to function didactically, as configurations of narrative consensus. Yet this demands too much of these material spaces, requiring a static vision of history unburdened by memory or ideology. This is not to say statues and memorials are irrelevant; on the contrary, they can be meaningful sites of memory. However, the harder work lies in the immaterial: the slow, uneven, and often unremarkable re-calibration of our own engagement with these legacies. 

Watch a video of the presentation here. [Note: The video quality is poor.]

Sandra Joy RussellA PhD Candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Sandra Joy Russell holds an MA in English, and from 2012-2014, she served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Lutsk, Ukraine. Her doctoral research explores Ukrainian and diasporic representations of the Euromaidan Revolution and the war in Donbas, particularly the role of non-fiction (including documentary and visual art) as forms of public and transnational engagement with post-Soviet Ukraine.

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