THE FLAG AND THE BLIDNESS
By the 25th anniversary of the Ukrainian Independence, the Shchors monument on the Shevchenko boulevard has been shielded with a giant blue-and-yellow cloth resembling Ukraine’s national flag. It’s a pity that the installation at the former Lenin monument by a Mexican artist Cynthia Gutierrez has been recently dismantled – two of them would have made a diptych since both are on the same street. Pride, shame and somewhat confused, clumsy care took shape in this symbolic gesture of the city government. What should be done to the intimidating Soviet idol in the middle of the city? And especially now, on the Independence Day? How to please those who never get tired of reminding of the Heritage status of the monuments, and those who cannot tolerate such mockery on such an important day? The flag is a compromise, a smooth de-communization, a temporary sarcophagus, so nothing bad bothers you during this state holiday. So in small towns, any Soviet reliefs and mosaics are being covered with blue and yellow. The colours of the national flag distract and suppress anger. Does it matter what is underneath the paint? Who cares what is there behind the shield?
Yes, sure, it’s not always like that. Probably, those decommunization laws genuinely were meant to distract the public from the more important issues, but it seems unlikely that the deputies saw what a powerful, and, most importantly, legal, aggression releasing tool they had created. And it turned out that one does not even need to leave home and go to the square to knock down another Soviet monument. All you need to do is just heartily root in the knocking down of more (Soviet State Security Monument in Kyiv) or less (bas-reliefs of the Ukrainian House) significant monument and get engaged in fierce discussions with those who stress out that these monuments should be rather be conserved – even if dismounted. Arguments of those who advocate methods of destruction somehow always involve the current war in eastern Ukraine – as if Soviet architecture pieces dissolved in the epileptic stream of tough capitalistic visual culture would be able to revive the Soviet myth that underlies hostile propaganda. However, it is not the nature of these artefacts – they are like any other material cultural monument subject to context. In fact, bas-reliefs of the Ukrainian House can serve as illustrations for a great variety of historical subjects. The point is that even without them the building is still a Lenin Museum. Or shall we just shield it with flags and agree to hide this uneasy fact from the future generations?
Meanwhile, the on other side of the town, namely at the Expocenter of Ukraine “ENEA” (“ENEA” – the former abbreviation that doesn’t stand for anything nowadays) where the density of the awful Soviet-style (very evocative Soviet style, we should say) buildings is extremely high, absolutely up-to-day entertainment activities take place. However, the centre’s PR-team went through rough times for their “too obvious Soviet affection” because they’ve left the former “ENEA” letters to be in the new name. But this was done for purely pragmatic reasons: the “Expocenter” name didn’t get very popular with the people, as well the national economy was not a subject of an everyday small-talk. This place broke up with the practices it had been created for, but managed to keep its buildings and at least the part of its former name, and thus – its history. Radical decommunization supporters prefer to do things in a different way: they’d rather destroy an object hoping it will eliminate some certain thinking patterns and behaviour strategies. Nevertheless, it’s important that while strolling along the alleys of the “ENEA” Expocenter we can see and at least merely imagine what the “ENEA” was like in the past. At least for the sake of its history.
The ones who support the idea of physical destruction of anything that reminds of the Soviet Union, think not only in terms of hatred of the communist regime, but also in terms of precautionary measures for their idea is if we leave it where it is, it will devour us again. In this case, we, the present-day people, are forced to defend ourselves from our own past that has power over us. The paradox is that it does have it. But this effect does not originate from the outside, and walls showing images the of proletarians’ life do not radiate it either. The past and its superpowers live within ourselves, and even those who, like me, for example, never lived in the USSR, we were brought up by the people who were born and raised there.
A recent example: I was explaining to a friend, slightly older than me, why the dismantling of the bas-reliefs from the Ukrainian House upsets me. I told him about the architectural ensemble, about the violation of the law, and how obvious the desire to curry favour with the senior management through this typical and symptomatic situation was. My friend, who is also strange to hysterical intolerance for the Soviet legacy, shrugged and said, “I understand all of that, but no matter how I try, I can’t be supportive. I do not feel like this place has anything to do with me”. Why do we care about public space only when an ideological struggle breaks out over it? (And even then the majority remain aloof). Why cities, streets or, say, yards don’t feel like they belong to us?
I guess the answer lies within our understanding of private space that has been shaped by the Soviet ideology and the routine of communal apartments. Of course, it is not limited by it, but it makes a significant part. Russian anthropologist Ilya Utyekhin who explores the “Soviet person” through the communal experience, writes that similar forms of accommodation existed before. But never in the course of history had so many people, so different in their habits, been obliged to share one space; or to settle with the complex self-made rules of cohabitation since there were no landlords to set them. Even though the government were providing so-called “guidelines” to outline the communal housing policy, and some apartments had their own handwritten instructions, the whole spectrum of possible conflict situations couldn’t be covered. All life of the community was determined by this uncertain concept of justice: everyone had to invest money and effort in equal parts, and the constant attempt to make sure that no one was living at others’ expense sometimes turned into a paranoid obsession.
On local and practical levels these communal apartments had literally incorporated the very idea of the Soviet Union – no privacy could be achieved there. “Any private invasions were justified in a communal apartment”, says Utekhin, “Even a locked bathroom door couldn’t provide any privacy, for others would still knock on the door to let one inside know that somebody was ringing or just to remind that there were others waiting their turn to use it. There was no such word as “privacy” in Soviet times, and people were trying to describe it with the existing vocabulary when appealing to the authorities. For example, one man asked for permission to put a partition in the room that he was sharing with his ex-wife, describing it as a need for a “domestic self-restriction”. Such permanent violation of personal space makes one fight for any piece of privacy constantly, although unsuccessfully. In this case, when everyone is watching whether another observes the principles of justice (meaning – if the one sticks to the rules and lives right: if one doesn’t use iron for too long, or if one’s visitors are not ringing the doorbell for too long – wasting common electricity), cooperation becomes impossible. For the same reason space of a communal apartment is strictly divided into “theirs” and “ours”: dirty and clean, safe and dangerous.
This division, an extremely small personal safety zone and a habit not to trust anyone who doesn’t belong to it, extrapolates outwards and to some degree preserves to this day. So, for example, the city is a strange area, and working with strangers within it becomes potentially dangerous. It’s interesting to watch how after the Maidan new practices of self-organization are sometimes mix up with those old behaviour patterns. In the house I live in, for example, one of the dwellers took initiative to improve the entrance hall, and was supported by others. Now every month we collect money that goes to the concierges’ salaries, cleaning services and renewing the lightbulbs. There is even a sandbox in the backyard now. However, the passive-aggressive style of the announcements that sometimes appear on the doors reminds of those handwritten housing regulations. Concierges take post and utility bills from the postmen and hand them to each resident personally, despite the request to leave all correspondence in the post-boxes. A Saturday morning may welcome you with a ringing doorbell and a man at your door urging you to get dressed and come outside because there is an emergency meeting where the fate of the garbage disposal unit is being decided. These are the funny stories, but somewhere in their very depth lies the fundamental misunderstanding of privacy as such.
To understand this, one has to be aware of the practices whence this misunderstanding derives from. Refusal to know and study these practices makes it impossible to develop new behaviour patterns. It resembles trauma in psychoanalysis: you can survive the repressed, only by bringing it back to the consciousness. Yes, our desperate hatred for anything soviet seemingly implies hatred to the name itself – this is also evidenced by the habit of calling “soviet” everything that contradicts its own value system (which sometimes results in that things that are completely different in their essence acquire the same “soviet” label). A friend of my parents once said that she grew to hate the Soviet Union when soon after the Independence had been proclaimed she came to Germany and learned about the existence of menstrual pads. However, her anger was not directed at the communist regime – she hated the way of life deprived of basic amenities. Sometimes you can hear how such an experience of permanent discomfort is turned into a significant quality: like, that is why (post)-Soviet people are much more creative than the Westerners.
We can feel a sincere and profound hatred of the crimes of the Soviet regime, but continue to practice the way of life that it has planted: it is a conspiracy of silence regarding historical events, the predominance of the collective over the individual in politics, the violation of boundaries and helplessness in our everyday life. And it begins to change through very small and pragmatic steps. Yes, the fact that junior students were allowed to use a pencil, correct mistakes and sign notebooks the way they want, feels like revolution in education (and causes collateral resistance), precisely because these new small practices come from a completely different worldview. Perhaps decommunization should have meant to bring changes into the worldview instead of simply designating them.
That’s why we need to understand what we are getting rid of and what we are striving to acquire. Close examination of the past sharpens the eye and improves the optics. Among the murders, arrests, fears and repressions in the Soviet Union, life followed its flow and a culture developed, whether we like it or not, having a great impact on the Independence generations. Being aware of this culture gives us a chance to move on. Although the people have died for the right to raise their flag, when it shields us from our past, it turns into a metaphor for blindness.