Prematurely aged and veined with cracks walls of the nineties mass high-rise housing made up all the view to the right and to the left from the highway. The only interruption of this vast monochromatic landscape was offered by the shiny shacks of the new churches, constructed almost overnight to fulfill the governmental program of enhancing “spirituality,” and massive voluptuous hips and breasts of women advertising luxury watches and bathroom tiles on the big boards. I was looking out of the car window as my mother drove us to Borispil Kiev airport to pick up Matt, trying to imagine how all this scenery would appear to his tired eyes, and whether it would seem worthy of a torturous thirty-hour-long non-direct flight from New York.
Traffic was slow, since police had cordoned off the road to let through the procession of shiny black Mercedez Benz’s carrying high-powered clergy and politicians. Black obsidian bullet-proof shells with soft-boiled bloated pompous man-mass inside. We waited as the governmental cars and their security escorts sped by, listening to the radio and making sarcastic comments about the special driving rules for state officials in Ukraine. This caravan was accompanying the relic of St. Andrews’s cross that had just been flown from Moscow to Kiev on the occasion of a celebration of the 1025th anniversary of the Baptism of Kievan Rus. The odd state-sanctioned holiday was one of the attempts of Yanukovich’s government to strengthen the spirit of Orthodox clericalism and reinforce Ukraine’s connections to Putin’s Russia. Very few of the people I talked to could answer with any degree of certainty whether St Andrew died on this cross, when he lived, how he died and if he had indeed reached Ukraine in his travels. Even fewer had an adequate response to the obvious question of why this celebration of the (forced) Christian Baptism became a state holiday in a multi-confessional country, where church is still officially separated from state. In the media and official discourse, the problem of the ever-narrowing proximity of religion and state has been modestly sheathed by the flower-patterned screen-term of “spiritual revival.” Despite, or, rather because of how hazy religious history and history in general is among the general population, the tide of patriotic reactionary mood was steadily rising.
The following day, from little to do and to shake off Matt’s jet lag, we headed to the Kiev-Pechersk Monastery where the cross was kept, to look at the scene of pilgrims protected by nervous and pimply teenage militia cadets. Coming into the sun out of the Arsenalnaja metro station (named for its proximity to Arsenal factory, whose Bolshevik workers rose against the forces of the Ukrainian National Republic in 1918 – a bloody confrontation that Dovzhenko directed his eponymous 1928 film about), we made our way through a heavy stream of pious women dressed in the long white, bearded black priests, and ice-cream eating girls from the provinces in colorful day-glow tight spandex. Headscarves, cloaks, and summer dresses - all inflated by the dusty summer wind.
Metal detectors and a heavy police presence by the gates of the monastery sapped the little ethnographic resolve we had to see the wonder of St. Andrew’s cross. Instead we contented ourselves with watching this panorama from across the street, leaning on the eighteenth-century fence around the Art Arsenal Museum of Contemporary Ukrainian Art, that on the occasion of this made-to-order religious holiday was advertising an exhibit with the humble title of “Great and Grand.” Our attention was drawn by the sound of a small squabble: one of the militia-guards, looking both embarrassed and aggressive, was ushering a well-dressed indignant middle-aged woman off the premises of the Art Center. The lady looked utterly ‘respectable,’ so I wondered what could have prompted such uncouth treatment. Later we found out that that must have been the aftermath of a group protest of artists against the censorship that took place there.
The story behind it goes like this.
Art Arsenal museum, founded by the dashing Natalia Zabolotnaya, a platinum-blonde wife of a deputy, positions itself as a main venue and vehicle of popularizing and supporting modern and contemporary art in Ukraine. To walk in step with the governmental line, the administration of this institution decided on the occasion of the anniversary of the Baptism, to somehow reconcile its ‘progressive’ orientation with the swelling clericalism, by gathering everyone and everything under the banner of ‘spirituality’ in art. Only a very supple and generous imagination may stretch far enough to make a connection between most of the very eclectic objects culled for the exhibition and the spirit of Christianity. For instance, the very first item that a visitor to Arsenal saw after the ticket booth, was a proudly displayed and lit Peugeot car of the latest model (no Chris Burden was crucified on it). Few halls down, the mammoth bones with ancient pagan carvings were juxtaposed next to constructivists sculptures.
To cite the press release:
“Great and Grand seeks to examine the civilizing effect of Christendom on the development of Ukrainian culture, and to demonstrate how the modern individual – embracing the history reflected in this sublime artistic legacy – involves himself in it, and invigorates the sense of what it is to be Ukrainian.”
It is not hard to guess that only a miracle could have prevented the internal contradictions of Arsenal’s politics from detonating, and sure enough, the explosion did go off. Please forgive my inability to suppress the obvious pun.
On the eve of the opening, Zabolotnaya was making final rounds examining the process of the installation. Passing by the “Last Judgment” mural by Volodymyr Kuznetsov, still in progress at that time, she found the vision of Apocalypse so genuinely disturbing, that she hastened to personally start painting it over with black paint. (It should be noted that she had commissioned the mural, and that it was both aesthetically and thematically consistent with Kuznetsov’s previous work of the same Kloyivshina cycle, named after the eighteenth-century Ukrainian peasant and Cossack rebellion against the Polish oppression.)
What frightened Zabolotnaya so?
Few low-quality phone photos of Kuznetsov’s mural survive. As commissioned, he painted a scene of the second coming of Christ, who arrives to earth to right all wrongs. Aided by Chernobyl firemen, angry pensioners, Pussy Riot members, workers, and a woman from Vardiivka village, whose unpunished rape and attempted murder by five policemen prompted a large popular protest
earlier that summer, Jesus ushers corrupt politicians together with clergy, mob members, their whores and luminous limos (the likes of which are not only likely to stop general traffic for hours, but also, have struck dead many of the pedestrians on the streets of Kiev and other cities of Ukraine, with their drivers not threatened by any persecution) straight into the fiery pit of hell.
When asked to comment on her actions, Zabolotnaya’s initial response was a model of populist fury: “the artist has offended his motherland, and it is an unforgivable crime, like offending one’s mother,” she said. In few days, however, she has come to her senses, and offered a more ‘sophisticated’ explanation, claiming (as per Boris Groys’ s theory) that curator is the new artist, and this act of vandalism is nothing other than her own personal performance.
Another artwork that was removed from the “Great and Grand” exhibition for censorial reasons, was a painting by Vasiliy Tsagolov titled “A Molotov Cocktail.”
Neo-suprematist Zabolotnaya to this day has not acknowledged an act of censorship and did not officially apologize to the artists. But somehow, by some magic working in reverse, all things censored by her manicured hand, sprung to life in Kiev in the time of just few months. Thousand of real Molotov cocktails were thrown into the air during November 2013-February 2014, a ring of fire, apocalyptic mood and a sense “of fighting the last battle”, and finally, a successful toppling and sending some of the tyrants if not directly to hell, then at least out of their cabinets, did come true. Even Zabolotnaya’s own monument to censorship – her black “square” (or rather, a rectangle), to which Kuznetsov’s scene of popular uprising, driven by an almost eschatological hope for the better, was reduced – reminds uncannily of the scorched blackness of Maidan after a battle of February 18-20, in which hundreds of civilians were killed and wounded by the president’s police forces.
I could not travel to Kiev while the events of Maidan protests were taking place, and have no first-hand account of it. What I know is gathered from anxiously following the pulse of fb posts from friends and text messages from parents. The surface of spectacular images of riots, barricades, and wounded easily ossifies into something so cinematic that it becomes impossible to recognize familiar streets behind this sheen. Please forgive me this all-too formal juxtaposition of two black cards (the censored panorama of popular indignation and a tarred square covered with flowers for the dead), in which I try to read the past and the future.
Burnt Maidan remains a degree zero, though. There is hope, made so much sharper by all the people who were willing and did die for it, that it will become a foundational site of less corrupt, less repressive, and reactionary Ukraine. And then there is a threat of it becoming a monument to the devastation and censorship that Putin’s forces threaten Ukraine with.