Preserving the memory of Ukraine's uprising

Remnants of deadly demonstrations to be displayed in a new museum, a year after protests pushed president out of power.

    Preserving the memory of Ukraine's uprising
    Crowds gathered on Kiev's Maidan square to mark one year since the start of protests [Ian Bateson/Al Jazeera]

    Kiev, Ukraine - Next to piles of shields and helmets, Ihor Poshyvailo eagerly pulls out a vintage Molotov cocktail still holding its fuse.

    A year ago, Ukrainian protesters began throwing the same makeshift weapons as they clashed with riot police, seeking to force then-President Viktor Yanukovich out of office. This Molotov cocktail is now about to be shown in a museum.

    Crowds again gathered on Kiev's Maidan Nezolezhnisti - or Independence Square - on November 21 to mark one year since the start of the protests. Their aftermath resulted in Ukraine electing a new president and its most pro-western parliament ever, but the country is struggling to decide how to memorialise the events that profoundly changed Ukraine's direction and plunged it into war.

    Improvised memorials began appearing after the first protesters were killed, but some Ukrainians are now working to create a permanent form of remembrance. 

    When the protests began we knew they were important, so many of us in the art community wanted to be involved and started collecting objects.

    - Ihor Poshyvailo, Ivan Honchar Museum

    Poshyvailo is deputy director of the Ivan Honchar Museum and part of an initiative to create a museum of freedom memorialising and preserving artifacts of the Maidan protests. His exhibit, "Creativity of Freedom: The Revolutionary Culture of Maidan", opens at the Ivan Honchar Museum on Friday.

    With the economic and military fallout of the protests continuing, the goal for Poshyvailo and others is not to present a definitive narrative of the events, but to preserve key information and artifacts for the future.

    "When the protests began we knew they were important, so many of us in the art community wanted to be involved and started collecting objects," says Poshyvailo, who started his collection last December. He explains it was their way of contributing using their skills, even though they weren't on the front lines of the often-violent demonstrations.

    No easy task

    Since then, Poshyvailo and others have been running around negotiating for items that they hope will one day make it into the permanent collection of a Maidan museum.

    Acquiring those items has been no easy task. Poshyvailo talks about how he went to the head of Maidan when the protests were still ongoing to ask for permission to take items to keep for the museum. "He supported the project but said because of the democratic set up, he couldn't just decide by himself and I would have to go around and convince people individually," Poshyvailo says.

    Poshyvailo has gone to protesterstents and now-scattered collections to bring together artifacts from Maidan. He has collected religious icons painted by professional icon painters who participated in the protests, makeshift shields made by demonstrators for protection, and farewell messages to their mothers that protesters carved into wood on the most violent days.

    When analysing the collection, the ethnologist in Poshyvailo comes out as he picks up a backpack he saved just before it was collected by a garbage truck and begins to explain what the items say about the protester. It belonged to a man who worked in a makeshift hospital set up in the lobby of the Hotel Ukraine after a violent shoot-out.

    He pulls out the icons, a flag for the right-wing party Svoboda and goggles protesters used to shield their eyes. He also points out the house keys that he says shows the person came from a city, because it included the magnetic keys used mainly in urban areas to open the main door to an apartment block.

    As Poshyvailo's exhibit opens, ao does another Maidan museum show organised at the National Art Museum of Ukraine by Vlodko Kaufman. That exhibit dealt with the ideas of Maidan rather than documenting it, displaying artwork inspired by the protests, and encouraging people to write their own definitions of freedom.

    The future museum, however, is not only dedicated to art and artifacts, but will also hold people's stories.

    Preserving history

    Ivanna Kobielieva and Tatiana Kovtunovich [Ian Bateson]

    Tatiana Kovtunovich and Ivanna Kobielieva both work on the Maidan Oral History project based at the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, originally established after the Orange Revolution to catalogue the abuses of the Soviet period.

    So far they have collected 143 audio interviews and 74 video interviews. They started doing interviews on the Maidan in March with dictaphones and smartphones but since the protest camp was shut down over the summer they have focused on inviting people to do video interviews.

    "We aren't strict. People can say whatever they want. We just want them to feel comfortable so they can remember everything they can,says Tatiana, adding that they try and walk people through the main events. 

    In many ways Tatiana and Ivanna represent the inclusive kind of Ukrainian identity supported during the Maidan. Tatiana is a Russian speaker and Ivanna is a Ukrainian speaker with each speaking in her language of choice but understanding the other.

    "It is the first time Ukrainianness isn't just for ethnic Ukrainians. That is very important in a post-totalitarian society,says Ivanna.

    What is important as well is that Maidan is not just understood as a physical space. They give the example of a young student in the western Ukrainian city of Drohobych who didn't go to Kiev, but was active in their local protest in solidarity with Maidan. She was there every day telling people what was happening in Kiev and collecting supplies to send to the protesters there.

    Hard to talk about

    Despite the many accounts from passionate supporters of Maidan, Tatiana and Ivanna are not only interested in positive opinions of Maidan. They have one interview from a woman in Kiev who's active in the so-called anti-Maidan, bringing food to riot police and who still visits injured police in the hospital. Tatiana says that they wrote to her explaining that they wanted the interview for history and she agreed.

    "We really want more like her. Especially someone from the police or Berkut,says Tatiana.

    But despite the positive mission of the project, it is not without its challenges. People often break down into tears during interviews about the protests that resulted in more than 70 protester deaths and a subsequent war that has killed more than 4,000 civilians and 1,100 Ukrainian servicemen.

    The two say it has also become harder for them to listen to some of the interviews knowing the tragedies that came later.

    In planning a future museum, Ukrainians have also received advice from abroad. Elaine Heumann Gurian is a former deputy director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and worked at the National Museum of the American Indian. She consults and specialises in what she calls "museums of bad news".

    Heumann Gurian was in Ukraine over the summer talking to people in the community about the form a Maidan museum could take.

    She says it was amazing that in Ukraine they were able to start collecting objects while events were still going on. "That almost never happens,Heumann Gurian says. The challenge long term is not just about documenting events, which she says is traditionally the role of journalism, but to become something larger.

    Memorials are also about "man's inhumanity to man, cruelty, and the notion of what civility must mean", she says.

    "That is metaphoric transference. The best of the memorial museums are about that - things that become emblematic and useful for a larger and extemporaneous conversation,says Heumann Gurian.

    Follow Ian Bateson on Twitter: @IanBateson

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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