‘It’s our heritage’: Defending Ukraine’s modernist architecture

Amid the devastation of Russia’s invasion, activists are battling to save Ukraine’s rich Soviet-era architecture.

Vernadsky National Library, Kyiv
Vernadsky National Library, Kyiv [Courtesy: Dmytro Soloviov]

“It is hard to talk about heritage preservation while people are being killed,” says Ukrainian architect and architectural historian Ievgeniia Gubkina. “But heritage is not just bricks and walls. Heritage is memory.”

Like many others in her field, Gubkina has been grappling with the question of how to protect Ukraine’s architectural heritage as Russia’s full-scale invasion leaves widespread destruction. UNESCO said in April that at least 98 Ukrainian cultural and religious sites have been damaged or destroyed.

International focus has mostly been on the threat to religious buildings, museums and other iconic architecture from the pre-Soviet period. Ukraine has seven protected sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage list and 15 more on the “tentative” list.

However, Ukraine’s Soviet-era modernist architecture has received less attention, is less likely to have protected status, and is more fraught with political and historical controversy.

Attitudes towards Soviet-era architectural heritage are divided in Ukraine. Some value the country’s modernist, post-modernist and brutalist buildings for their sharpness and conciseness of form, for their functionality and concrete simplicity. But for others they stand as an unwanted reminder of Ukraine’s Soviet past, and much of this built heritage has come under threat in recent years.

Kyiv Funicular Station, window
A window in Kyiv’s Funicular Station [Courtesy: Dmytro Soloviov]

Dmytro Soloviov, a cultural heritage activist and photographer, launched the Instagram project Ukrainian Modernism in 2018 to raise awareness of the cultural and historic value of Ukraine’s modernist architecture and monumental art, alerting followers when objects were threatened with demolition.

Now, he is chronicling their destruction amid the war.

“Any way you put it, it’s our heritage,” Soloviov told Al Jazeera. “Regardless of your political affiliation, these are buildings and art objects that were created by Ukrainians.”

Ukrainian modernism

Much of Ukraine’s architectural heritage was already poorly protected before Russia’s invasion.

In 2007, according to the Open Heritage Database, 50 percent of Ukraine’s listed sites were inadequately maintained and 18 percent were in an emergency condition. Ukrainian heritage protection experts have attributed these failings to outdated legislation, complicated bureaucracy and insufficient expertise. The Ukrainian state registry of listed buildings is incomplete, and mostly comprises those built before World War II.

In 2015, the Ukrainian government introduced a ban on the public presence of communist-era symbols, such as statues, mosaics and monumental art bearing Soviet propaganda slogans. The state-led policy of “decommunisation” does not directly target modernist buildings, but symbols of Soviet power such as monuments to Lenin. However, some heritage experts believe that negative attitudes towards the Soviet era in part explain why there is not more public support for the protection of modernist buildings.

On the other hand, cultural and urbanist grassroots initiatives concerned with protecting modernist heritage proliferated after Ukraine’s Maidan protests in 2013-14, achieving protected status for some Soviet-era modernist buildings.

Derzhprom – a constructivist industrial complex in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, built in the 1920s – is now Ukraine’s only twentieth-century building to feature on UNESCO’s “tentative” protection list. Now much of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city and once home to unparalleled examples of modernist architecture, has been reduced to rubble. The latest figures estimate that every fourth building has been destroyed.

Derzhprom – along with countless other culturally significant buildings without protected status – is under threat.

In April, Ukraine’s Minister of Culture Oleksander Tkachenko announced that Soviet-era monuments are among the sites which have been most damaged by Russian shelling. Tkachenko describes this as “a strange way of selective shooting”.

Damage to museums, libraries and historic buildings has become so widespread that many experts believe Russia is deliberately targeting Ukraine’s cultural landmarks.

“Putin is fighting against our culture, against our history. They want to destroy the identity of Ukrainians, which is expressed in our heritage,” Tkachenko has said.

There is no evidence that modernist architecture is being deliberately targeted for destruction. But the innovative design behind many modernist buildings, designed and built by Ukrainians, stands as yet another reminder of Ukraine’s independent cultural identity.

“They want to destroy the narrative of a separate, autonomous world of Ukrainian Soviet architecture,” says Gubkina.

Whether these sites are being destroyed as a result of deliberate targeting or indiscriminate fire, the loss of such valuable cultural heritage plays into the Kremlin’s narrative that Ukrainian culture “does not exist”.

‘We need to be on guard’

At the same time, some Ukrainians are seeking to destroy sites which they see as symbols of Soviet power.

Although Ukraine’s cultural minister has called on Ukrainians “not to vandalise”, activists and architects warn that some Ukrainian authorities may be taking advantage of the chaos to demolish Soviet-era monuments.

Earlier in April, council authorities in the western city of Stryi tore down a Soviet-era stele, announcing: “We will not leave a trace of the communist regime.”

Some residents celebrated the move, but others saw it as an attempt by the city’s mayor to win easy political points and capitalise on anti-Russian sentiments during the war.

Ideological motivations are not the only factors at play; Ukraine’s legislation on heritage protection has faced criticism in the past for favouring business interests over cultural value.

“We will always need to be on guard,” says a representative of the Kyiv-based heritage protection group, Save Kvity Ukrainy. “We have already seen how during the war unscrupulous developers secretly demolished two buildings in Kyiv.”

Save Kvity Ukrainy was instrumental in a public movement to save the modernist building Flowers of Ukraine, designed by Ukrainian architect Mykola Levchuk, which developers partially demolished in 2021.

Its defenders, whose sustained public pressure on city authorities eventually secured protected status for the building, describe its heritage value: “Ukraine existed during the Soviet era and was able to convey its identity throughout. We do not associate Flowers of Ukraine with anything Soviet – it is Ukrainian modernism.”

‘Claiming the narrative’

Amid the chaos of war, activists are doing what they can to stem the tide of destruction.

Heritage-protection NGO Renovation Map emerged from the 2014 boom in civil society initiatives. Since the war began, it has been compiling lists of the most vulnerable cultural heritage sites and crowdfunding to finance their protection.

Saving the beautiful stained-glass windows of Kyiv’s unique funicular station – a “pearl of Kyiv modernism”, in Soloviov’s words – has been a major success. In just two days, Renovation Map raised enough money for a team of restorers and professional climbers to mount protective shields around the stained-glass windows, which are particularly vulnerable to shockwaves and debris.

Kyiv Funicular Station
Kyiv Funicular Station is a ‘pearl of Kyiv modernism’, Soloviov says [Courtesy: Dmytro Soloviov]

Others are working hard to change perceptions around Ukrainian modernism.

“Our aim should be to claim the narrative and not allow [Russia] to appropriate it,” Gubkina said. “For many years I fought to explain that this architecture is not just Soviet modernism but Ukrainian modernism.”

Soloviov, who relocated to western Ukraine when the war began, has restarted his educational tours for Ukrainians keen to join the conversation.

After a guided tour highlighting modernist architecture and monumental art in Ivano-Frankivsk, one participant reflected that “it’s been an unfair privilege to be able to distract ourselves and spend a few happy hours”.

Meanwhile, Soloviov is also looking ahead and says corruption and lack of expertise will likely pose significant obstacles in any post-war restoration.

“It’s the same issue we had before. Restoring is more difficult than building anew, and nobody wants to spend more time or more resources,” he said.

“And if activists couldn’t win fights before the war, I think it will be even harder after the war because there will be immense pressure to rebuild everything as quickly as possible.”

Representatives of Save Kvity are more optimistic.

“After the war, we will have a chance to do everything right. Currently, architects, urban planners and builders are in discussion with foreign experts. Historic buildings and architectural monuments should be restored to their original appearance,” they said.

“Of course, we will need temporary, quick solutions, but we should also think about what we want to see in our cities in 10, 20, 50 years. The desire to rebuild the country quickly should not affect the quality of this reconstruction.”

Source: Al Jazeera