The Game of Non-Distinction
Ways of Seeing: Russian Colonialisms (4/8)

The Game of Non-Distinction

As an ideological reaction to the ongoing invasion of Russian troops, separatist attacks in Eastern Ukraine, and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and as a gesture towards establishing a new ideology to replace the Soviet one, the so-called Decommunization Laws were approved by the president and parliament of Ukraine in 2015. This law on a very symbolic level practically matches Nazism with Soviet ideology and bans all the cultural (propaganda) legacy that references the Ukrainian Soviet past and its ideology. A mass demolition of monuments and public artworks has officially started. Continuing our series Ways of Seeing the New Russian Colonialisms, the internationally renowned Kyiv-based artist Nikita Kadan proposes to study the very language of the gesture of this controversial iconoclastic phenomenon.

The Game of Non-Distinction

This text is accompanied by Nikita Kadan’s original artwork entitled Stylites, 2015, wallpaper, print

(The piece consists of) references to communist public sculpture, which in Ukraine have become subject to such mass acts of vandalism that it borders on state iconoclasm. Kadan makes use of their empty pedestals to accommodate the images of stylites: early medieval hermits who took penitence by living on top of towers where they stood relentlessly exposed to the elements. The images come from the ascetic frescoes by Theophanes the Greek, seeming strangely comfortable on the modernist plinths they usurp. It would be all too easy to see them as mere symbols of the new spirit of irrationalism spurring from the restoration of the ethno-nationalist rhetoric. Their cosy symbiosis with the pedestals implies the Soviet era was more than willing to accommodate dogmatisms and irrationalities of its own, warning against the inability of modernity to deal with its own foundations. Rather than dissecting the ideology of post-communism by apologetically showcasing the breakthroughs of the Soviet era, Kadan takes on a political stance by reflecting both through an agonistic logic. Here the aspects of pre-modern, modern, and postmodern are not to be ascribed to different historical periods, but are moments that permeate both communism and post-communism. And while the neoliberal agenda strives to deprive politics of all its dialectical stamina, preaching the futility of unnecessary ideological divisions, depoliticizing the politics of today and neutralizing past struggles, Kadan’s work insists on its complexities.

It appears that by the time this essay is published, all of those hollow Lenin statues painted over in silver or bronze on small city and village squares will already have been removed from their pedestals by the municipal services. The enormous Lenins of large cities have been demolished — sometimes by ecstatic crowds (their destruction marked as if some festive spectacle), sometimes by cautious municipal authorities (in these cases the monument will stand for a long time behind a barrier of fabric banners that are the colours of the national flag, and when the barriers are removed one finds that the legs on the pedestal have been sawn off above the ankles). Occasionally the monuments are destroyed by far-right groups (in these cases before the demolition there are often skirmishes between juveniles appearing to belong to (far-right) delinquent/hooligan sub-cultures, and citizens of pensionable age who turn up to defend the monument, but who are powerless before the aggressiveness of the youth and the tacit approval granted them by the authorities). In the centre of Kyiv, Shchors’ horse is missing a leg. The Neo-Classical monument to Mykola Shchors,[1] the work of Mikhailo Lysenko, has already been standing behind barriers for several months. To saw off a leg and take it away with one in complete anonymity (whether as an expensive piece of metal or as a trophy of political struggle) was an easy task.[2] Right-wing groups and parties send threats to demolish a monument while the municipal authorities declare their powerlessness to defend it. Apparently, some “park of totalitarian monuments” is in the works, though for the most part those sculptures removed from their plinths disappear to unknown locations (city bureaucrats finding some way or another of selling them to private collections). Simple theft accompanies the practice of an organized destruction of ideologically hostile symbols: the monument to the First Cavalry didn’t live to experience its own moment of “decommunization” — scrap metal hunters simply tore it apart, leaving a skeletal-like carcass visible from the Lviv-Kyiv highway.

The war against monuments in Ukraine certainly didn’t begin with the famous fall of “the Lenin of central Kyiv“ on Bessarabia Square in December 2013. In the 1990s an official dismantlement of Soviet monuments took place in Western Ukraine. And throughout the country during the entire period of Independence there was an exchange of blows of varying intensity on a grassroots level: Soviet monuments were repeatedly vandalized by persons unknown. Other anonymous individuals would destroy the new Ukrainian national monuments. The memorial to the victims of the Holodomor would be attacked and this would be followed by an attack on a Lenin statue. Damage to the monument to Red Army soldiers would then be met with vandalization of the memorial sign to the soldiers of the Ukrainian People’s Republic. Such an exchange of gestures continues even to this day, although what was once a matter of self-organization has become organized on a state level, and a line of separation now divides the sides. Now, spontaneous demolitions merely supplement official dismantlement, while in Crimea, annexed by Russia, and in the pro-Russian “Peoples Republics” in the Donbass, all conceivable Ukrainian monuments are removed from sight or simply eliminated (such as the monument to the 17th Century Ukrainian Hetman Sahaidachny in Sevastopol, dismantled immediately after annexation) as well as memorial signs (such as the memorial plaque to the dissident poet Vasyl Stus[3] in Donetsk). Ukrainian state symbols are rarely present in the city landscape, in contrast to the Soviet symbolism, abundantly and inventively interwoven into the very fabric of the buildings. Our understanding of the Ukrainian “decommunizing” processes would be hampered without taking into account this frenzied “deukrainization” in the occupied territories.

“Decommunization” can be described as the expansion of state ideology into a new space, and correspondingly it is testimony to the impossibility of dismantling this very space. In fairness, the first two decades of Ukrainian independence remained a barely active and very lukewarm process of expansion. Strictly speaking, a more-or-less coherent commission by the authorities for a state ideology arose only twice during this period: a dignified, well-meaning national-conservativism during Yushchenko’s rule,[4] and the ideology of stability associated with the power of the “strong executives” together with the “unity of the Orthodox peoples” (one of the euphemisms for those with a pro-Russian stance) during the rule of Yanukovich and his Party of Regions. The present day is a time when the place of ideology is expanding once again, although what exists now is rather vague in form and full of inner contradictions. “The European course” with its whole complex of liberal democratic values, civic nationalism during a time of war, and conservative ethno-nationalism will inevitably lead to persistent clashes, creating an explosive situation. Strictly speaking, anti-communism, or more precisely anti-sovietism, which at a grassroots level of political thought could be named anti-communism, with few noticing the substitution, is the very glue that congeals the contradictory elements of the new ideological project.

Moreover, the main force holding together this eclectic collection within a single ideological construct is Russian military aggression. Finding oneself under attack on the one hand moves political controversies off the radar, smothers polemics, drowns out domestic civil protests, while on the other hand opening up the space for right wing populism, for whom anti-communism is truly a fail-safe weapon in their arsenal. The war with monuments and place names is a cartoonish imitation of the real war. Constructing a symbolic figure of the enemy within to struggle against is a distorted echo of real military operations. “Decommunization” becomes the revenge for “deukrainization” of the Crimea and the east of the country, and more importantly it is a revenge easily carried out, like some ritual burning of the figure of the enemy. Another condition for the viability of “decommunization” is the specific nature of (post) Soviet political culture, with its readiness to build a convenient historical account according to the needs of the current moment.

“Decommunization” functions as a never-ending process of exposing the “impure”, by relating it both to the period that the Communist Party was in power as well as to “criminal communist ideology.” Moreover, the chasms between communist thought in its various guises (including anarcho-communism — recently even Pyotr Kropotkin Street has been renamed), communist ideology in its Bolshevist interpretation, and the essentially totalitarian managerial practices of the above-mentioned Party, are rerouted to a zone of invisibility. Sometimes rather unexpected figures fall into this chasm: in Lviv in September 2016 the monument to Stepan Tudor was demolished. Tudor was a modernist writer, one of the most interesting western Ukrainian literary figures of the first half of the twentieth century, a member of the left literary group Horno, and a participant of the socialist movement in Western Ukraine. Moreover, Tudor didn’t live to see the long-term establishment of Soviet power in Lviv:[5] he was killed on 22 June 1941 by one of the first German bombs that fell on the city. The case of Tudor has revealed a further aspect of contemporary ideological practices — not falling formally under the effect of the “decommunization” law (he was not in leadership positions, did not participate in the establishment of Soviet power in the territory of Ukraine and was not employed by the state security organs), the writer was apparently a victim of the “spirit of the law.” The monument to Tudor was initially damaged by ultra-rightists as a spontaneous expression of the “spirit” of the law, one not bound by its literalism, and only later removed by municipal authorities.

On the one hand, “decommunization” is the construction of an enemy image, over which one can triumph in the sphere of images, a way of turning one’s back on the unbearable nature of reality and of opening up, albeit in a clearly limited way, the resource of optimism in a time of catastrophe. On the other hand, it is a form of effectively severing past relations — those fraternal bonds or the fetters of “the prison of nations.” So yet another semantic substitution takes place: “decommunization” begins to mean not only desovietization, but also derussification. Nevertheless, the legacy of the colonial past (in terms of the Russian Empire in today’s Ukraine) is rarely seen as pertaining to the “impure.” Directly connected with the suppression of political freedoms and cultural life, such as prohibition of publication in the Ukrainian language in 1876, this legacy has become, with few exceptions and in contrast to the Soviet legacy, a source of inviting inoffensive historical images. Ultimately today’s practitioners of the “return of historical names” to streets and squares (“historical” is here contrasted with “Soviet”) often choose those very toponyms originating from imperial times. And this is hardly influenced by the fact that an artificial Orthhodox imperial thought has, in the contemporary Russian ideological project, a more widely important place than the Soviet experience. From the whole complex of the Soviet Russian ideology they chose and floated only the myth of the “great country” and “military strength”, hardly contradicting imperial thought but excluding its Communist component. Equality, atheism, and enlightenment only spoil the splendor of gold stars, and indeed in the Putinist version of the “Soviet myth” there is no place for them either.

“Decommunization” is a game of non-distinction. Militant actions are implemented through a blind spot in political thought. A discourse is generated regarding an оbject designated in an inauthentic manner. For participants grasping that “communist is totalitarian and that which is Soviet is Russian” is the basic rule of the game, to strike one of the three elements is to land a blow against the others. The deliberate nebulosity of the formulae and the even vaguer nature of their interpretations helps untie their hands. Let the letter of the law posit unavoidable restrictions, all the same real political actors will be those with no scruples, declaring that the spirit of the law works through them.

In the Ukrainian 20th Century if one looks eagerly enough one will regularly stumble upon the communist who can neither be identified with what is Russian nor with the totalitarian. The quasi-official narrative is shown to be problematic, for example, in the case of the history of the “Executed Renaissance” — members of a thriving Ukrainian culture in the 1920s and early ‘30s cut short by Stalinist power. This boom was itself the result of the early Soviet “Ukrainization policy” (a constituent part of the Soviet indigenization policy — the decentralization and elimination from Russian cultural dominance in the new Soviet republics). The texts and images of these authors and avant-garde artists, subsequently destroyed, often have a clearly communist content. Thus, the new narrative on the Ukrainian avant-garde needs to be constructed either upon an image of the artist as hostage, constrained to adapt himself to a political project deeply alien to him or her, or on the figure of the infantile idealist who was duped by the Bolsheviks. Somehow that which has been sullied by communism needs to be brutally purged from “the pure” Ukrainian artist. The key text of the Ukrainian dissident movement, Ivan Dziuba’s “Internationalism or Russification?” (1965), is based on a clearly Marxist reasoning. Referring to Russian domination in the USSR and the suppression of Ukrainian national life under the cover of internationalist rhetoric, Dziuba’s book does not imply that internationalism is impossible as such; however seductive it is for today’s right populists to quote its title, they show little willingness to read the text in any detail. Ukrainian functionaries of the Communist Party and the Soviet repressive organs, similarly, find themselves in the zone of non-distinction, committing, according to the new narrative, a kind of “fundamental betrayal” against the blessed and martyred national nature, in relation to which (anything) communist is deemed an oddity, and oddities are denied any inner complexity. Rivals and partners of the “decommunizers” in this game of non-distinction are the “anti-Maidan” revanchists.[6] In this rhetoric aiming to return Ukraine to the sphere of Russian influence, the communist is also equal to the Soviet which, in its turn, is just one of the expressions of Russianness, only here it is now understood as a blessing. It is in this way that political and moral essentialism is reproduced, while confrontations simply energize it.

Becoming an effectively mass phenomenon, this game of non-distinction is then turned into a professional pursuit. The Institute of National Memory, rapidly gaining influence, demonstrates the emergence in the country of a sustainable niche for specialists in these ideological operations. These specialists may be historians, journalists or literary figures by profession but they are all engaged in one thing: the ideologization of the politics of memory. While it is possible today to speak of the successful culmination of a massive destruction of the Soviet material environment, it is not possible to speak about the establishment of a complete “decommunization” of the political climate. The new historical policy is subject to massive criticism even during wartime. Among the multiple forms that this criticism has taken I would like to emphasize three approaches which are not fundamentally based upon the revanchist use of Soviet images and the tactic of “retaliatory non-distinction.”

One of these emanates from historians and is addressed, above all, against the Institute of National Memory monopolizing the definition of the course of historical policy. Strictly speaking, this form of resistance is based above all on a sense of professional dignity and not on any political viewpoint.
If the prioritization of moral evaluation precedes the study of the subject matter, then the space for the historian to study his subject simply vanishes. Essentially the historian is merely left with the task of building a base of evidence for conclusions already given. The open letter, signed by Ukrainian historians, and those international historians who study Ukraine, is an act of professional self-defence.

Another approach is connected to the defence of Soviet artefacts and the whole “cultural strata”, connected to the Soviet 20th century in Ukraine. Such practices draw their (relative) efficacy from the idea that the monumental-propagandistic products of the past are primarily works of art and thus worthy of preservation. From such a viewpoint, the Soviet monument should remain in its place insofar as it is a “landscape-forming element” and influences the composition of the surrounding space. Today the most talked about examples of this is the still extant but already damaged Kyiv Shchors on Boulevard Taras Shevchenko and the avant-garde geometric Artyom, the work of Ivan Kavaleridze[7] in Svyatohirsk in the Donbass. Both monuments so convincingly harmonize with the landscape that it would be extremely difficult to talk of any “transfer to a (non-existent) park of totalitarian sculpture. The artistic merits of the monuments are not in doubt. But these immortalized figures are completely inimical to the values of the new Ukrainian politics of memory. Hence the tactics of defence are based preeminently upon the cultural significance of these monuments, their political associations falling by the wayside. “They have lost their ideological force, don’t touch them!” the art scholar Evheniya Molyar says, finding herself amongst the most notable defenders of the significant Soviet monumental works. By itself, this attempt ex post facto to depoliticize the monuments are compromised and half-hearted. But it suggests another approach: that of re-politicizing one’s view of these monuments. The contextualization of the monument, aided by, using a most obvious example, new allocated texts beside them to explain the historical role of the immortalized figure and the monument itself, could bring to a halt the encomiastic work of the monument but also open it up to a new, rational, reading. The key Soviet images of historical figures in the young Ukrainian state remained in a sacred and ideological space, but only in a different part of it. From the Pantheon they were removed to Pandemonium. Today it is easier to destroy than to de-sacralize, to transfer them to a profane space of rational understanding.

A third line is based on a critique of non-distinction between the Russian-imperial, the Soviet and the communist. If someone doesn’t accept the “agreement over non-distinction”, then he is given the opportunity to show the many deficiencies in the reasoning of contemporary ideologists. A critical approach directed towards the “decommunization” project can observe the relationship between political thought, ideology, power and propaganda, as well as determine whether the designation is justly applied. Current day Ukraine activates historical memory as a space for political struggle, but this can be done not only in a “decommunizing” key. If one insists upon a certain rigour, addressed both to the past and to the present day, then it is necessary to refuse this protracted game, which sooner or later will remain only to be posited in a series of “past errors.”

[1] Mykola Shchors (1895–1919) was a Red Army commander. In 1918–1919 he fought against the new established Ukrainian government in Kyiv. Later he commanded the Bohunsky regiment and brigade, the 1st Soviet Ukrainian division, and the 44th rifle division against Simon Petliura and his Polish allies.

[2] The monument to Shchors was erected in 1954. It is located at the crossing between Taras Shevchenko Boulevard and Simon Petliura Street (formerly Komintern Street). Mikhailo Lysenko (1906–1972) was a Ukrainian sculptor and national artist of the Soviet Union.

[3] Vasyl Stus (1938–1985) was a Ukrainian poet and a dissident. He died in prison.

[4] Viktor Yushchenko: President of Ukraine from 2005-2010

[5] Western Ukrainian lands were annexed to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic for the first time between 1939 and 1941. They once again became part of this territory in 1945.

[6] A series of organized meetings by the authorities were orchestrated against Euromaidan in 2013–14. Often “Antimaidan” is used by extension to designate all the pro-Russian and any other movements directed against the idea of the Euromaidan in Ukraine.

[7] The monument was erected in 1927. Artyom (Fyodor Sergeyev, 1883–1921) was a revolutionary, a Soviet party figure, the founder of the Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Soviet Republic (1918–1919). Ivan Kavaleridze (1887–1978) was a Ukrainian sculptor and film director.

Filed Under: Articles & Essays


Nikita Kadan was born 1982 in Kyiv, Ukraine, where he lives and works today. He is a visual artist who often works in interdisciplinary collaboration with architects, sociologists and writers. His practice involves a critical investigation into the experience of present-day Ukrainians and their relationship to the Soviet past.

Signup for the ArtsEverywhere newsletter

icon-angle icon-bars icon-times