Historian on architecture at war: “Boom in patriotic tattoos”
What is war doing to the city? Researcher Iryna Sklokina on remembrance and resistance – and whether the complex architectural history of Ukraine needs to be reinterpreted.
taz: Iryna Sklokina, the regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Cherson and Zaporizhia were sham-annexed by Russia last Friday. Is there any resistance visible in their cities?
Iryna Sklokina: The only major center occupied after the full invasion is Kherson. In the first few months there were massive pro-Ukrainian rallies there. Now there is an active underground movement. Posters and leaflets show this half-hidden struggle in public space. Pro-Ukrainian and then again pro-Russian murals are painted and painted over again.
People also seem to use certain fashion codes, such as Ukrainian folk patterns, to express their protest.
Or with tattoos. There is currently a boom in patriotic tattoos in Ukraine. But that is very dangerous in the occupied territories. If the Russian military finds a tattoo or any object related to Ukraine during routine identity checks, they face torture and even murder. When the mass grave in Izyum was uncovered, a blue and yellow bracelet was found on one corpse. That sparked a violent reaction on social media, with people posting their own blue and yellow bracelets.
37, is a historian and researches the industrial heritage in eastern Ukraine and the city’s political culture at the Center for Urban History in East-Central Europe in Lviv. She received her doctorate in Kyiv on “Official Soviet policy of remembrance of the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, 1943-1985”.
Objects like bracelets become connecting symbols of war?
Yes. Like the objects on the graves of the victims or parts of military equipment like weapons or caps. In any case, the graves have changed the landscape, on both sides. Proper burials are not possible in the occupied territories. People have to bury their loved ones in courtyards, sometimes in children’s playgrounds. This is reminiscent of the Nazis’ war of extermination, when the many corpses were simply left lying around. The victims of the Holocaust, for example, were often not reburied in a dignified manner after 1945. In Soviet times there was a lack of resources and the will to do so, and the socialist project was ultimately directed towards the future. Even today, in Ukraine as in Russia, NGOs search for the remains of the victims, you can find them in the forest or in the garden when you want to plant potatoes. And now the old and new layers of the dead overlap.
Putin sees a common past between Russia and Ukraine as legitimacy for his invasion. But in this war he has the cultural heritage completely destroyed, the Russian-Orthodox Lavra monastery in Sviatohirsk was bombed. Isn’t that paradoxical?
In Kharkiv, the art museum was hit by a rocket, but fortunately not badly damaged. It was ironic when its director said, “We’re sitting here under Russian missiles to preserve Russian culture.” The museum collects 19th-century Russian Tsarist art.
Irony is probably the only way to deal with this culturally torn position that Ukraine has been forced into?
Torn, yes and no. There is the case of the Gregorius Skoworoda Museum. Gregorius Skoworoda belongs to the canon of Ukrainian and Russian philosophy as an early figure of the Enlightenment. Putin also referred to Skovoroda in his text “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, with which he ideologically announced the full-scale invasion as early as March 2021. The museum in the Kharkiv region was destroyed by Russian forces in May, but not the statue of Skovoroda. Photos of their evacuation quickly spread, telling of the destruction but also of the resilience of Ukrainian culture, of how certain objects can survive. That creates strong bonds.
So how do you socially deal with places that are intertwined with a Russian past, like Odessa, founded by Catherine the Great?
Or the city of Poltava, famous for the Battle of Poltava and the victory of Peter the Great, which Russia still exploits for propaganda purposes today. Attempts are now being made to deconstruct everything culturally associated with Russia. Some think about making such places museums. Others suggest redesigning the public space, changing plaques, changing the mediation, to somehow address the complexity of the story. But there is also vandalism by local activists. I am afraid that the longer this war goes on, the simpler and more monolithic the Ukrainian understanding of culture will become. So we are also becoming more nationalistic.
Is it even possible to maintain a cultural openness during this war of aggression?
Ukraine wants to be part of the EU, so we try to see inclusion and diversity as the most important values. But this is very difficult in war! We should also recognize our own involvement in building the Russian empire. Ukrainians made good careers in the tsarist empire in the 18th and 19th centuries, in some historical moments they did not belong to the discriminated peoples. I hope this war will not result in everything Russian being damned. We must make a clear distinction between the past, in which an imperial ideology was common, and the genocidal ideology of the Russian state today, which is archaic and should have no place!
People are now thinking about rebuilding cities like Kharkiv, for example. The Railway Workers’ Palace of Culture there, designed by Russian architect Aleksandr Dmitriev, was bombed. Historically associated with Soviet Moscow, can this building survive? Or is a demolition being considered?
Before February 24, 2022, several strategies had already been developed for Kharkiv to deal with the architectural history. Some important buildings, especially those from the 19th century, are now recognized as monuments of a local culture. And the modernist architecture, which includes the Kulturpalast from the 1930s, is seen as international, as part of the Bauhaus movement, rather than as Soviet. There are no demolition thoughts.
Instead, the history of architecture must be reinterpreted. How could one now deal architecturally with the current war?
In Kharkiv, the building of the regional administration is the subject of controversy. In March it burned out completely. Some are now proposing a whole new construction. The originally Constructivist building was built by the Communist Party in the 1920s and rebuilt in the Stalinist confectionery style after World War II, and it bears many historical layers. Now they are also considering reconstructing the version from Stalin’s times, but leaving the traces of the rocket impacts visible. The British architect Norman Foster, whom Kharkiv Mayor Igor Terekhov admires very much, is now proposing to keep the historic facade as with the Berlin Reichstag and to build the interior from scratch.