I’m on a train south from Kyiv. It’s early, I’m drowsily scanning the fugitive patterns in the worked and ordered land. The scrubby forest, the sandy tracks that snake through the trees, occasional stands of fir. Villages with wooden homes, dachas, and ubiquitous concrete-clad apartment buildings. The megaliths of Ukraine’s industrial heartland, the factories that stretch for kilometers along the Dnieper River. I’ve been on the move, and approaching by steps Europe’s newest border, between Ukraine and its separated eastern territories, the Donbass.
Yesterday in Kyiv I decided to compare the Soviet treatment of Europe’s wars to that of the French, and spent a few hours in the complex formerly known as “The National Museum of the Great Patriotic War,” renamed since the separatist conflict as the “Museum of the History of Ukraine in World War II.” The museum occupies the plinth of the famous statue of “Motherland,” which at over 60 meters dominates Kyiv’s skyline.
The place is an embodiment of the cliche we call the weight of history. Didactic, unsubtle Soviet-era exhibits dominate: ranks of machine guns, flame-filled panoramas, dioramas displaying the personal effects and official documents of martyrs and heroes, maps in extruded metal showing advances of armies westward, a noose lit by a spotlight to dramatize death in Nazi camps, a hall of thousands of portraits of the dead.
In the museum’s foyer a new exhibit memorializes the heroes of the Donbass war: dioramas of the artifacts of fallen men roughly mimic the Soviet encasements: keys, watches, religious icons, guitars, handwritten letters, photos of children.
In truth, I thought I’d experience these exhibits as musty and laden with kitsch. But our talk of systems and industries has led me to consider our systems of memorialization. Individuals, then lists of names, then iterations of image, then data and patterns, the cumulation of which leaves me in a sort of conceptual turmoil. Perhaps, underlying all this, stands an accusation.