KYIV - Green with envy over the success of British writer Marina Lewycka with her best seller "Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian," I am busily gathering material for a copy-cat book, titled, "Short History of Famine Memorials in Ukrainian."
There is no shortage of zigzags in this saga.
The latest: forget a memorial just to the victims of Stalin-planned famine of 1932-33 that took up to ten million lives. Instead, let's have an Institute of National Memory. To cover all the injustices to which Ukrainians were subjected. Makes sense.
Except for a lingering questions: are Ukrainians serious this time?
Almost three years ago, Ukrainian diaspora, through Ukrainian World Congress President Askold Lozynsky, proposed to fund a big monument in Kyiv to the memory of the victims of the artificial famine, known in Ukrainian as the holodomor. The monument that has been around since the early 90's -- near St. Michael's Monastery and the Foreign Ministry - the disaporans felt wasn't impressive enough. (But it was very well located, and dignified.)
Not another monument in Kyiv -- was the reaction of some people living here, foremost among them, the late, ex-patriate American, Dr. James Mace, who
had been executive director of the congressionally-funded Ukraine Famine Commission in the 1980's. He moved to Kyiv permanently in the early 90's and worked here as a scholar and a journalist.
What Kyiv needs - maintained Dr. Mace - is not a monument to holodomor, but a study and conference center, an archive, a museum - like the Holocaust Museum in Washington, to keep the memory of this great disaster alive.
The upshot was to do both: a memorial center and a monument. For the next two years at least three sites were proposed, and for various reasons set aside (but mainly because of a lack of drive on the part of the authorities, many of whom were part of the system that organized holodomor in the first place).
At the end of 2004 Ukraine went through its world-famous Orange Revolution and got a new government. For the first time since independence, the new
administration began to look seriously at restoring Ukraine's history, obliterated by the Communist "internationalists" for decades.
Ukraine's lovable first president, Leonid Kravchuk, had been a high party official in charge of ideology, i.e. in charge of obliterating Ukraine's past. The second president, Leonid Kuchma, had been the head of USSR's main rocket-building facility, with direct access to the top echelon of the ruling Communist Party.
They both paid lip service to Ukrainian history, but they always had in the back of their minds, what will our old party comrades say? What will the Russians say?
Meanwhile, the Communist Party of Ukraine continued to deny the holodomor- 70 years after it occurred. A parliamentary hearing on declaring the holodomor a genocide the Communists simply boycotted. Yet their views have to count; they were duly elected to Ukrainian parliament.
The new administration, and President Yushchenko personally, began to act on Ukraine's historic past. But that, of course, they had to do in addition to taking care of emergencies, such as back pay for millions of workers and working on a new realistic budget on the basis of squandered resources of the last administration, and ceaseless pressure from Russia - particularly its media - to make Ukraine look bad.
Early in July - less than six months after being sworn in - President Yushchenko issued a decree to establish an Institute of National Memory.
And to locate it in downtown Kyiv. Land in downtown Kyiv goes for a pretty penny these days, and there are enough developers willing to pay the price to redo or demolish and build from scratch an income-producing structure.
Promoters of the Institute of National Memory were suggesting that the best place to house the Institute would be what is known in Kyiv as the October
Palace. Interestingly, the final draft of the president's decree omitted this concrete designation; it just stated that the location should be in central Kyiv.
The October Palace, now known as the International Center of Culture, originally was built in tsarist times as the Institute for Girls of Nobility, and the street on which it is located has reverted to its old name - Institute Street. (In Soviet times it was called October Revolution Street, and the building -- October Palace. For years - until the grand Ukraina Palace was built in the 1960's -- "October Palace" was the place to hold big public events in Kyiv.
It is on a slope of one of Kyiv's many hills and overlooks the now famous Maydan -- Independence Square. It has several auditoriums, includes a modern movie theatre and offices leased to various foreign-owned companies.
A couple of years ago a pedestrian bridge was built to take people from a shopping mall across the busy Institute St. And there also is an "alley of the stars" - mimicking the one in Hollywood.
The reason promoters of the Institute of Memory would like to locate it in the October Palace is that in the 1930's this building - the former finishing school for noble young women - was the headquarters of the Soviet secret police. People were kept in cells in the building's basement, tortured and killed there. Perfect location for a memorial institute - in Budapest, or Warsaw, or Riga. But in Ukraine? Well... Let's give it some thought.
Here's what Dr. Yuriy Shapoval says about this hesitation. He is a very active scholar in uncovering the Communist deeds against Ukrainians in Soviet times and he is one of those lobbying for locating the Institute of Memory in the former "October Palace." In an article he wrote for July 27 Den' (The Day) newspaper, he concludes:
"You don't have to be a prophet to predict opposition to the idea of an institute in Kyiv (and in the center of town, at that, as the president's decree reads). This won't be an open opposition (with the exception, perhaps of the pathologically left forces). This will be an attempt to strangle this idea by way of "an embrace" - lip service for support, combined with sabotage in fact.
For example, already attempts are being made to block the idea of putting the Institute in the October Palace - the headquarters from 1934 to 1941 of NKVD of Ukrainian SSR, and where not only unjust trials were held, but people were killed. (Leading to it is an "alley of stars" created on no one knows whose orders.)
One also hears this argument: We have the Institute of History. Let's give it the responsibility of preserving the memory. But the responsibilities of the Academy of Sciences' Institute of History are more fundamental, primarily academic.
The big discussions are still ahead of us, and they will intensify at the beginning of the 'political' autumn. This will be a true test. For the Government, for society, for everyone who doesn't want his memory taken away. Without memory there will be no state in the true sense of the word."
It didn't take long. The first "strangling embrace" of the idea to locate the Institute of Memory in the "October Palace" appeared on August 2 - less than a week after Shapoval's article -- in Kievskie vyedomosti, a daily newspaper that is associated with the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine (united), or SDPU(o) in its Ukrainian acronym.
Yes, the party headed by former President Kuchma's chief of staff Viktor Medvedchuk, the party whose parliamentary leader is the loveable first president, Kravchuk (although just days ago he said he would resign from he leadership to devote all his time to "uniting Ukraine").
The paper assigned two writers to do a story on the October Palace site for the Institute of Memory. They reported in detail about the president's decree, they recalled that earlier he had said it was indecent to house an entertainment center in a place where people were tortured and executed. They quoted activists of the Memorial Society, who claim the building has become a money laundering operation.
But then they switched to a "let's think about it" mode: "Is a busy intersection in downtown the best place to preserve the memory of sorrowful and tragic events? Or isn't better to locate such museums in the quiet of large parks, where nature allows meditation on the fate of one's people and the turns of history?" they asked. (Well, the Holocaust Museum in Washington is doing fine at a very busy corner of 14th and Independence.)
They also shed crocodile tears over criticism of the "alley of the stars," naming half a dozen popular actors, athletes and singers whose stars are embedded in the alley and asked, should these people apologize, because their names are there?
And they also mentioned the fact that in addition to serving as the torture chamber of the Soviet secret police, the building was the site of some glorious events in the history of Ukraine: Mykola Lysenko, the foremost Ukrainian composer of the 19th century, taught there, and among the alumni of the Institute for Girls of Nobility was a famous opera singer.
And then the Kievskie vyedomosti writers went for the soft underbelly. The Museum of the History of Kyiv lost its building last year. It was given to the Supreme Court of Ukraine. The museum is still waiting for a decent location. It's current quarters in the Ukrainian Home (former Lenin Museum) is inadequate by all accounts.
So - suggest the writers, Oksana Grishina and Valentina Simkovych of the Kievskie vyedomosti: why not give the October Palace to the Museum of the History of Kyiv, because "it's shameful that with such memory-oriented and emotional government [the museum] remains homeless."
In other words -- anything but a museum of holodomor, of Soviet repressions. Interestingly enough, about a year ago, when one of the sites proposed for a holodomor center was the hill above the Ukrainian Home (former Lenin Museum), Kievskie vyedomosti ran an article about unnamed investors, who were interested in building a diorama there, like the one that Kievites enjoyed visiting in tsarist times, and the first years of the Soviet rule.
And that's the way it is, in the capital of independent Ukraine, 14 years after independence. And I'm not betting on a holodomor or a victims of various repressions museum being built any time soon.
ANALYSIS AND COMMENTARY: By R.L. Chomiak,
Ukrainian born American journalist now living in Kyiv and working as a correspondent for Svoboda, the 112-year-old
Ukrainian language newspaper published in New Jersey, USA
Published by The Action Ukraine Report (AUR)
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