«I’m convinced that Catherine II will be dismantled.» Odesa deputy about the monument to the Russian empress in her city

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The events in liberated Kherson show that the idea of Ukraine being divided between east and west is untrue. Ukrainians are more united than was thought. Many symbols prove it: in Kherson, people raise the Ukrainian flag, in Kyiv, they decide to dismantle the monuments to Soviet commanders Shchors and Vatutin. And Odesa might soon get rid of the monument to its «founders» – the Russian empress Catherine II, which had been causing heated discussions for a long time.

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What fate awaits the monument to Catherine II and how the Odesa Art Museum is functioning in times of war? Lviv Now spoke with Oleksandra Kovalchuk – the institution’s director and a member of the Odesa City Council.

Entire Ukraine heard about the results of the Odesa online survey regarding the monument to Catherine II, which many took as a ready-made solution. Most of the city residents who voted chose the option to get rid of this monument. On November 30, the issue will be considered by the Odesa City Council. What are your predictions for the vote?

I am sure that the decision will be supported by the deputies of most of the factions represented in the Odesa City Council, except, perhaps, those who were members of the «Opposition Bloc» and the «Shariy Party», if any of them are still present [these two were the pro-Russian political forces that used to act in Ukraine until the Supreme Court of Ukraine ultimately banned them in October]. Everything is clear here, as we can already see that the mayor came to terms with this idea and accepted it. 

In fact, it seems to me that the Odesa City Hall lacks professional personnel. Odesa went through very unpleasant discussions that could have been avoided. For this, it was only necessary to fence the monument in March, when it became clear that this is a problem that needs to be solved. During this time, many discussions took place at the international level with various museum workers and scientists dealing with issues of decolonization. Unfortunately, during these 30 years in our country, even in the circles of scientists and museum workers, this word was rarely heard, because there were many other challenges. But now, it turned out that we were not ready as a society, we did not pay enough attention to it, and now we have to do it faster. Decolonization is a process that must take place in society, with people, in their heads. Consequently, some physical things, like removing monuments or symbols, are a side result of these processes.

If we lived in an ideal world, the Odesa City Council would have launched a process in March. It would have created a group on the basis of the Department of Culture to work on decolonization, with discussions, meetings, lectures, videos, YouTube, online, and Zoom. So that there would be many conversations and some clear communication about what is happening. Today, we could come to the same decision. And later, [it may influence] many people who were afraid of the demolition of Catherine II as a symbol, fearing the comparisons with the Nazis or communists who had fought with monuments and works of art. These people would already understand that this is not the case, and that in the eyes of the whole world, we will look absolutely civilized and normal. And the other part of society, for whom these eight months of «struggle» with Catherine II was a painful process, would be a bit indifferent when that monument is to be demolished. Because they do not relate themselves to Catherine II, they do not check every day whether she is still in place. They would simply know that it will be removed, and when exactly – they are not interested in this, because it does not have that great symbolic meaning for them. And that would be a victory.

One of these public discussions in a private space was initiated by the Lviv company – «!FEST Holding of Emotions». The poster, on which Catherine II is depicted with a suitcase, was a clear hint. How has the attitude towards this changed in Odesa? Because earlier, it was perceived as very scandalous, and now it looks like the city started preparing its residents for this decision back then. Yurko Nazaruk, a co-founder of the «!FEST», who did not believe the position of the mayor of Odesa, Hennady Trukhanov, assured that he would be happy to come to the dismantling of the monument if the one would take place.

I remember this story very well [posters depicting Catherine II with the inscription «Rostov» were placed in the premises of the FEST!’s owned «Rebernia» restaurant in Odesa, causing a wave of indignation among some local residents]. In fact, at that time, a part of Odesans declared: «We will not go to «Rebernia» now, because they removed these posters with Catherine II.» There was no unified position then. And in recent days, I have already seen memes on the topic «Will the company apologize for removing these posters?». Humour helps the whole country to survive what is happening.

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I am sure that they will decide to remove the monument from its place. But I am categorically against the idea of ​​creating some kind of reservation for monuments of tsarism and communism – it does not work. There is no need to invent the «Odesa bicycle», because there is a clear and understandable procedure. The best place for Catherine II and other monuments, which also need to be worked with, are museum spaces. So I expect it will all move to some museum. We at the Odesa Art Museum are also ready to accept it. This is a very cool space for artistic expression on this topic. 

Art projects are very effective in terms of decommunization. In Odesa, there are other monuments to other people who took part in the conquest of these territories and led pogroms [violent actions against a certain group of society in the Eastern Europe, especially the Jews]. It’s very important to work with this memory – this is not something new and strange, it is a known tool. Many countries that were once colonized went through this, and after that, decommunization processes took place there. Unfortunately, we do not have enough specialists in decolonization in Ukraine, but I know that people from our museums are studying at foreign universities to acquire such a specialty, which is very important.

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But we also have modern history. Odesa has an official symbol of authorship by Artemiy Lebedev. You spoke about the need to get rid of it, but it is still being used. Items with this symbol are solemnly presented to other European cities.

At the time when it was created, Lebedev’s studio was very popular and well-known. And when it was decided to order the invention right there, it looked great. At that stage, they did a lot for the development of design in the post-Soviet space and had not yet begun to enter the ideology. Therefore, I respect the people who implemented this initiative and paid money for development. At that time, ordinary people in Ukraine, in Odesa, could not predict that we would be at war today, that the owner of this studio would become one of the ideological mouthpieces of the politics of modern Russia.

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If monuments were not important, they would not stand in the main squares of the cities. It is clear that the symbol invented for us by people from that side cannot be used either, because symbols are important. Branding occupies one of the main parts of any product, business, anything in modern life, it is communicating. There is a quick option to get rid of it – to order a new one, and there is a more complicated one, because [the decision] should still be balanced and thought out. And this second option should also include conversations, discussions, searches for what we want to convey through our branding, what Odesa is today, and what we want to say. Because branding should convey something, there should be an idea, a message behind it. This is what we have to formulate in the Odesa community, and after that – order the branding that will broadcast it. Odesa is a port city, and I think this component in communication will not change. Although I hope that we will get rid of the port in the city, because it has a bad effect on the environment, on the quality of life and health of people. There will be areas of public spaces, and the port will be moved to another place, as was done in most European cities.

A year ago, the Odessa Art Museum presented a digital catalogue. About a thousand items of paintings entered there, and this is far from all, as I understand it. But the collections were taken from Melitopol, Mariupol, Kherson – a lot of things, we don’t even know which ones. So should these museum funds be placed in the public space at all?

This is a very good question. At the first stage of the war, there was such a trend: museum workers were advised to close all social networks, their pages, and websites. I do not see the effectiveness of this. It works when employees hide something in the museum and then try to prove that they didn’t have it. This is a very difficult question. Our museum has the experience when inventory books disappeared from it during the Romanian-German occupation of Odesa. So imagine: they come to the museum, and there are no documents by which they are supposed to inventory what is in it... But now, we don’t have these inventory books either, we don’t know what happened before the Romanians came [during the WWII], what was left, and what they took away. Some fragments, acts of extradition remained, but there is no complete picture. Therefore, we cannot demand the return of items taken out of our museum.

There is no unequivocal position here. When we thought about it before the invasion, we discussed whether or not we should prepare acts of acceptance and transfer of the collection in case of occupation. Various scenarios were considered, but when there is a signed act, it is saved. This is a document according to which the list of works was conditionally received by the new administration, and after de-occupation, it is possible to push back from this in order to return what was taken away.

That is, to record the availability?

Yes. We abandoned this idea. Now, everything is very chaotic, we do not know what is stored where, nor does the state. The Ministry of Culture does not have a complete picture of all the cultural institutions of Ukraine. Now, they are working on the database, summarizing all available data.

There is a very important point regarding what was taken out of the Kherson museum. What will happen there should become an example of actions in all subsequent cities that we will reconquer. That is, as a result of these processes, an algorithm should appear that will be managed in other cities, because I am sure that the situation will be the same.

In a recent interview, the director of the Kherson Museum, Alina Dotsenko, said that, most likely, the museum’s collection was removed due to the actions of employees who decided to cooperate with the Russians. How worrying is the topic of the «fifth column» for Odesa?

The issue of collaboration is generally quite difficult. Society should have an understanding of what is considered collaboration and what is not. Well, not all people, especially those who live in big cities, can die of hunger. They have to work somewhere, live somehow, eat something, buy medicine for something. Someone can pass 50 roadblocks or drive through Crimea, Belarus and Lithuania, someone cannot. There are different stories of people. Therefore, I choose a humanistic approach: if people did not threaten others, went to work, received meager funds in order to somehow exist, then I do not consider it collaboration.

A museum is such a small cell of society. There are conflicts in any team: someone hates the director or anyone else, someone may be waiting for Russia, and someone simply does not believe that the city will be de-occupied. Therefore, collaborators are not about the «fifth column», but about a survival strategy. Different people choose different strategies – some cooperate, and some fight. 

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I am sure that the museum staff cannot resist. Let’s imagine that everyone in the museum is a patriot. They stood, barricaded the door and said: «We will not let you in, go away! There is nothing here, everything was taken away.» The new administration will always appoint a new director, and come with the military. What should people do, how can they prevent this? This is physically impossible. They will not defend the museum with weapons in hand. If the military came and someone did not like something, they would twist him and take him away. That’s all. This, of course, is very emotional, especially against the background of the liberation of the city. I just don’t see how the team could influence.

What concerns museums and libraries is a methodical, mandatory thing. The occupiers could not but know about their existence. They took out the museum, the library, and the archive. This is a separate tragedy: there are works of art that can be identified, a pile of papers, saving which is an even more difficult task. I do not believe that it was possible to somehow prevent this. It is impossible. Even if no one wanted to work with them, they would break down the door, come in and take out whatever they needed. And they don’t need employees.

When we compared lists of works for priority evacuation that survived from the 1970s and 1980s with the new list compiled before February 24, we found a maximum of five per cent overlap. I am sure that these Soviet lists coincide with the assessment of what is most valuable to Russians. Therefore, I hope that they left everything else that is valuable to us.

How does your museum work now? Are there funds for staff salaries, preservation of exhibits and collections? Maybe, something was taken away for storage in other cities?

Yes, in the second week after the invasion, we removed part of the collection. The museum was opened in the summer, and we are showing an exhibition of modern Ukrainian art from the new proceeds, which Odesa poet Oleksandr Roitburd bought with budget funds before his death. It was a very large purchase, worth two million hryvnias. We are discussing other exhibition projects that we will present next year. But they are mainly focused on joint projects with UNESCO.

We have grant funding from the House of Europe and several more grant applications are under consideration, in particular regarding the digitization of the museum’s collection and archive. These measures are now a priority, they help us preserve the works in case of physical destruction. There is no safe location in Ukraine – everything is in danger, under missile strikes, so we are trying to digitize everything quickly.

Do you plan to hold exhibitions in other cities, in particular in the west of Ukraine?

I see that the cultural life of Lviv is very rich, new exhibition projects are being opened, and that makes me happy. This is a difficult question, because we are working more on exhibitions abroad, negotiations are ongoing with various museums in Europe and America, we are focusing on this.

In the confrontation with Russia and for the support of the West, the cultural part of the work is very important. Unfortunately, Russian culture occupies a very strong position in the Western world. They worked hard for it, invested in it. Now, we need to win back our place.

The Odesa Museum was hit during one of the shellings. How do the museum and the city prepare for possible force majeure? What is done to make the museum work?

From the very beginning, we prepared for a negative scenario, so we did a lot to make it possible to work in the museum under any conditions – lack of electricity, or heating. International funds helped a lot, without them we would find it difficult. Part of my work is cooperation with them to help other Ukrainian museums. We have already helped more than 50 cultural institutions get funding for securing collections, preparing them for evacuation, the evacuation itself, for the purchase of generators, and water supplies. I can’t imagine how we would have done it without outside help, although our communities were also involved. I am glad that the latter can focus attention and resources on helping the army, civilians who need it.

As for the preparation of the city, I often communicate with foreign foundations, large organizations, and receive a lot of positive feedback about the employees of the Lviv City Council. They say that when something is asked for, it appears the next day and exceeds expectations from the submission of information. But, unfortunately, I don’t hear anything about the Odesa City Council. We see a personnel crisis, people are just doing what they can. But no city in Ukraine will be the same as before February 24. These are new cities, I know this from my friends, some of whom I try to communicate with every day, and from my team. Nowadays, there is much more Ukrainian in Odesa. The language can be heard on the streets, people are finally rethinking their attitude towards it, their place in Ukraine. The fact that Odesa is a Ukrainian city should never cause any doubt in anyone, especially in the neighboring dictators.

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This year, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine allowed its congregations to choose which calendar to use. Do you think that individual church communities of Odesa will celebrate Christmas on December 25?

I know that some communities in Odesa have already celebrated Christmas on December 25. There are people in my social circle who celebrated it on this day even when they went to school. In our family, we have been celebrating like this for a long time. Let’s see how it will be, but I have a feeling that this year, Christmas on December 25 will be celebrated by many more people.

Sergiy Smirnov spoke

Text: Marichka Ilyina, Translated by Vitalii Holich

Collage: Dmytro Taradayka

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