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Misrepresenting History at the Kyiv Museum

Does Kyiv have a history?

If you go to the Museum of the History of the City of Kyiv, you’re likely to conclude that the answer is a resounding No. You’re also likely to conclude that the people who set up the Museum at its present site a year ago have no idea of what the purpose of museums is.

The museum is currently lodged in a fancy new building on Khmelnytsky Street, just across the street from the Lesya Ukrainka Theater of Russian Drama. The building was constructed amid substantial controversy: its ornately neo-modernist, glass-and-steel-and marble, “Late Yanukovych” style doesn’t quite jive with its surroundings, while its very placement in a formerly open space creates a sense of intrusiveness and crowding on an otherwise leisurely thoroughfare. (To be slightly fair, the recently constructed German Embassy just up the road is just as much of an eyesore, and the Germans can’t blame their bad taste on the woes of transitional societies.)

Whatever the merits or demerits of the museum as a building, you’d think that as important an institution as the city museum would tell an interesting story and aspire to look professional. Not so.

The exhibit consists of two floors. I get there just after opening at 10:05 a.m. I pay my 30 hryvnia (just under $4.00) and take the stairs to the second floor. The first thing that strikes me is that there are wet spots all around the landing. Evidently, the cleaners had just finished their mopping. A woman standing near the entrance to the right greets me in Russian. I walk in and notice more wet spots on the exhibit floor. Before me and to the right are some artifacts from the Kyivan Rus era of about a thousand years ago. They’re enclosed in glass cases with crookedly placed pieces of paper identifying them. A stand holds a plastic-encased piece of paper with a typewritten narrative of a bit of Kyivan Rus history. Off to the right are several mosaics on the wall. They’re unmarked. I ask the woman where they come from. She says they’re copies. Of what? I ask. You should take the guided tour, she responds.

A few glass cases later, the Kyivan Rus period suddenly ends. Who were the grand dukes? Who were the princes? What actually happened in the several hundred years of its existence? The museum prefers not to say. And then, just as suddenly, I encounter a few glass cases from the Cossack period: some paintings, some articles of clothing, and the like. Who exactly were the Cossacks? What did they do? Who were their leaders? Once again, the museum, which is located on a street named after one of the most important Cossack leaders, is mum. And that may be just as well, because, inexplicably, the Cossack period suddenly morphs into a bunch of glass cases showing off everyday objects from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Maybe the third floor will be better. There, too, the water on the landing and floor hasn’t quite dried. There, too, a woman greets me in Russian. I enter, and right before me is a wall and glass-case exhibit about the Ukrainian revolution of 1917–18. Highlighted are the anti-Soviet Ukrainian Central Rada and its president, the renowned historian Mykhaylo Hrushevsky. The accompanying text, encased in plastic, typewritten on a single sheet, and placed on a wobbly stand, presents a non-Soviet interpretation of this period of Ukrainian history. Next come a few cases with artifacts from several Soviet Ukrainian writers of the interwar period. The accompanying text mentions repressions, but the exhibit fails to illustrate them.

And then, all of a sudden, it’s World War II. One wall panel does mention the Nazi killing of Jews in Babyn Yar, but just about everything else is devoted to the uniforms, medals, and citations received by Soviet war heroes. If you’d like to know what life was like in Kyiv during the Nazi occupation, you’d be better off reading a book.

And then, with equal suddenness, the war is over and we’re in some indefinite postwar period. You’d think there’d be something about the architectural reconstruction of postwar Kyiv, about the dissident movement, about Communist Party leaders Petro Shelest and Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, but, once again, you’d be dead wrong. Instead, the exhibit concludes with a roomful of hodgepodge from the 1960s until today.

The bottom line is that this is unlike any exhibit of any history I’ve ever seen. There are no narratives, no stories, no highlights, no themes—just a bunch of almost randomly collected stuff. Stuff, needless to say, may make for a great flea market, but it doesn’t amount to a museum exhibit.

So who’s to blame for this disaster? On the one hand, the answer is simple: the museum’s director and curator (although the museum’s Facebook site does not say who they are). On the other hand, the answer is even simpler: the Yanukovych regime. The ministries of culture and education are run by Regionnaires committed to emptying Ukrainian history, culture, and language of all content and reducing them to footnotes of some grand Soviet/Russian narrative. The last thing the Regionnaires want is a capital city with a genuine history: that might suggest that Ukraine has a history and that—heaven forbid—Ukrainians have an identity. 

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