At least 25 people died during violent clashes between anti-government protesters and police in Kiev on Tuesday. Photo:Getty.
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Ukraine is at war, we're just not admitting it yet

Ukraine finds itself in an impossible clinch, where it is alternately patronised (“those heroic Ukrainians!”) and refused serious help to counter Russia’s bailouts. With people dying on the streets as the violence intensifies, how much longer can this last?

After a fortnight of relative calm, Kiev is burning again, following the most violent clashes since anti-government protests began three months ago. Any hope from Russian authorities that media attention would be diverted by the Sochi Olympics is over. After a calmer Wednesday, this morning fights restarted and, according to unofficial statistics, the new death toll has reached as high as 50 (mostly protestors, but also police and journalists, with these numbers likely to rise again). Over a thousand people were wounded in a failed attempt by government forces to clear the protest camp on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square).

For the last three months the Maidan has acted like a city in its own right, with its own infrastructure, food and medical help points. Now this image has been replaced with photographs of the scorched Maidan obscured by plumes of smoke, of barricades, burning cars, people with bloody wounds and bandaged heads, some lying on the ground, having been beaten or even killed.

The reason for yesterday’s outbreak is the breakdown of negotiations between the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s ruling Party of Regions and the opposition leaders. Specifically, the problems have emerged over attempts to have the 2004 constitution reinstated, removing the changes instituted two years ago to strengthen presidential power. This follows a few recent government compromises, including the rescinding of the harsh anti-protest laws which were voted into existence only weeks earlier, and which led to Maidan’s radicalisation.

After the first killings in January it was clear the protesters were not going to give up ground, and nor were the authorities. In this way, Ukraine reached a deadlock. This week, around 10,000 protesters (largely from the far-right Svoboda party) calling themselves the “Peace Offensive”, went to the parliament and, after the failure of negotiations, tried to storm it. This might have triggered the government’s decision to finally clear the Maidan.

The level of violence is unprecedented in independent Ukraine. Both sides are armed, and the number of dead policemen suggests a black-and-white reading of the protests, in which the only the protesters suffer, is inaccurate. Nobody is sure whether it was the police or the protesters who first used violence on the day now known as “Black Tuesday”.

The fights that have taken place over the last two months have prepared people for what increasingly resembles a civil war. On Hrushevskogo Street tyres were burnt and truncheons, stones, grenades and Molotov cocktails flew, somebody started shooting with real guns. Trucks used to isolate protesters were destroyed and barricades were partly dismantled by riot police. In the evening, police stormed Maidan, burning tents and using water cannons. The Trade Union headquarters, which has long served as the Maidan HQ, was set on fire.

Since Tuesday, the whole city has been shut down. Martial law has not yet officially been declared, but there’s been a ban on entering Kiev since Tuesday midnight, the Metro was shut down, the oligarch Petr Poroshenko’s critical Channel 5 was taken off air, and telephones are not working. Under special “anti-terrorist” laws armed forces can now legally check and use weapons against the civilians. Vehicle traffic has been heavily restricted. Protesters are now trying to convince the police to join their side. Despite Yanukovych again talking to the opposition all through Wednesday, the short truce is gone and it seems that nobody, including the opposition, has any control over what is happening.

This is a civil war inside Europe, though nobody is yet admitting to it. Ukraine finds itself in an impossible clinch, where it is alternately patronised (“those heroic Ukrainians!”) and refused serious help to counter Russia’s bailouts. As of now, President Obama has strongly criticised Russian support of the crackdown.

Yanukovych's dependence on Russia is overwhelming. He needs support in the upcoming presidential election in 2015 and is clearly dependent on Putin’s financial help (Yanukovych is set to place a pro-Russian PM to replace the former Ukrainian PM Mikolai Azarov). Putin, on the other hand, may be worried about how the protest in Kiev might influence opposition in Russia. The western portrayal of Maidan, meanwhile, has shifted from admiration for the “pro-European” protesters to a belated recognition of the major role played on the ground by the far right, whether parliamentary (the Svoboda party) or otherwise (the insurgent Right Sector). This shifting of the moral perception of Maidan came exactly when Yanukovych and co needed it – to help break the protests and support for them – after all, Yanukovych used the presence of “extremists” as the pretext for the crackdown.

The reality is that neither the EU nor the US really cares if Ukraine becomes more nationalistic or more pro-Russian and the recent recognition of the role of the far right in protests has served as an excuse to do nothing. What high officials care about, as the recent scandal with the US envoy Victoria Nuland and her open contempt for Europe shows, is geopolitics and relations with Russia. We must remember that the EU’s offer to Yanukovych, which kick-started Maidan, was predicated on an already economically-devastated country accepting IMF austerity measures, and had no agreement on visas or travel to the EU, and so would have left Ukraine still isolated in Europe.

Now EU countries, led by neighbouring Poland, have suggested sanctions be placed on Ukraine – yet nobody placed sanctions on Egypt in August, when over 600 protesters were killed. This should remind us that we hold post-communist countries to different standards. Ukraine is still treated like a pawn, both by Russia and by the “west”.

Given the policy of the Ukrainian government has oscillated between brutality and weakness, it’s not clear if Yanukovych will simply listen to Putin and continue to brutally suppress the protest. The only possible rival candidate to Yanukovych is Vitaly Klitchko, the popular leader of Udar party, who carries the positive image of not being associated with the far right. He has a German residence permit, so his participation in the election is uncertain. 

The opinion polls show that half the society still doesn’t support the protests anyway. Yet the participants now have the massive boost of being the Maidan heroes, who “fought for freedom” and this attitude, regardless of when and how Maidan will be suppressed, may inspire others across the country.

 

Agata Pyzik is a Polish writer publishing in Polish and English in many publications in the UK and in Poland, including the Guardian, Frieze and The Wire. Her main interest is (post) communist Eastern Europe, its history, society, art. She's finishing a book on postcommunism called Poor But Sexy for Zero Books. She lives in London and has a blog.

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.