War as a museum exhibit

Documentary maker Oleksiy Radynski told about how historical memory forms – using Melitopol as an example.

Yuriy Kruchak interviewed Oleksiy Radynski

June 16, 2015
Melitopol, Ukraine


Oleksiy Radynski – documentarian, journalist, and member of the Centre for Visual Culture, held in Melitopol a series of  meetings called “What is Society?”. Using Melitopol as material, the researcher analysed the relationship between the museum and local communities and voluntary organisations. Oleksiy also recorded video interviews with representatives of public organisations and initiatives, and informal communities in the town, in order to create a kind of catalogue of socially significant events in Melitopol.

Oleksiy Radynski told about the place of war in the history of Melitopol, the role of the town in the current war now being waged in Ukraine, and on how the local history museum is dealing with these important issues.

Melitopol – a city between two lines of fire

Yuriy Kruchak: How did you see your work on the At the Heart of the Community project before arriving in Melitopol?

Oleksiy Radynski: The title of the session was very provisional. I wanted to come to Melitopol, to explore something in this town. This region, the Zaporizhia region, had long interested me, particularly in the past year and a half. But I did not feel that I had the right to propose a ready-made project here. Basically, I arrived to conduct a study. I was interested in how society works in these areas. I mean society in particular, not communities. Community is a substitute word, a euphemism that is used to avoid talking about society. There are a host of such substitute words. Under neo-liberalism and neo-capitalism, which are now established in many countries, it is considered that there is no society, that there are only separate individuals, at best – communities. And “society” is something from a communist dictionary. This is an odd twist, and I believe it is important to talk about society. Sure, I’m interested in how communities interact. But to talk about this category one should start out at the level of society.

The Zaporizhia region, a region in south-eastern Ukraine, interested me because there was a threat of total social disintegration that was occurring next door in the Donbas. First of all, one must mention the disintegration of state structures, which quickly led to society in Donbas disintegrating to the state of a “wild jungle”, of war. This is a kind of pre-society, natural state, every man for himself, where people gather together into armed groups and protect their territory. In south-eastern Ukraine, this did not happen. Judging by everything, the decisive factor in the collapse of society in the Donbas was the betrayal by Ukraine’s law-enforcement bodies, its repressive structures. Society could do nothing to counter this. This suggests that in the absence of punitive organs, such as the police, there are no other factors that prevent society from decaying into a state of war. In the Zaporizhia region the collapse of society has not happened, although attempts to destabilise the situation have occurred.

What does the average citizen of Ukraine know about Melitopol? For example, there is the myth of Melitopol as a multicultural capital of Ukraine. For quite a long time various structures, focused on grants, have been trying to hold Melitopol up as a model place where a large number of ethnic groups peacefully coexist. I am always amazed by this admiration for peaceful coexistence between these groups – as if it were not normal. Melitopol was presented as a place of triumph for Ukrainian multiculturalism. But there is another nasty side to this triumphant coin – ethnic groups live peacefully, but are, perhaps, equal in their poverty.

The multicultural component of Melitopol has right now acquired a special significance, because Crimea is close by. The Crimean peninsula is now a place of potential ethnic conflicts in Europe. In general, the ethnic conflict in the Crimea is already in full swing, but it is not a “hot” conflict, the type to which we are accustomed. The usual model of ethnic conflict is the pogrom, which is organised by those at the bottom, due to social factors, and supplemented by artificial xenophobic sentiments. Ethnic conflict in Crimea is dictated from above, it occurs through “quiet repression”, infringements of the rights of the Crimean Tatars. Perhaps it makes sense to talk about the infringement of the human rights of the Ukrainian-speaking population in Crimea. A monocultural chauvinistic society is being created based on a militaristic imperial paradigm. It’s good that the conflict has not turned “hot”, but it could still happen.

So what it comes down to is that Melitopol is located between two zones of conflict: the Crimea and Donbas.

What does the museum need helmets for?

Yuriy Kruchak: To what extent have your expectations of Melitopol been met?

Oleksiy Radynski: I was prepared to work with any existing social initiatives here. But it turned out that most of the active organisations in Melitopol are ethnic. I strongly modified my plan. I immediately realised that social life in Melitopol is defined by the war that is happening in Ukraine, 200 kilometres from the town. I wondered how exactly the war was affecting life in this seemingly peaceful town.

The museum plays a central role in my session. The Regional Museum in Melitopol is open to various community initiatives, so it was interesting to look at the museum as a social structure, to see how the war is reflected in its exhibitions. A quick glance is enough to understand that the theme of war dominates the Museum, reflected in the history of the town. The situation is not unique: the same happens in many other towns and cities in Ukraine. We are talking about many various wars that took place in or around modern Melitopol, above all, about the Second World War. I think this is logical and correct. But it is another thing how the topic of the Second World War is presented. In addition, I immediately focused on an exhibition dedicated to the “anti-terrorist operation” (ATO) in the east of Ukraine. It is interesting that the museum has already included the topic of the ATO in the exhibition, it is working with modern events. And again the question arises – how does it do it. The study of these types of mechanisms has been my main occupation here.

Yuriy Kruchak: What conclusions did you come to, having been plunged into this situation?

Oleksiy Radynski: The topic of war will become even more important to local society. Especially since World War II has become an important factor in fuelling this war. It is important to note that schoolchildren who come to the museum and other children, when viewing the exhibition about World War II, are offered helmets to wear by the staff, helmets used during the fighting. This is called military-patriotic education, but, in fact, it programs in children dangerous tendencies from an early age.

Museum employees say they need to educate children in the desire to protect their homeland, just as their grandparents did. They say it is likely due to pro-Ukrainian motives, but such a mechanism might work in the opposite direction. Many people who are fighting on the side of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and the “Luhansk People’s Republic” may have been subjected to the very same mechanism of so-called military-patriotic education in Ukrainian schools and museums. For many people it can become a strong emotional experience, there is a psychological mechanism that reduces barriers when perceiving violence, fighting, military uniforms and other attributes of war. And nothing indicates that such a mechanism mobilises children to protect the Ukrainian state. Perhaps such education encourages them to side with those who claim to be the legitimate successor to the struggle against fascism. This side today is Russia, which in its propaganda uses the myth of fighting modern fascism in Ukraine.

In addition, the distribution of military attributes in an informal atmosphere can distort children’s perception of fighting attributes. The distribution of helmets in a museum has nothing to do with the fact that the army, in accordance with regulations, distributes helmets and ammunition. And, at the same time, the situation in the museum has a lot to do with when people in a division of militants, in some informal battalion which has nothing to do with “regulated” war, hand out helmets and weapons.

About historical memory and downed pilots

Yuriy Kruchak: What are the peculiarities of working in a small town?

Oleksiy Radynski: Melitopol is not such a small town – it is bigger than some regional centres in Ukraine. The peculiar thing about this town is that it is easy to meet the people and organisations you need. However, maybe this is down to the management of the museum. It was easy for me to conduct research in a short time. I managed fairly quickly to choose from a variety of topics one which seemed most relevant, to meet the right people, to visit events of interest, to examine the context in which they occur, and record the necessary interviews.

Yuriy Kruchak: What topic did you yourself work on in Melitopol?

Oleksiy Radynski: After my first visit to the museum I decided to focus on the topic of the representation of war, on how memory works in modern conflicts. I was interested in how the topic of war in eastern Ukraine was becoming part of the museum’s exhibition. The theme was developed further because my stay in Melitopol coincided with the anniversary of the death of some local pilots in the sky over Lugansk on 14 June, 2014. I watched a variety of events, rituals to immortalise this event. This tragedy has already been presented in the exhibition in the Melitopol Regional Museum, and I was able to get into the opening of a mini-museum dedicated to this date in the Officers’ House at the local military camp. I also saw military rituals at the cemetery where these people are buried. Probably, the central event of the modern historical memory of Melitopol is the death of some airforce pilots. And what is being constructed around their deaths is especially important in a situation where many citizens recognise that Melitopol is quite a divided town. Currently, it has been observed that pro-Ukrainian sentiments dominate. But many citizens say it is for show, that in fact most just side with those who are stronger. At the same time, there are large pro-Russian groups, and the jury is out as to what this category will do if events go a certain way.

Anyway, during the anniversary of the death of the pilots I saw a model of how the historical memory of events in the east of Ukraine will be shaped. Of course, it was interesting to study and document such an early and striking example, in order to continue working with this material later.

Museums at the centre of world history

Yuriy Kruchak: Let’s return to the topic of the At the Heart of the Community project. How can the local history museum in Melitopol develop?

Oleksiy Radynski: There is a need to reform the museum. And everyone, including the staff of the museum, understand this. I do not feel qualified in the matter of reforming museums. The museum interests me as a representation of a given society, and if we talk specifically about the museum in Melitopol – here I concentrated on military issues. I and the director of the museum discussed how to reform the exhibition, and she said she wanted to reduce the bit dedicated to the Second World War. I agree with that, but I think that it is not necessary to cut the military theme all together. It is possible to demonstrate the continuity of history between the various wars that took place in the town, and so come to the topic of the war in the east of Ukraine. By the way, no matter how the part of the exhibition about the ATO looks, I think its presence is a good thing that should be developed.

In general, I would recommend that the museum focus on historicising the present, on the topic of developing a society that lives next to a war – a state which Melitopol now finds itself in. Moreover, some museum staff have been collecting modern artefacts that will someday become history: leaflets, newspapers, and posters with political campaigning.

It is difficult to talk about reforming the museum in the current situation. It is important that museum workers have realised their role in the “memory” of a society which is living through a major historical period. This part of Ukraine is suddenly at the centre of world history, although it has long been at its periphery. And documentation of the process is important, even more than exhibiting things associated with this period. It is not Donbass or Crimea that have become the key regions in the war that is going on in Ukraine, but the territories of the so-called south-east of the country, which according to Russian military strategy were considered to be the obvious springboard for rebellion against Ukraine. But it was a huge miscalculation. In a territory which is within Ukraine itself, in the centre and west of the country, which many considered second-rate, Russified, and Sovietised, it turned out that people lived here who in their loathing of the Novorossiya idea, thwarted all Russia’s plans. The role of these people is no less important than the role of the Ukrainian army, perhaps it is even more so. If the grains of Russian propaganda had fallen on fertile ground here, the Ukrainian army would not have been able to keep a hold of the situation. It is important that the museum explores this moment.

By the way, the state of Ukraine owes its existence to these very same south-eastern regions. During the 1991 referendum, it was the decision of the inhabitants of these areas to vote for the independence of the country – not the decision of the West or Kyiv – that of course created a real basis for the emergence of the state of Ukraine.