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Maidan and Beyond, Part II: The Cacophony of Donbas


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Continued from “Maidan and Beyond, Part I

On February 22, 2014, the activists of the Maidan movement seized the suburban residence of ousted Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych, who had fled Kyiv the previous day. Yanukovych’s residence, Mezhyhirya, was notorious long before the fall of the regime for the extent of its megalomaniac luxury. Nevertheless, the occupiers were utterly shocked by the discoveries they made inside. Stocked with a tremendous amount of artwork—icons, portraits, and pieces of decorative art—Mezhyhirya resembled a bizarre museum of looted treasures. These works turned out to be mere leftovers from Yanukovych’s art collection; it soon became clear that the president had begun evacuating his possessions at least a couple of days before he himself fled. In any case, the activists and cultural workers who discovered the collection found it significant enough to be taken to the National Art Museum of Ukraine.

When the Maidan militiamen along with the cultural activists brought the Mezhyhirya treasures to the National Museum in Kyiv, amidst the smoking ruins of the barricades that had surrounded the museum’s premises for more than a month of street battles, the museum’s staff was initially puzzled. The content of the donation seemed dubious at best—despite the fact that a painting ascribed to Jan Bruegel the Younger was also there. What the protesters perceived as sublime works of art turned out to be a random collection of luxurious items, most of which were actually gifts presented to the former president by his cronies. Now these gifts were filling the empty rooms of the National Museum—all artworks had been evacuated when the fierce street fighting with the riot police began. Meanwhile, the Mezhyhirya residence itself was opened to visitors, who flooded its enormous territory in the thousands, exemplifying a bourgeois interest in the wellbeing of the upper classes rather than a spirit of revolutionary destruction. The attitude of Ukrainian revolutionaries towards the palace of an ousted autocrat differed drastically from their French and Soviet counterparts. In Paris and Saint Petersburg, revolutions gave birth to public museums. In Kyiv, the revolution’s outcome was an art show.

Soon after the fall of the regime, the Yanukovych collection being stored in the National Museum’s empty halls was turned into an exhibition. The show was organized with the assistance of a notorious nationalist militia of Maidan called the Right Sector (we will hear more of them later). A note accompanying the show said that the objects presented there had no artistic merit, and that they were exhibited as mere evidence of an evil dictator’s taste. The curatorial statement was full of snobbish, elitist contempt for the “tasteless” political class—supposedly personified by the former president—and seemingly directed towards Yanukovych’s lower-class background. But in fact, unconsciously, the exhibition represented the troubled imagination of a whole society rather than that of a particular kleptocrat. None of the works shown at the exhibition were acquired by Yanukovych himself. Rather, it was the others—his business partners, party comrades, occasional guests, and relatives—who chose these objects based on their own assumptions about his preferences and tastes. The complex interplay of projections of desire behind the Yanukovych collection was now being displayed publicly.

Read the full article here.