In August 2014 I wrote this piece about Slavyansk museum in east Ukraine, where staff were collecting artefacts from the three months the town lived under pro-Russian/separatist/rebel/insurgent/take-your-pick rule before being retaken by the Ukrainian army.
With director Lilya Zander I discussed the difficulties of making any coherent historical narrative out of recent events, and the problematic labelling of objects when opinion is so freshly, painfully divided and words are weapons more effective than bullets. And I asked her what the exhibition would be called.
Over a year later, I visited the completed, untitled exhibition. The museum has got round the problem of narrative by scarcely offering any narrative at all, and the problem of labelling by providing consistently inconsistent labelling. This is a war exhibition which never mentions the word ‘war’; an ‘Anti-Terrorist Operation’ exhibition which calls the object of the operation ‘fighters’ or ‘separatists’ more often than ‘terrorists’, an exhibition of occupation and liberation which lines up the most deadly weapons on the side of the ‘liberators’ and calls the dead simply ‘victims of armed conflict’.
“Where are the pictures of civilian casualties?” one of the museum staff said, when I told her about the article I wrote.
There were no such images in the exhibition. “Has the museum collected such pictures?” I asked.
“Oh yes. We can’t show them. No one knows how many died, they say around 120 but no one knows, no one wants to admit it. And no one will ever get any compensation.”
I tried to ask her whose decision it had been not to show pictures of casualties, and if the exhibition had divided the staff. “Are you asking me my opinion of what happened?” she said sharply. “My opinion is that they had no right to bomb us.”
An elderly woman was visiting the exhibition with her grandson. “This is what they shot with,” she said to him, as they wandered from left (covering the Ukrainian army’s period of retaking the city) to right (about the other side, and the time leading up to that) and back again. “This is what they wore.” “These are the leaflets they printed.” “This is what they ate.” It was a weirdly pointless and neutral commentary. I asked where she was from – Lisichansk, on Ukraine controlled territory of Luhansk, near the line that increasingly separates one reality from another.
“What do you think of the exhibition?”
“I always visit the museum first in every town I visit. It’s important to know history,” she said.
Her grandson took pictures of the dummy dressed in ‘separatist’ uniform, practically identical to the dummy in Ukrainian army uniform in the opposite corner. “Pray god all this never happens again,” said the woman, the only comment with any emotion or opinion in it I heard her make.
I tried to imagine what a visitor from the future, or from another country, uninformed about these events, would learn from the exhibition. I had to conclude they would learn pretty much nothing.
Some unnumbered and unnamed people held a referendum for confused anti-European reasons which their own leaflets do not make at all clear; there is some mention of fascists; they built barricades with portraits of Lenin and Orthodox icons and Russian flags; they used Russian army medical supplies and soviet-era rifles, and produced militant recruitment fliers copied from the posters of Hollywood action flicks. On the opposite side the Ukrainian army and unexplained ‘volunteer brigades’, eating American army rations and firing gigantic Soviet ‘hurricane’ rockets, lost in some unexplained way a helicopter, lost named men, gave out bread and soup and produced anti-propaganda propaganda leaflets. Someone put up a small monument somewhere, to unnumbered and unnamed civilian casualties ‘of armed conflict’.
I don’t mean all this as a criticism of the exhibition, exactly. History is written by the victors, but in Slavyansk museum I sense that no one is sure who the victors are, only who are the losers. No information, no certainty, scarcely any judgement. Just objects.
When I asked the director last year what the exhibition could be called, she said, “Trophies from an incomprehensible war.”