Posts Tagged 'Slavyansk'

Living memory II

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.”

slavyansk museum hall

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.

‘Badges and chevrons of the Ukrainian armed forces and volunteer divisions’

‘badges and chevrons of seperatist formations’

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.”

'In memory of the peaceful citizens of Slavyansk, Nikolaevka and Slavyansk region who died during the period of armed conflict April-July 2014

‘In memory of the peaceful citizens of Slavyansk, Nikolaevka and Slavyansk region who died during the period of armed conflict April-July 2014’


A letter from Slavyansk

slavyansk ya

From the sign at the entrance to the town of Славянск – Slavyansk.

This town was taken back by the Ukrainian army with its blue and yellow flag, from the  Donetsk People’s Republic – the ДНР. I don’t know who made the bullet holes: the ДНР or the Ukrainian army. I don’t know who left here the pink soft toy and the cemetery flowers for the dead of both sides.

Who am I – Кто Я? The whole conflict, the deep and awful and bloody identity crisis of East Ukraine is in this one letter from Slavyansk: Я, which means ‘I’.

slavyansk ya1



It is so deceptively calm in Slavyansk.

The square is full of mums pushing their babies in prams, teenagers hanging out, drunks falling off the ends of benches. Lenin is wearing a blue and yellow scarf. There is a hole in the top of the post office building and the city administration doors are broken, but this is east Ukraine, where things have been broken and falling apart for years.

Then you see that the notices on those broken doors are about (not enough) humanitarian aid, and about where to report terrorists, provocateurs, and being kidnapped.

Punishment for seperatism

Punishment for separatism

Then you hear what the mums are saying into their mobile phones, what the teens are saying.

“Are they bombing there too now?”

“I don’t understand, you’ve picked up an assault rifle now or what?”

“Is it still standing? Is the house still standing?”

“Where are you? Don’t ring off – I can hear shelling in the background, it sounds so close.”

“Keep safe, oh keep safe!”

Keep safe…

Please come home…

And the drunk, scrabbling for his beer bottle, says “I’m drinking this to forget. It’s lies, it’s all lies” – waving the bottle at the blue and yellow Ukrainian flags, at the mums and babies, the ice-cream sellers, all the normality.

Thank you Ukrainian army for the liberation of Slavyansk

Thank you Ukrainian army for liberating Slavyansk



These are not ordinary people

I’m tired of hearing complaints about east Ukrainian refugees who do nothing to help themselves. Most of the east Ukrainians I have met here have worked all their lives, only to be kicked down again and again by economic collapse, by political machinations and greed, by army bombing and by sadists and bandits given license by war.

How do they carry on, when life is so hard, and so hard, and so desperately hard?

They all say “We are just small people, just ordinary people. War is never kind to us ordinary people”.

They are not politicians or oligarchs, they are not the ones designing and financing this war. No. They are the nurses who kept working in hospitals even while there was bombing and who treated everyone, Ukrainian or separatist; they are the miners who worry that the mines will flood and collapse without them, they are people like Roman, who even when his finger was chopped off just picked himself up and went back to work because he has two kids to feed, whose wife is now in Gorlivka being bombed but still working because someone has to bake bread for others to eat.

These people are not ‘ordinary’. They are inspiring and heartbreaking.

Pictures from the Good News church rehab centre, being rebuilt by refugees from besieged towns after it was shelled. You can read my story about it, and about Roman, here   

Volunteers and refugees from besieged towns rebuild the Good News rehab centre in Slavyansk

Nona in her oasis. Good News rehab cente in Slavyansk, now being rebuilt by refugees

Nona in her oasis. 


Donetsk in the dark

There’s nothing on TV in the hotel but ‘no signal’. I only realised that after the internet had been down for half an hour already, and I started to worry. Information blackout is the first step to a coup, an invasion, a revolution – and didn’t I see myself how a crowd of civilians and self-defence groups took over the Donetsk region broadcasting building yesterday? Today, I read just before the Internet crashed, unidentified armed men took over the digital broadcasting tower.

I’m paranoid enough already, after a trip today to Slavyansk. Nothing bad happened. On the contrary, I got given a bouquet of lilacs, a sandwich and a cup of tea. The squares were full of playing children. The men with guns were politely unforthcoming. People made jokes about kidnapping me (very funny). I watched from the other side of the road as self-defence guys manning a road block caught a ‘homosek’ – the joke (hilarious!) name for ‘pravy sek’ – that is, Pravy Sektor, those bogeymen of East Ukrainian nightmares. I don’t know who he was really. He was bundled away by armed men in balaclavas in a commandeered police car, badge and stripes removed. No one seemed to take much notice.

Still no TV – not even Russian channels. But the internet is back. Maybe the coup hasn’t happened quite yet.




previous posts

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