Sunday, 27 September 2009

Is nothing sacred?


Reports suggest that the city council of Kyiv, capital of Ukraine, faced with a dearth of hotels as the Euro Cupfest of 20012 approaches, is planning to allow hotel development on or near the site of Babi Yar.

At this spot, over a period of two days in September 1941, over 33,000 Ukrainians Jews were lined up along the ravine of Babi Yar and executed by the SS Einsatzcommando, assisted by Ukrainian Nazi sympathisers. Near on 100,000 more victims followed, their bodies to be tipped into the gorge below and buried.

Later, the Soviet government resisted calls for the establishment of a memorial to the dead and when one was finally erected in 1976 there was no mention that the majority of those murdered were Jewish.

Boasting bronze

Meanwhile, in Senegal, a vast bronze family ensemble rises 49 metres above Dakar, the capital. In its shadow reside the poor of a country on the very edge of starvation. In the case of Dakar, the purpose has not been one of remembrance but of aspiration (for Africa as a whole) over actuality, of propagandist history being written before it has happened.

Visitors to Britain cannot mistake reading in the cityscape of London the narrative of the country’s military past, the symbols of victory and conquest. Here, as elsewhere, public art speaks of priorities, values, assumptions, and sometimes of misreadings of, or at least glosses on, historical events, by the established elite.

Cueing recollection

The past, to some, may be another country, but for good or ill it is there to be exploited, commercialised, reconstructed, swathes of fact omitted, cut-and-pasted and, in all sorts of ways, faked. Nevertheless, what breaths through the record is human memory carried forward through recollection, so long as that recollection can be captured and preserved in time.

Do monuments and sacred spaces serve the aim of true remembrance? Does it matter if the Ryurik Regency, the Grand Cossack, the Shevchenko Imperial, the Pushkin Astoria, the Lobanovsky Towers eventually, as 2012 dawns, cast their ten-storey shadows over the site of Babi Yar? Surely life has to move on? The price might be history itself.

Questions of identity

The issue is not whether we should acknowledge history in case we repeat its mistakes; rather it concerns how we see ourselves in the light of history. The name Ukraine means ‘land without borders’, suggesting both the immense transformations that characterise the country’s history and doubts about a clear and recognisable identity.

To compromise the sacredness of memory in the interests of international finance, tourism and sport certainly suggests a kind of progress, with a guarantee thrown in of shared affluence for Kyiv, the state and its people. But it may put at risk an advance of another sort, that of the national identity of a country emerging from the strictures of Soviet hegemony.

Egotism, authority

Senegal’s Dakar statue actually resembles in size and heroic expression similar monuments of the Soviet period, and it serves a similar purpose, glorifying the spirit and vision of those in power. It will undoubtedly be a tourist attraction. It will bring in the cash, whether it is deemed great art or crass propaganda.

It will also be a constant reminder of the contradictions between publicity and reality; a £17 million statement not about equality but elitism. And talking of reminders, it can be argued that the memory of Babi Yar does not solely belong to Kyiv or to the people of Ukraine as a whole: it is a stark symbol of the necessity of universal remembrance; one that resonates wherever Nazism and other evils were suffered and fought against.

Gilt-edge investment

Babi Yar is our monument and we should support those who object to plans to build on, and over, the place where humanity was seen at its worst. In contrast, there is no unbuilding of the Dakar monument. Of course, as with most great monuments, the future will forget the details – the fabulous expense, the human sacrifice; after all, the poor are always with us while investment in art, despite the ambiguities of its message over time, largely secures its lordly bonuses regardless of recession.

However, as far as Dakar is concerned, objectors might at least condemn the decision of Senegal’s 80-year old president, Abdoulaye Wade, to top-slice for himself 35% of the profits derived from tourism attracted by Africa’s answer to the prestigious monuments of the West.

PS: Within days, the leader of Kyiv Council put a block on such plans.

Recommended reading Ukraine’s Forbidden History by Tim Smith, Rob Perks and Graham Smith (UK: Dewi-LewisPublishing in association with the Bradford Heritage Recording Unit, the British Library Sound Archive and the University of Sheffield, 1998).

Black Sea: The Birthplace of Civilisation and Barbarism by Neal Ascherson (UK: Vintage, 1996). This is a compulsive read but is shamefully out of print.

1 comment:

  1. Another very informative post and your reasoning is solid. People sometimes work very hard to forget what they shouldn't be allowed to.