Memory should be directed at the future

An interview with Ihor Poshyvailo, director of the National Memorial to the Heavenly Hundred Heroes and Revolution of Dignity Museum (Maidan Museum) in Kyiv.

Interviewer: Tomasz Lachowski

Source: magazine New Eastern Europe, Issue 5 2020

TOMASZ LACHOWSKI: You are the director of the Maidan Museum, the fun- damental role of which is to commemorate events of the Revolution of Dignity that occurred during the winter of 2013 and 2014 in Kyiv. We often understand museums as institutions that present historical events long after they happened. In the case of the Maidan, we are talking about events that happened only several years ago. When exactly did the idea to create a museum appear and how did you manage to develop the project?

IHOR POSHYVAILO: The Maidan Museum as an idea was initiated during the Revolution of Dig- nity itself. My museum colleagues and I decided to document as carefully as possible what was happening in Kyiv. We realised quite early that what was tak- ing place in the winter of 2013 and 2014 certainly would not be a simple repeti- tion of the Orange Revolution of 2004, and we became well aware that we had to be among and with the people at this exceptional time. The turning point was certainly January 16th 2014, when the socalled “dictatorial laws” were enacted by the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine and violent clashes broke out, even though we had been documenting the protests at the very beginning of the movement. Our project to document the Revolution of Dignity as it was happening was also inspired by Linda Norris, a well-known US museum expert. On December 1st 2013, shortly after Viktor Yanukovych’s militia violently broke up a peaceful student demonstration, she wrote an article titled: “If I ran a muse- um in Kyiv, right now”. I was impressed with her arguments, keeping in mind that her postulates were obvious about museums in democratic states but very difficult to implement in a country like Ukraine. Norris highlighted the need to collect objects used by protesters and, most importantly, people’s testimonies and personal stories. Her work inspired me to write an article titled “Ukrainian Museums and EuroMaidan: Learning to be with the people” for Ukrainska Pravda.

Did other museums also support the idea of the EuroMaidan, which later evolved into the Revolution of Dignity? Or did they have some doubts since the Maidan, no matter how you look at it, stood against the actions of a legally chosen authority?

In Ukraine, 99 per cent of museums depend on state or local authorities, so at that time many museum workers tried to remain neutral by not taking a clear stand. Nonetheless, it is worth empha- sising that there were also museums that simply did not support the protesters. The situation was similar as the one in universities: there were those who put their students who participated in the protests on the socalled “black list”, and there were others, such as the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, that helped and even mobilised students to get involved in the revolution. In some cases, museum management forbade their employees to go to the Maidan during work hours, making it much more difficult to engage in “anti-government demonstrations”. However, the mission of the museums is to serve the public, not the authorities.

How did your initiative develop after the protests in Kyiv came to an end in February 2014?
A year after the events our initiative began to take a legal form. In January 2015 we established a non-govern- mental organisation called the Maidan Museum and we later united our forces with the Museum of Freedom initiative. On the first anniversary of the Revolution of Dignity we launched the exhi- bition Creativity of Freedom: (R)evolutionary Culture of the Maidan where people could participate in different educational and cultural events about the Revolution of Dignity. Yet the initiative was not always positively welcomed by active participants of the Maidan protests, since they viewed our work with distance and suspicion, considering the museum as a conservative phenomenon with minimum influence. Others emphasised that the Revolution of Dignity itself was still underway and thought that creating a museum so early on would “freeze” the ongoing contestation and distort the memory of the Maidan. But we did not give up on our project and kept collecting personal stories and various artefacts.
For the first anniversary of the Maidan, then President Petro Poroshenko issued a decree on the need to preserve the memory of the Revolution of Digni- ty as a result of pressure put on Ukrainian officials by the relatives of the Heroes of Heavenly Hundred. Following that decision, on January 20th 2016 the Maidan Museum, now officially entitled the National Memorial to the Heavenly Hundred Heroes and Revolution of Dignity Museum, was formally registered.

What does interest in the Maidan look like today within Ukrainian society?

Unfortunately, we see a decreasing interest for the Maidan as phenomenon in Ukraine. In 2018 we conducted a survey, which brought us disappoint- ing results. The respondents showed a segmented understanding of the revo- lution, and its memory was shown to be fading and misinterpreted, even amongst supporters and active participants. The conclusions drawn from the survey are that most respondents do not treat the actors of the revolution as “Heroes of the Heavenly Hundred”, but as politicians. We also observed that respond- ents remembered the negative things more than positive things about the revolution – probably because of dis- appointment since not all the revolu- tionary demands were met. Moreover, the survey illustrated that connotations still prevailed. For example, hardly any- one used terms like Revolution of Dig- nity, but rather “rebellion” or “protest”. Nevertheless, over 70 per cent believed that the Heavenly Hundred are indeed heroes and should be commemorated. The survey also pointed out that 60 per cent believe that the Maidan Museum and Memorial are needed.

Did the Revolution of Dignity end in February 2014, symbolically after the escape of Yanukovych to the Russian Federation, or is it still ongoing having in mind that the protection of Ukrainian sovereignty in the east against the Russian aggressor can be named as its next stage?

Analysing this question from the perspective of our institution, it is impor- tant to note that the main task of the Museum is to display and analyse these life-changing 93 days of the Revolution of Dignity in a broader context, starting at least from previous Maidan pro- tests: the Revolution on Granite of 1990 and the 2004 Orange Revolution. Yet, we do so without forgetting about the ongoing Russian aggression in Donbas and Crimea. In other words, we strive to present Ukrainians’ struggle for independence and sovereignty of their country, for human dignity and rights, for a prosperous future, as a long-term process. However, it is difficult to claim whether the Revolution of Dignity is over or is still ongoing, since participants of the Maidan themselves tend to disagree. I personally think that it is an unfinished story, because the demands of the pro- testors, such as the end of a corrupted and oligarchic system, were not all met by the state authorities.

During the first scientific forum devoted to the Revolution of Dignity, organised by the Museum in December 2019 in Kyiv, you said that a new field of research, “Maidan studies”, is being born. How do you understand this concept?

In our opinion, Maidan studies is a separate scientific discipline that would examine the protest movement in Ukraine in a comprehensive and interdisciplinary way – a peaceful struggle for freedom and sovereignty, for democracy and justice, as well as for human rights and national identity. In many universities abroad such analysis is already common practice. For example, I had the opportunity to participate in a conference at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, which runs a programme devoted to the subject of revolutions as such. Such a subject area does not yet exist in Ukraine, but we really need ob- jective scientific knowledge on various aspects of the Maidan phenomenon, in order to use it in constructing narratives, exhibitions and programmes at our museum.

Photo by Bohdan Poshyvailo


Personally,  I  deal  with  the  subject  of transitional justice as a phenomenon, focusing on attempts to implement some of its measures in post-Maidan Ukraine in the conditions of the ongoing Russian aggression. I have to admit that I was positively surprised that you as a museologist empha- sised the importance of this issue, bearing in mind the preservation of the memory of the Maidan and building a positive narrative of it, both among Ukrainians and outside…

For Ukrainian museologists, the concept of transitional justice is a completely new field of interest. It is quite clear that among different transitional justice mechanisms such as criminal justice or reparations for victims, there is a need to provide access to archives, establish the truth and preserve the memory about certain patterns of repressive practices. But I am sure that the cultural heritage of a given nation, especially in times of a crisis, can also become a part of transitional justice strategies. And I see our role exactly in this matter. We need to remember that the Kremlin’s reactions to the Maidan led to the Russian aggression. It is therefore important to clearly identify the reasons that brought people to Maidan in the winter of 2013–2014. The Revolution of Dignity very clearly displayed the modern identity of Ukrainians, including its various components: pro-Ukrainian, pro-European, but also a post-Soviet identity encompassing both those who have always been quite sceptical about the perspectives of integration with the western world, as well as a majority of people not wanting any integration with Russia. The Maiden therefore allowed Ukrainians to discover their own identity, and answer questions as: “Who are we, as Ukrainians?” or “What is important to us? Our common past and future, our language, territory, power?” As it seems, human rights and the fight for dignity of each person are factors that should unite the nation to the greatest extent, in spite of our dif- ferences. Building a civil society based on shared democratic values is also one of the goals of transitional justice which we as a museum are naturally part of. The important thing now is to complete the investigations of the Maidan crimes. As we know, this is one of the tasks that has not yet been carried out and brings disappointment and a sense of failure. Establishing a system of responsibility and justice is essential to create a platform of dialogue that would foster reconciliation between Ukrainians.

What is the position of the current Ukrainian authorities regarding the memory of the Maidan?

The new government does not seem to be withdrawing from the decisions made by previous authorities regard- ing the memory of the Maidan. On the other hand, I notice that a majority of representatives of the current govern- ment do not have personal ties with the revolution, and therefore do not have a feeling of responsibility, which leads to mistakes or misunderstandings, such as the release of the former Berkut officers under investigation on Russia’s demand in December 2019.

One of the manifestations of crafting the politics of history by the Ukrainian authorities in the aftermath of the Revolution of Dignity was the implementation of the de- communisation laws in 2015. Can the Maidan Museum be seen as a part of this policy?

Our  museum,  though  not  directly, is part of the broader decommunisation process because we also refer to other examples of the struggle for an in- dependent Ukraine, human rights and the right of self-determination of the Ukrainian nation. It also needs to be stat- ed that as a museum we participated in the exhibition Restless Youth: Growing up in Europe, 1945 to Now, held at the House of European History in Brussels in 2019–2020. We also take part in other international projects which allow us to show to the world the complicated history of Ukraine, our political divisions, including the importance of the language issue, but also the reasons why Yanuko- vych appeared in Ukrainian politics and how he exercised his rule. In our daily work, we observe a positive phenomenon regarding the desire to preserve mem- ory in new and contemporary forms. There is no doubt that memory should be active and directed not so much to the past but to the future. This ultimately will allow us to better understand the times in which we live.

Ihor Poshyvailo is a muselogist and the director of the National Memorial to the Heavenly Hundred Heroes and Revolution of Dignity Museum (Maidan Museum) in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Tomasz Lachowski is a lawyer and journalist. He has a PhD in international law and is conducting scientific research on the issue of transitional justice in post- Maidan Ukraine. Editor-in-chief of Obserwator Międzynarodowy magazine.