Sviatohirsk: A Ukrainian town devastated by the invasion defends its Soviet myth |

The colossal figure of a Soviet myth presides over the Ukrainian municipality of Sviatohirsk, in the province of Donetsk. This is Artem, the name by which the Bolshevik revolutionary Fyodor Sergeyev was known. His effigy, like the rest of the town, has not been spared the destruction caused by the fighting during the three months of Russian occupation, between June and September 2022. The monument, 22 meters high and located on a hill overlooking The area suffered mortar and bullet impacts. Surrounding them are excavated machine gun nests, abandoned ammo boxes, and minefields. At its feet is a Ukrainian flag that was raised by soldiers when Sviatohirsk was liberated. The wind made it fall and no one got it back up. It is a sculpture dedicated to a myth of Russian imperialism, but also a work of art that Ukraine wants to preserve.

The monument to Artem It is the work of Iván Kavaleridze (1888-1978), one of the most prominent Ukrainian sculptors of the early 20th century. And this is what has saved it from the “decommunization laws” approved in 2015, as Oksana Barshinova explained in the exhibition catalogue. In the eye of the hurricane: avant-garde in Ukraine 1900-1930 (2022). The war with the pro-Russian separatists in Donbas, in the east, intensified the eradication of the influence of Russian imperialism in Ukraine, including Soviet imperialism. Since the Russian invasion of the country, the process has accelerated. “Since 2015, the Kavaleridze monument has been under threat of demolition, but it has been its durability and technological sophistication that has saved it from destruction,” Barshinova writes.

Mortar impact on the statue of Artem, last February in Sviatohirsk, Ukraine.Cristian Segura

The Ukrainian Ministry of Culture found an alternative last October, when this 1927 sculpture was renamed “Monument of the outstanding sculptor Ivan Petrovich Kavaleridze.” But the reality is that, as Barshinova, deputy director of the National Museum of Art of Ukraine, indicated, it is impossible “to separate the ideology that exists in Kavaleridze’s monumental works.” The same artist wrote that he approached the work in Sviatohirsk with “a lot of enthusiasm”: “It was important to personify the energy and will of all those who were building socialism.” “With his left hand, Artem grabs his cap and with his right he points the way to the masses,” Kavaleridze explained, “the figure is seen from a distance, and personifies the rise of the young industrial Donbas.”

The statue is exceptional for its time, a cubist figure built from a single piece of concrete. Even more ambitious was the monument to Artem that Kavaleridze built in 1924 in Bakhmut. The city was baptized that year as Artemivsk, in honor of the late Bolshevik leader, and was called that until the independence of Ukraine, when it recovered its pre-Soviet name. The Artem sculpture complex in Bakhmut was destroyed during the German occupation in World War II. The city was razed between 2022 and 2023, during the invasion of Moscow. For Russia, which has occupied the ruins, the municipality continues to be called Artemivsk.

“Hateful Bolshevik”

He Comrade Artem He was one of the most charismatic revolutionaries in Ukraine, especially in the mining Donbas. With his death in 1921 in an accident, the Communist Party elevated him to the top of the iconic Soviet Olympus and Stalin even adopted his son. Artem also fought against Ukrainian nationalism and against the proclamation of the short-lived Ukrainian republic. For the officials of the invaded country, his figure embodies the enemy who denies the existence of the Ukrainian State; For the enemy, Russia, Artem is proof that Ukraine is part of their world.

Last October, the Donetsk Provincial Government organized a meeting between experts and the media to justify the name change and the survival of the statue. The provincial government invited the artist Rostislav Luzhetski, an admirer of Kavaleridze, to speak to the press, who indicated that it is almost a coincidence that the sculpture is a tribute to Artem: “For Kavaleridze it was just an opportunity to create something great.” The statement from the Donetsk authorities continued like this: “Luzhetsky assured that the monument has nothing to do with the true image of the hateful Bolshevik, neither the portrait nor his anthropology. Physiomists who studied the monument say that it is much more similar to the young Kavaleridze.”

But the story is what it is, it is a monument to Artem. And those who know this best are the residents of Sviatohirsk. “We are in a moment of decommunization, but we also have to protect history,” Volodímir Rebalkin, the mayor, commented to this newspaper last February. Rebalkin admitted the complexity of the situation, “because the sculpture has the value that it is from Kavaleridze, from the good times of the USSR [la década de los veinte se caracterizó por una revalorización de la cultura nacional ucrania]but it is also about Artem, symbol of terror.”

Main street of Sviatohirsk, partially destroyed, last February.
Main street of Sviatohirsk, partially destroyed, last February.Cristian Segura

“For my generation it is a tribute to a hero, to Artem, for young people it will be a different thing,” says Valentina Antipova, a 75-year-old woman, a retired agronomist who lost her husband during the war, killed in an artillery attack. . Antipova waits in a cafe for a friend of hers to take her home by car. She drinks some tea while she sadly remembers her youth, without being nostalgic for the Soviet Union, but comparing it with the decade that the Donetsk province has been at war: “For my generation it is difficult to adapt to new times.”

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