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If you travel around Ukraine today, you might come across some remnants of the one-time Soviet dream: ...
2020-08-24 14:00:00

A Utopia in Pieces
The Forgotten Future in Ukrainian Soviet Mosaics

“Blacksmiths of Modernity”, Institute of Nuclear Research of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Kyiv, 1974. Halyna Zubchenko, Hryhorii Pryshedko. Photo by Yevgen Nikiforov
A Utopia in Pieces
A Utopia in Pieces

Once considered the art form meant to inspire and nurture socialist spirit, in the late 1980s Soviet mosaics faced complete oblivion. This was the result of a political crisis followed by the further collapse of the USSR in 1991.

Read in 10 minutes

“Mosaic reminds me of our hopes for the future,” my grandfather, a certified geologist who travelled around the forests of the USSR, commented on his attitude towards Soviet mosaics. It wasn’t until recently that Soviet mosaics got a second chance to draw the public eye, with the release of Decommunized: Ukrainian Soviet Mosaics (2017). The book is the first extensive study of the coloured monumental panels created in the period from 1950 to 1980. It accumulates hundreds of photographs taken by Yevgen Nikiforov, a young Kyiv-born photographer. During the times of Euromaidan, the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in Donbas, when the mood towards Russia and the USSR soured in Ukraine – and monuments of Lenin were demolished across the country – Yevgen went on a trip to over 100 Ukrainian cities and villages to preserve the memory of Soviet monumental art while it was still intact. He discovered more than 1000 surviving Soviet mosaics, some of which were destroyed just a few years later due to the decommunization law of 2015 that banned communist symbols and slogans.

The beginnings of Soviet monumental art

In 1918, following the Revolution, Vladimir Lenin presented his Monumental Propaganda plan. The ‘plan’ provided two main directions of implementation: decorating buildings and other surfaces with revolutionary slogans and plaques, and the vast erection of monuments in honour of great revolutionary leaders. At that time, the monumental propaganda plan was based mainly on monuments and concrete plaques with slogans like: ‘Who does not work shall not eat’; ‘All our hope rests on those people who feed themselves’; ‘Long live the workers’, and so on.

As Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet Commissar of Culture, recalled in his article “Lenin on monumental propaganda” (1933), the leader of the ruling party gleaned this idea from The City of the Sun (Latin. Civitas Solis), a philosophical utopian work written in 1602 by the Italian philosopher Tommaso Campanella. “Do you remember that Campanella in his work describes that the walls of his fantastic socialist city are covered with coloured murals serving as a visual lesson for young people on science and history?” Lenin asked Lunacharsky. “Those paintings stimulate a civic feeling – in other words, participate in the education, upbringing of new generations.” 

The emergence of mosaics

To understand why the Soviets chose mosaics – a time consuming art form – as a key instrument of monumental propaganda in the mid-1950s, we can take a look at the chronology of architecture development in the USSR. Since the foundation of the country in 1922, the most popular architectural style was constructivism – simple, functional buildings. Later on, from the 1930s to the mid-1950s, as Stalin took command, constructivism was replaced by an imperial, neoclassical and art deco style, also known as ‘Stalinist architecture’. The perfect example of this style are ‘Stalin’s skyscrapers’, seven high-rise buildings throughout Moscow (with additional buildings in Warsaw, Riga, Bucharest and Kyiv), each of which vaguely resembles the Empire State Building.

Two years after Stalin’s death in 1953, the decree “On eliminating excesses in design and construction” was issued and Stalin’s architectural style was replaced by functional, typical buildings. Constructivism took over again. The reason for this decree is still the subject of disagreement, but some historians agree that after Stalin’s death the government was looking for ways to cut expenses and speed up the rebuilding process of cities. As D.V. Sarabyanova writes in History of Russian and Soviet Art (1979): “The practice of embellishment in architecture was sharply criticized. It was decided to fully develop industrial construction methods and standard design, increase the pace of construction, and its efficiency.”

The decree resulted in panel buildings and functional constructions arising throughout the USSR. The architecture was characterized by simplicity, the austerity of forms, and the cost-effectiveness of solutions. Since buildings lost their aesthetics and individuality, it was consequently decided to use mosaic art to decorate them. “One of the reasons why mosaic became popular back then is that even though it is resource-intensive to create, the material is very long-lasting if it is not touched. Coloured panels can remain on the walls for hundreds of years. Moreover, the works can withstand any weather conditions,” explains art historian Yevgenia Molyar.

Palaces of culture, educational institutions, hospitals, kindergartens, train stations, bus stops and subway stations became the canvas for monumentalists. Painters, graphic designers and sculptors were excited to master mosaic art, which they perceived as innovative, open to experimentation and a new way of artistic thinking. The artists worked out a new, more open and functional aesthetic, seeking to show the beauty of natural materials, such as coloured bricks, stained glass windows on cement frames, broken ceramic tiles, natural stone, smalto, and so on. 

Interestingly, the mosaic tradition in Ukraine originates from the Byzantine times, the adoption of Christianity and the art of iconography. The Eastern Roman Empire considerably influenced some regions of Europe, including Kievan Rus-Ukraine. Copies of Byzantine mosaics appeared, among others, in churches and cathedrals in Kyiv and Chernihiv in the 11th century. “There was a kind of dialogue with the art of Byzantium because the Party positioned the Soviet ideology as a new religion, demolishing churches and creating a new message for the people. You can say that those mosaics were introduced as new ‘icons’,” Molyar says. “So a mosaic art form was chosen due to the ideological and practical reasons.”

Pioneers, farmers, cosmonauts

In the 1960s, strict plot-compositional ideological schemes were developed. Frozen pioneers with horns and drummers, girls in national clothing, workers in overalls, sportsmen, astronauts, steelworkers, collective farmers – certain professions increasingly began to fill up the walls of urban and rural structures. 

For instance, the profession of metallurgy was worshipped in the interior of railway stations, pioneers were usually depicted on school facades, and scientists found their place on the walls of the Institute of Cybernetics. The space theme was also popular and belonged to the universal subjects that could be depicted on any kind of building. It was a statement of the omnipotence of Soviet man, not only on a large part of the land but also in space. There were also symbolic mosaics, such as the panel used to refer to the future breakthrough in medicine by scientists of the Soviet Union, which depicts a doctor killing a ‘cancer-monster’. One of the largest panels in Kyiv was created from 1972 to 1974 by Halyna Zubchenko and Hryhorii Pryshedko. It symbolizes the work of scientists on the secrets of the atomic nucleus and shows an idealized depiction of these workers, as if they are super-heroes. Together, these mosaics broadcast Soviet ideology and the triumph of the working class that was the basis of that ideology.

By depicting happy, proud, dedicated workers on the walls of buildings across the country, the Party expected citizens to adopt this happiness and devotion to socialist ideology. Department store facades were used for the promotion of mass retail. It was important to show the wealth of the country and the hardworking attitude of its citizens. You can also notice how those characters are depicted in harmony with their work. For example, the mosaic composition by Valerii Lamakh on the Teksterno facade in Ternopil consists of five anthropomorphic pictures on topics including sports, science, agriculture, construction, cotton production and motherhood, as well as two decorative inserts in the form of rhombuses. This mosaic aimed to demonstrate that the life of workers in the USSR was balanced – sport, work and family harmoniously combined.

An illusion of utopia

A common image in Soviet visual culture was grounded in the idealized representation of the worker’s daily life. Interestingly, in practice, many people couldn’t recognize themselves in those pictures, where characters had almost nothing to do with real life. As Molyar suggests: “Even though they indeed were tractor drivers, carpenters, fishermen, pioneers, peasants, were they really happy and lived in harmony? It’s hard to judge now, but keep in mind that peasants, for instance, didn’t have internal passports.” 

My grandmother Lusia, who lived in a village in 1951, worked from 6am to midnight at a collective farm, just like her step-parents did. Nevertheless, they were extremely poor and couldn’t afford new clothes, shoes or even a cinema ticket. Lusia had to abandon school to help her family at the farm. She dreamt of moving to the city where, as she had heard, people worked only nine hours per day and “wore white socks”. There was only one way to fulfil this dream. Once in a while, a special recruiter came to the village and those willing could sign up for a job (e.g. a builder at the construction site) in the city. “I really wished to move to the city, but I didn’t know then that there I would have to hammer concrete, carry huge stones and dig three-metre trenches to prepare the foundations for a factory,” my grandmother told me. 

‘Sad’ Mother Ukraine

Artistic output in the USSR was controlled by the Artists’ Union, a state-mandated institution that controlled all aspects of artistic life and acted as a principal buyer of visual art. Although membership of the Union was in practice voluntary, in reality it was almost the only way for artists to make a living. The Union provided favourable conditions for its members, such as free use of artistic studios, provision of work materials (paints, brushes, smalto for mosaic panels, etc.), free trips to sea resorts throughout the country, and many other benefits. The main privilege was the opportunity to get governmental commissions. Some monumentalists even received a salary 10 times higher than the average worker in the USSR. In joining the Union, artists had to follow strict rules. Each draft and work had to be approved by state representatives. Those artists who questioned communist ideology or disagreed with the methods of the Party were expelled from the Artists’ Union, which effectively ended their careers.

Alla Horska was a Ukrainian monumentalist who worked in the 1960s and was expelled from the Union twice. She was first expelled in 1964 for the creation of a stained-glass window “Shevchenko: Mother” in the lobby of Kyiv University. The window was rejected as being ‘ideologically harmful’ because it showed a supposedly ‘sad’ Mother Ukraine, who appeared to be behind prison bars (these were, in fact, supports for the window). She was expelled for the second time in 1968 for signing the “Letter of Protest 139” together with other writers, artists and scientists, demanding a stop to the practice of illegal political trials.

“The worst thing after being expelled from the Union was that they stopped concluding contracts with artists or taking their works to exhibitions. Some were saved by teaching. Others went to the portrait workshop. Many were scared, had no money and sought solace in alcohol,” recalled Pavel Nikonov, a Soviet and Russian painter and graphic artist. Moreover, Molyar raises the question of whether we can call mosaic art realism at all when it mostly depicted a fictional and idealistic world. “An artist who wasn’t allowed to create what he wanted had to show in his works that happiness and prosperity were raging around him.”

The future of the mosaics

The Soviet mosaic panels transmitted an image of the communist world of the future, where there are no social classes, private property, or even money. Everything is owned by the community and each person contributes and receives according to their ability and needs. This is the future to which Soviet leaders and citizens aspired for almost 70 years. Yet even as the USSR reached its twilight years, the role of mosaics was already beginning to diminish. My mother, who grew up in the 1980s, told me: “When we were teenagers, we didn’t treat the Soviet mosaics as art, but rather as stamps from textbooks. They looked too aggressive and intrusive, staring at you from the sides of buildings, train station walls, even at summer camps. Most works lack the authors’ personalities. We never knew anything about who created them. I even used to think that it was the same person who made all the mosaics.”

Today, due to the decommunization law in Ukraine, Ukrainian Soviet mosaic art is in danger. It is threatened with complete destruction and removal from the walls of cities. As to what we should do with the works – preserve them on the walls or destroy them – historians agree that, at the very least, the most prominent panels should remain alongside information plaques describing the reality in which they were created. This is echoed by Yevgen Nikiforov, who adds: “For me personally, this visual component, this material one, tells much more about the time, mistakes and history than any photo ever can.” 

For more information about Ukrainian Soviet mosaic art, see Yevgen Nikiforov and Polina Baitsym’s English-language photobook “Art for Architecture Ukraine: Soviet Modernist Mosaics from 1960 to 1990” (2020), published by DOM publishers.

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Tetiana Shataieva

was born in Ukraine in 1993. She moved to Poland at the age of 21 to study journalism in Rzeszów. Ever since, Tetiana has been writing for several Polish and English magazines, including “F5 - Trendy rynku i kultury” and “The Krakow Post”. In 2018, she and a team of professionals created Spider’s Web Ukraina, the first blog for Ukrainian immigrants in Poland. Today, Tetiana is based in Warsaw, and continues to develop as a journalist and writer.