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Ukraine - Memories of Empire

When Ukraine became independent in 1991 it sealed the final collapse of the Soviet Union. Tim Smith's images, taken both sides of this pivotal moment, illustrate how Ukraine's history frames the current conflict.

At independence the uncovering of a previously forbidden history helped to forge a new nation. This past also shapes the present. Putin's yearning for an era when the USSR was a great power and his lack of reconciliation to the loss of its former republics is especially true of Ukraine, once the second-most powerful republic in the Soviet Union. His repeated assertions that Ukrainians and Russians are “One People” gives voice to a view that Ukraine attaining its statehood, and its western aspirations ever since, are a historic error.

However Ukrainians' vivid memories of life under Soviet rule continue to fuel the resistance of a population which remembers life in a totalitarian regime. They dread Russian occupation and there is growing evidence that the widespread loss of life and destruction of the physical landscape is accompanied by Putin's ambition to obliterate Ukrainian culture and identity too.

This was articulated by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in his recent address to the Israeli Knesset as 'all-out war, illegitimate, intended to destroy our people, our country, our cities, our culture and our children. Everything that makes Ukrainians Ukrainian'. Lviv museum director Olha Honchar puts this in its historical context: 'The USSR was one big totalitarian regime. They tried to make everything the same. They had one kind of monument, and one kind of artistic style with socialist realism. Moscow wants to eradicate Ukrainian culture. It's what defines us and our identity. It's a memory of who we are.'

Within living memory the occupation of Ukraine by Soviet Russia, alongside the Second World War, demanded a huge price in human lives. Millions of Ukrainians died as the results of a Soviet engineered famine during the 1930s, followed by the imposition of a Stalinist regime known the 'Great Terror'. Between 1930 and Stalin's death in 1953 it's estimated that famine, war, repression, mass execution and nationalist struggle caused the deaths of over fifteen million Ukrainians. Another half a million were deported to the camps of the Soviet gulag. Many disappeared simply for practicing their religion, for writing in the Ukrainian language or having been denounced for their 'anti-Soviet' views. Millions more were dispersed abroad.

Renewed and darkly familiar attempts to erase Ukraine's national identity have recently been described by the Soviet historian Anne Applebaum as replicating what Soviet forces conducted in occupied Poland, the Baltic states and other parts of central Europe before, during and after the Second World War. She says recent events echo an 'eerily precise repeat of the NKVD [Soviet secret police] and Red Army's behavior... They have lists of people to arrest – mayors, museum directors, local leaders of all kinds. They systematically rape and murder civilians, in order to create terror. They deport other people en masse to Russia, to enhance their own depleted population. They eradicate local symbols – statues, flags, monuments – and put up their own.' As Anatoliy Khromov, head of Ukraine's State Archives, wrote on Facebook on March 3rd 'It is undeniable that Russia is trying to take away not only our lives, but also our historical memory.'

Ukrainian independence in 1991 marked a fundamental divide between it and Russia. Tim Smith's photographs explore how Ukraine emerged from decades of Soviet inspired terror and totalitarian rule. In the run up to Ukrainian independence he witnessed political debate on the streets of Kiev and Lviv, when one of the main platforms for the nationalists was Ukraine's ambition to integrate with Europe. He photographed the dismantling of collective farms and of the statue of Lenin that towered over Kiev's most prestigious public space, the Square of the October Revolution, which was then renamed Independence Square. Despite official opposition and a chaotic transport system he traveled across the country photographing the emergence of Ukrainian nationalism, fuelled by the exposure of the crimes of the Soviet system and most graphically illustrated by the exhumation of mass graves of the victims of the state's secret police, the KGB and their predecessors the NKVD.

However in more rural areas many people could not imagine the end of the Soviet Union, and they remained frightened to speak of what they had seen and experienced. Some were terrified simply to be seen in conversation with a foreigner. Statues of Lenin remained standing in town squares and outside schools, where his image looked down from above each blackboard. Despite these fears Ukrainian language, culture, art, literature and religion, brutally suppressed by the Soviet authorities, flowered as they emerged from the underground. Millions of Ukrainians who were former deportees to the Soviet gulags felt able to speak publicly for the first time. Ukraine's forbidden history was being newly told.

In 1991 over 92% of Ukrainians voted for independence, despite having to contend with industrial and agricultural collapse, food shortages, rampant inflation, unemployment and crime. In 1997 Tim Smith returned to Ukraine to explore how the high expectations of 1991 had been translated into the reality of an independent nation. Just a few years after independence the country was then trying to make sense of itself as a new nation, as it continues to do some three decades later.

Prior to the invasion, everyday struggles continued for many, but memories of past suffering and empire also endure. Conscious of its own history and identity Ukraine will not surrender these, along with its independence, without first making huge sacrifices. As Zelenskiy recently promised in his speech to British MPs 'We will fight until the end'.
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