Documenting the ways in which monuments in Ukraine are protected against the damages of war, Konrad Dobrucki’s photographic series Layers/Warstwy interrogates the material aspects of cultural heritage and its preservation. The series demonstrates impressively how identification¹ is constantly renegotiated and illustrates the interlacing of hope and destruction.
The photographs, taken in Spring and Summer 2022, bear witness to a war built around the denial of an autonomous and self-determined Ukrainian nation. They are witness to the threat of annihilation of everything ‘Ukrainian’. In such a context, the preservation and protection of cultural heritage takes on a central role. For years, debates have been on-going in Ukraine about how to handle the markers of historical memory in the public sphere – a memory that is shaped by the dynamics of both cultural and political hegemony. For example, when the statue of Lenin on Majdan Nezalezhnosti was removed in the 90s after student-led protests, this was quickly followed by a larger-scale effort to remove such monuments as part of a politics of ‘decommunisation’.
In other cases, the legitimacy of contested monuments, such as the statue of Russian Tsarina Catherine II in Odesa, was questioned through artistic interventions.² Clearly, monuments are more than the symbols of foreign occupation or memorials to events of the past: rather, they become associated with new values and layers of signification which imbue them with the spirit of contemporaneity. Monuments serve as sites where the relevancy of historical heritage is debated, negotiated and renegotiated. Russia’s war of aggression is no exception: while some monuments disappear and are lost to the ravages of war, others are carefully covered in an effort to preserve them. In some cases, these efforts seem to be attempts to strip monuments of their public visibility.
The following essay describes and discusses a selection of Konrad Dobrucki’s photographs.
Monument of Taras Shevchenko
Taras Shevchenko’s forehead was penetrated by a bullet and yet there is no blood. The makeshift bandages fall pitifully across his shoulder and fade into his exposed bowels. Bent over, the poet appears to be straining to keep his posture; as a matter of fact, he seems to be forced to bow by something outside of the frame. What is legible from his facial expression? Is it reluctance, fury, pain, humiliation, grief? He can’t be declared dead. But there is a profound sense of solitude on this square located in a small town in the northeast of Kyïv. Where is everyone? Where is the person who inflicted the wound on Taras Shevchenko? Where are the hands that worked desperately to stop the poet’s bleeding? Is this the calm after the storm?
Taras Shevchenko represents to Ukraine what Shakespeare does to England. The poet and painter is considered a ‘founding father’ of the Ukrainian nation and its language and famed for his activism against the oppression at the hands of the Russian tsar. Writing against the social apathy that resulted from tsarist subjection and drawing attention to the historical past of Ukraine, Shevchenko used his work to instil a spirit of rebellion on his readership. The Taras Shevchenko of flesh and blood may have been dead for more than 160 years, but his likeness of steal, thought and letters lives on in schools, living rooms and hearts to this day. His contribution to a Ukrainian national literature is now more relevant than ever. The bullet did not merely penetrate a statue’s head, but the Ukrainian soul.
Monument of Yaroslav the Wise Kyïv, Ukraine
Usually, Yaroslav the Wise, Grand Prince of Kyïv from 1019 to 1054, would be seen holding a small model of the cathedral of Saint Sophie. Now, there is a castle made of apples. Stately and towering, it seems impenetrable. The photograph reminds us of a stage set, perhaps of a school play or a playground. But here there are no plastic arrows falling from the sky or hobbyhorses entering stage right and there is no dress rehearsal. In truth, this is the stage of a drama that is bitterly serious and horribly real.
Kyïv’s Golden Gate, visible in the background and originally commissioned by Yaroslav the Wise, marks the palce’s historicity and testifies to the long and complex history of Ukraine. Early traces can be dated back to the 9th century and the Kyïvan Rus’ ‑ a loose and multiethnic federation extending across parts of several of today’s Eastern European states. Several centuries of dissolution and separation, of reintegration and reattachment, of suffering and triumph followed. It was only in 1991 that today’s Ukraine was born as a successor to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. It took more than a millennium before today’s Ukrainian state was able to proclaim its independence and sovereignty.
Yaroslav’s covering is one of many examples that show how a monument can be instilled with new meanings. The wooden construction is decidedly more expressive than the statue itself and merges past and present in almost bizarre fashion: the historical gate is confronted with wooden boards decorated with painted apples. Of course, it could be claimed that there is a reliance on whatever materials are at hand at short notice; this contrasts, however, with the careful manner in which the apples are arranged. To some, the thought that even in times of brutality and destitution there is an insistence on creativity and playfulness may contain at least a grain of hope and joy.
Bohdan Khmel’nyts’kyi Monument
The former Hetman Bohdan Khmel’nyts’kyi is waiting in a dark cage, shielded from view. Khmel’nyts’kyi is one of the foundational and most iconic figures in the history of Ukraine: he is famed for leading the 1648 revolt against the Polish-Lithuanian oppression as well as his role in the Treaty of Pereiaslav of 1654 as a result of which the the Cossacks under the leadership of Khmel'nyts'kyi were brought under the rule of the Moscow tsardom, securing their autonomy. Many myths surround the Cossacks in Ukraine. They are associated with values such as freedom, solidarity and equality. Such myths were essential for the establishment of a collective Ukrainian identification in the 1990s after the country’s independence. Cossacks were an integral piece of the emergent national ideology and offered concrete historical models for state and society alike. While these myths are becoming increasingly vague today, they continue to be symbolically powerful.
At a height of almost 11 meters, the bronze monument has become one of Kyïv’s most recognizable landmarks since its erection in 1988. But the project was subject to several alterations and changes due to financing issues and controversy relating to the chauvinism of earlier proposed designs which delayed its inauguration. Ultimately, the Hetman – co-financed with the help of Russian Navy – was brought to live again in a crucible in St. Petersburg. Today, little remains of Bohdan Khmel’nyts’kyi’s radiance. Carefully wrapped in a kind of scaffold, it feels as if the work is currently under reconstruction. Is there an element of reinterpretation of Ukraine’s past involved in this? Which role will the monument play in the future, given that the Hetman once voluntarily agreed to be subjected to the rule of the tsar? All over Ukraine, there are debates about the issue of the country’s own historical and cultural heritage. It will take years before answers are found with any semblance of finality – if they are ever found at all.
Memorial Arch of Friendship between Nations
Majestically, an arch sits on a hill in Khreshchatyi Park, Kyïv. It is part of a Soviet memorial compound from 1982 meant to symbolise the friendship and solidarity between the ‘brother nations’ of Russia and Ukraine. To be sure, from Russia’s perspective, Ukraine was always cast in the role of the younger sibling. Centrally below the arch, there is a bronze sculpture representing the ‘brother nations’ emphasising this propagandist narrative: it shows a Russian and a Ukrainian worker, holding the Soviet Order of Friendship. The third element, a granite stele depicting the Pereiaslav council of 1654, serves as a memorial to the agreement between Bohdan Khmel’nyts’kyi and the tsar. The continued presence of this highly symbolic compound became controversial soon after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the start of the conflict in Donbas. There were multiple artistic interventions, such as a crack that was painted on the arch by activists in 2018 to draw attention to the fact that Ukrainian nationals were held as political prisoners in Russia.³ It’s unsurprising, therefore, that the monument of the two workers was dismantled on official decree shortly after the Russian Invasion began in 2022. In May 2022, the arch was officially renamed as Arch of Freedom of the Ukrainian People.⁴
The Pereiaslav monument, in turn, is now covered by a crate of wood. Originally a memorial site, the compound is now visually neutralized, the arch now the only remaining visible component. Precisely because of the fact the Pereiaslav monument is so highly symbolic, the question arises why it was concealed. Is it about its removal from Kyïv’s cityscape? Will it be dismantled as well? Is it rather about protection? Was the sculpture depicting one of the central figures of national mythology deemed to be of high cultural importance and thus covered for preservation? In any case, the different treatments the individual parts of the monument have received exemplify the manifold ways in which the Soviet cultural heritage is engaged with in today’s Ukraine. Some relicts of the past are unceremoniously removed from public spaces, while others are reinterpreted and embedded in new narratives. They remain monuments, but their story has changed. Without the figures of the workers, the arch assumes a higher degree of universality which allows it to figure as a canvas for new layers of meaning.
Monument of Peter Sahaidachnyi
A wild-eyed, bearded man wearing a hat raises his right arm skywards. It looks as if Peter Sahaidachnyi doesn’t like being covered in sandbags, as if indeed he had uncovered himself from their protective layers in order to lead one final charge. Sand is bleeding from his many wounds, but neither he nor his steed are deterred.
Like Yaroslav the Wise, Peter Sahaidachnyi has become even more impressive now that he is covered in protective bags. But the ladder, still leaning against the monument, constitutes a puzzle: was the effort to protect the Hetman of the Zaporizhian Cossacks cut short by time pressure? Was there disagreement about whether or not Sahaidachnyi deserved preservation? Is he still waiting to drown in a sea of sandbags, or will he wriggle free to enter the battlefield once more? Is there even a hint of hope in the partial covering, a suggestion that the protective layers may soon be removed again because imminent danger has dissipated?
In truth, of course, Peter Sahaidachnyi is going nowhere mounted on his wild animal. Bolted to a slab of stone, he was erected to be looked at, destined to remain in place. Is this why he was not fully concealed? Is he still visible because his visibility lends courage, strength and pride to the people? To remind them of their spirit? Does the vulnerability implied in the protective sandbags actually point towards its very opposite?
Monument of Hryhorii Skovoroda
There’s an expression of abandonment on Hryhorii Skovoroda’s face of bronze, as if peeking out from behind prison bars. The 18th century thinker of Cossack origin continues to exert considerable influence on the modern philosophy of Ukraine and Russia. To this day, there is some dispute about who has a more rightful claim to the wandering philosopher. The person who attached the Ukrainian flag to the scaffold seems to have a clear opinion about the matter.
The scaffold, made of metal bars and wooden boards, looks provisional and temporary; it does not fully conceal Skovoroda. Konrad Dobrucki expressed his fascination with the ‘imperfections’ in these images: “There is this form that is layered on top of the sculpture, it does not really fit, it does not look like it is protecting in case something happens, there is this feeling of helplessness.”
Figure of Samson fighting the Lion
Dobrucki’s words still reverberate when looking at the following photograph. Even if at first sight it depicts only a rampart of sandbags underneath a massive dome, there is visible, upon closer inspection, the unprotected head of a figure. The image’s title identifies this figure as Samson. Buried under heavy bags, this unpretentious hero emanates a fragility that contrasts with the monumentality of the image. He appears to be confined in a mountain of sandbags – a mountain intended to protect which, simultaneously, threatens to become Jesus’ doom should it collapse.
Time pressure is evident in the hastily erected construction. And yet: the partial exposure does not merely suggest carelessness but also intention. Passers-by are reminded of the biblical hero who defeated an entire army of Philistines using only a donkey’s jawbone and who, as depicted in the sculpture, slew a lion with his bare hands.
Sculpture of Amor and Psyche
A wooden crate is secured by sandbags in a park in the harbour city of Odesa. It resembles a lonely tombstone, decorated with white flowers. Hidden in the crate, however, is not death, but Amor and Psyche. If the lovers were not confined in darkness, you could see how they are standing in an intimate embrace on a pedestal embellished with goat heads. With his right hand, Amor gently caresses his beloved’s left cheek; Psyche embraces, with her left arm, the god’s upper body.
The small sculpture does not seem to have much to do with Ukraine’s self-image: it does not depict brave warriors or visionary proponents of the Ukrainian language. Is it possible that the statue has been covered to protect its beauty from imminent destruction? There is an interesting detail in the story of Amor and Psyche: having overcome several difficult tasks put before her, Psyche is ultimately admitted to the realm of the immortals, for ever to be united with Amor. Is concealment here an expression not of processes of identification and disidentification, but rather of the drive to protect eternally some beauty, something opposed to the brutality of war? Is it an expression of the endless wait for returning loved ones, of the undying hope to embrace them once again? Or is it metaphorical: Ukraine and Psyche, duties yet to be performed, difficulties yet to be overcome before immortality is granted?
Monument of Vladimir the Great
Vladimir the Great is perched proudly over Kyïv. The statue has been keeping watch over the capital for 170 years, a symbol of strength and sublimity. Its back is turned to the camera with which it shares the view over Kyïv. The whole magnitude of the monument is hard to parse from this perspective.
The scaffolding that surrounds the base is not beyond reproach: surely, it could hardly muster an effective defence should the monument be threatened with destruction. However, the effort to protect the statue erected in 1853 appears to have been accompanied by aesthetic concerns. The outlines of the concealed figure printed on its covering along with text on the cover evoke an art exhibition in public space.
This is an example of a protective system commissioned by Kyïv’s city council in 2022 and designed by a team of architects. The project is carefully documented online on a webpage that also offers guidance to local residents on how to build their own safeguards. And there is an aesthetic element to the construction: imitators are advised to paint the facades in grey to align them with the cityscape. The monument’s outlines and key dates as well as a QR code linking to its wikipedia page are testament of the documentary nature of this system. The monument, in spite of its concealment, remains visible and present in the city.⁵
Vladimir the Great occupies a central role in Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian historiography: it was he who, during his rule from 978 to 1015, ushered in the process of Christianisation of the Kyïvan Rus’. At a time when Ukrainian cultural identification threatens to be submerged by Russia, there is a heightened sense of the importance of such a figure. Perhaps the statue, as it sits in patience, waiting to be uncovered again, serves as a symbol of hope to the residents of Kyïv.
Monument of Taras Shevchenko
Seen from the back, the statue of Taras Shevchenko in Borodyanka offers a different vision from the one described in the opening image above. Konrad Dobrucki describes it as a ‘visual negative’: the background shocks with the violent reality of war. The decrepit bust is surrounded by residential buildings marked by destruction and unliveable ruins. Dark windows in cauterized facades are terrible evidence that devastation goes far beyond monuments, statues and sculptures. Borodyanka, the small town where this photo was taken, was subject to air strikes and sustained shelling in the Spring of 2022, leaving large parts of the town destroyed; international media coverage chronicled the civilian massacres committed here, bringing ghastly fame to the town. Most other photographs of this series are testament to the efforts to protect monuments from shelling some distance away from the frontlines. Here, the camera captures immediate battleground where no time had been available to safeguard cultural heritage. The photograph presents a cityscape ravaged by violence, a reality that has been shaping the lives of people in Ukraine for more than 18 months.
The cultural sites documented in Konrad Dobrucki’s photographs testify to the wait for peace at the same time that they capture the horrors of war. The pictures oscillate between hope and powerlessness, between insurgency and devastation, between anonymity and identification, between abstraction and political urgency. Covered monuments, reminders of the immediate and daily threat of war, are contrasted with a memorial site that testifies to past, present and future acts of violence. Asked why the monument as a form is the focus of this photo series, Konrad Dobrucki reflects: “It is unmovable. It has to stay…many people can relate to that.” Perhaps that is the reason why these photographs are so moving even though they do not show any people: like people in Ukraine, these motionless figures are stuck in a brutal war whose end is not yet visible on the horizon, forced to wait for a future whose arrival and nature are uncertain.
Photographs: Konrad Dobrucki
Text: Gunilla Wallertz and Petra Zürcher, translated into English by Michael Boog
Konrad Dobrucki (he/him) was born in 1991 in Poland. He completed MA studies in philosophy at the University of Warsaw and is currently studying Photography at the University of Arts in Poznań. He is also a graduate of Sputnik Photos Mentoring Programme 2020/2021. In his artistic work, he focuses on documentary photography, using mainly analog techniques. With his photographs, he describes the state of the human condition through the prism of their surroundings, architecture, and habits.
Gunilla Wallertz (she/her) and Petra Zürcher (she/her) study Eastern European Studies at the Universities of Bern and Fribourg, for their Master’s and Bachelor’s degrees, respectively. They have studied the situation in Ukraine extensively both historically and in terms of current events.
¹ To avoid the sense of rigidity that surrounds the term ‚identity‘, the authors have instead opted to use ‚identification‘. As the example of Ukraine shows, identification is processual: belonging is continually renegotiated, and boundaries are fluid. The term ‚identification‘ does more justice to this than ‚identity‘.
² The monument of Catherine II in Odesa has a storied past. It was dismantled in December 2022 after repeated protests by the city’s residents. https://hrwf.eu/ukraine-the-monument-to-the-russian-empress-catherine-ii-in-odesa-dismantled/
⁵ Documentation and how-to on the website of Balbek: https://www.balbek.com/reukrainemonuments-eng