The Colorful Soviet Mosaics Decorating Ukraine’s Streets
Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union more than 25 years ago, but vestiges of communism remain. On streets across the country, the faces of industrious peasants, inventive engineers, and pioneering astronauts still beam from propaganda mosaics adorning everything from apartment blocks to movie theaters.
Yevgen Nikiforov documents more than 1,000 mosaics and other monumental public artworks in Decommunized: Ukrainian Soviet Mosaics. The photographs are a kaleidoscope of color, depicting an idealized, futuristic vision of Soviet life that mesmerizes Nikiforov—no matter how short it falls from reality. “What amazes me the most is how complicated these works are and how much time and skill was invested in them,” Nikiforov says.
Soviet Ukraine’s history isn’t pretty. The country has seen mass killings, forced collectivization, and a Joseph Stalin-orchestrated famine that claimed at least 4 million lives. Artists had trouble earning a living unless they joined the Union of Artists, a state-mandated organization established in 1957 that controlled all aspects of artistic life—planning exhibitions, commissioning artworks, even distributing paintbrushes. It pushed work promoting communist ideology, depicting Soviet citizens as physically fit workers who raised families, forged steel, and even mastered atoms. Artists who complied were handsomely rewarded, earning as much as 1,000 Soviet rubles for a bus stop mosaic made of tiny pieces of ceramic and glass or 6,000 for a large panel—a fortune when many Ukrainians made less than 100 rubles a month.
Some might dismiss these works as propaganda, but Nikiforov thinks they’re artistically valuable. He points to mosaicists like Valeriy Lamakh and Alexander Dubovik, who incorporated subversive, abstract elements from their private painting into public projects. “The strongest monumentalist artists did not merely illustrate what the party told them in these mosaics,” Nikiforov says. “To me, they communicate basic ideas that outgrow the propaganda, and that’s why they are still interesting.”
Nikiforov became interested in them in late 2013, when the publisher Osnovy commissioned him to shoot the chapter on monumental artworks for the book The Art of the Ukrainian Sixties. He realized how poorly documented even the most iconic mosaics were and began systematically photographing them—a project that grew in urgency following a 2015 decommunization law that prohibited Soviet symbols in public space and sanctioned their removal. “It wasn’t just ordinary architectural decorations or monuments to past politicians that were put on the blacklist, but also many interesting art pieces were in danger,” Nikiforov says.
He spent three years traveling some 22,000 miles through Ukraine by car, train, and bus to document as many mosaics as he could. Most were created after Stalin’s death in 1953 and before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and had fallen into disrepair and neglect. Nikiforov found them by poring through old Soviet art magazines, searching user-generated online photo albums, and talking to elderly artists. He photographed them with a DSLR in the colder months, when barren branches permitted unobstructed views of the art.
The photographs don’t simply document Ukraine’s Soviet-era mosaics but also raise deeper questions about how to deal with the controversial artistic heritage of the past: When does propaganda become art? If it is art, is it worth protecting? And is public space really the best place to display it? It seems some Ukrainians think the answer is no; by Nikiforov’s count, nearly 50 mosaics and other artworks—some featuring hammers and sickles and red stars—have been removed or destroyed since he photographed them.
But hundreds more artworks remain—public reminders of a troubling era that ended more than a quarter century ago.
Decommunized: Ukrainian Soviet Mosaics is out from DOM Publishers.
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