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Ukraine’s War of Art


On windy days in a sandy grove on the outskirts of Berlin, the pointed granite finger of Vladimir Lenin can sometimes be seen sticking out of the ground, pointing aimlessly toward the sky.

This finger once belonged to a 62-foot-tall statue, completed by Soviet sculptor Nikolai Tomsky in 1970, that towered over the city. Soon after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the street names, squares, statues, and monuments that celebrated history’s socialist heroes were renamed or removed. In 1992, this granite likeness of the father of the Russian Revolution was unceremoniously cut into 129 pieces and buried outside the city, replaced by an inconspicuous fountain. Its former home, Lenin Square, was sanitized of its namesake and renamed Square of the United Nations.

In the years after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the post-Soviet states followed Berlin’s lead by burying—literally and figuratively—or otherwise defacing symbols of their history, both top-down in support of new political ideals and bottom-up through grassroots initiatives.

This process is still underway in many places, including in Ukraine, where the country’s ongoing war with Russia has given new urgency to this project. One mural in particular has brought the connection between public art and collective identity into sharp focus.

In Mariupol, one of the most severely damaged cities in eastern Ukraine, the war has given rise to what could be described as a street art battle. In 2018, Ukrainian artist Sasha Korban painted a mural on the side of a 15-story building, a tribute to Milana Abdurashytova, a 3-year-old girl whose mother had been killed by a Russian missile attack while trying to protect her. Though the girl lost one of her legs in the incident, she defiantly held on to her teddy bear—a symbol of Ukraine’s resilience and fortitude in the face of lethal force.

Following Russia’s seizure and occupation of the city in 2022, however, Korban’s mural was chalked over. Though it’s unclear who covered it, it has been presumed by many to be part of Russia’s broader efforts to rewrite history in its favor.

In 2023, a new mural with a conspicuous likeness to Korban’s was unveiled on the wall of a bombed-out nine-story building elsewhere in the city. This work, created by the Naples-based Italian-Dutch street artist Ciro Cerullo, professionally known as Jorit, depicts a young girl, supposedly from the Donbas region. Her eyes reflect the colors of the flag of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, the unrecognized separatist state in eastern Ukraine that is now occupied by Russia. She is flanked by incoming bombs labeled “NATO”—even though the bombs that destroyed Mariupol were dropped by Russian forces.

The similarities of the two murals are striking: two innocent young girls on the side of monumental buildings, victims of senseless aggression by bloodthirsty perpetrators. But between Korban and Jorit, the message was inverted entirely. The identities of both the perpetrators and the victims were changed.

Jorit’s mural attracted a lot of attention, especially on social media. Some accused him of spreading Russian President Vladimir Putin’s lies; others defended his right to free speech. The mural became even more contentious after it was discovered that the image of the girl, who according to Jorit was a real person from the Donbas region named Nastya, was an almost exact copy of a photograph by Australian photographer Helen Whittle of her own daughter, published in a photography magazine and used without permission.

Although Jorit stressed in interviews that his mural was a private initiative motivated by his own political convictions, it dovetailed with the narratives being peddled elsewhere by Russian propagandists. It’s also not the first time that Jorit’s work has been appropriated for pro-Russian ends. In 2022, the artist painted a portrait of the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky on the firewall of a building in Naples in response to the cancellation of a Milan university’s course on the Russian writer following the occupation of Ukraine. Putin himself praised Jorit’s mural as a sign of hope amid so-called anti-Russian cancel culture.

The tale of Mariupol’s rival murals is part of a larger story of public art redefining history according to the powers that be. Murals, monuments, and street names, intended to reflect the supposedly timeless values and history of a community, can become obsolete overnight. As regimes change, it is not uncommon for leaders—or in some cases, citizens—to cleanse their public spaces of artistic vestiges of their political pasts, often creating space for new collective symbols to take their place.



This is a four panel image of the same military monument, painted differently over the course of time. The monument shows a group of soldiers moving towards the left. A central figure wields a gun and directing the group to march into battle with his outstretched left hand. Each surrounding figure wields a different weapon. The top left version shows every soldier in the monument covered in bright pink paint. The top right shows all the soldiers painted in different costumes of fictional superheroes. The bottom left shows the central figure painted to show the blue-and-yellow design of the Ukrainian flag. The bottom right shows the monument from the other side, showing the side profiles of the soldiers previously unseen behind the central figure. The monument is free of color on that side besides each soldier having their hands painted red.
This is a four panel image of the same military monument, painted differently over the course of time. The monument shows a group of soldiers moving towards the left. A central figure wields a gun and directing the group to march into battle with his outstretched left hand. Each surrounding figure wields a different weapon. The top left version shows every soldier in the monument covered in bright pink paint. The top right shows all the soldiers painted in different costumes of fictional superheroes. The bottom left shows the central figure painted to show the blue-and-yellow design of the Ukrainian flag. The bottom right shows the monument from the other side, showing the side profiles of the soldiers previously unseen behind the central figure. The monument is free of color on that side besides each soldier having their hands painted red.

The paint-covered base of the Soviet Army monument in Sofia, Bulgaria, over the years. The pink at top left was to protest the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 2013, and the top right a send-up to comic book heroes and pop culture figures such as Santa Claus and Ronald McDonald in 2011. The two images at bottom are in protest of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. AFP via Getty Images

In many of the post-Soviet states, the fall of communist rule not only resulted in the removal of politically obsolete monuments, but also their replacement by new ones that were often just as controversial as their predecessors. Instead of monuments to Karl Marx and Lenin, many Eastern European and former Soviet countries embraced the historical—sometimes even the mythological—and crafted them into new symbols of national identity.

In 1983, British historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger introduced the term “invention of tradition” to describe symbols and rituals from the 19th and 20th centuries that were presented as venerable traditions, supposedly centuries-old, but were in fact brand new. The term can be applied more broadly to attempts to erase historical contingencies, discontinuities, and ruptures from collective memory, replacing them with invented stories of unbroken national continuity and identity.

When their predominant political and cultural narrative collapsed in 1991, newly independent Soviet states began reaching back to ancient, medieval, or even mythical times to find new tokens of transnational existence and identity.

Uzbekistan, for example, started embracing Timur Lenk (also known as Tamerlane), the famous 14th-century conqueror and founder of the Timurid Empire, as its national hero. Former President Islam Karimov, who led Uzbekistan from the years leading up to its independence in 1991 until his death in 2016, publicly praised Timur’s powerful empire and dedicated a national museum in his honor. A monumental sculpture of Timur on horseback was erected in a square overlooking the capital city of Tashkent in the very spot where a bronze head of Marx once stood.

Timur, however, is an ambivalent ancestor at best. Being of mixed Turko-Mongol descent, he is not actually related to the historic Uzbeks, a nomadic people that only entered the territory of present-day Uzbekistan in the 16th century—two centuries after Timur’s time. But the accuracy of Timur’s story was less relevant to the state than its usefulness in forging national unity.

In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, leaders selected a mythological hero as their new national symbol. A sculpture of Manas the Noble (or Manas the Magnanimous), also on horseback, was inaugurated in 2011 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the country’s independence. Manas and his descendants are the protagonists of an epic poem supposedly set around the ninth century—a work of impressive size, considerably longer than the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. According to the story, Manas, possessing supernatural powers, successfully united the 40 tribes of Kyrgyzstan against their common enemies.

In the poem’s earlier versions, however, Manas is not even of Kyrgyz descent, and only in the 1925 version, published in Soviet Kyrgyzstan, did he appear as an Islamic Kyrgyz leader. During Soviet times, the epic was sometimes praised as local folklore and at other times rejected as a nationalist, feudal, and bourgeois aberration. Following Kyrgyzstan’s independence in 1991, however, the text was reinterpreted once more, this time as a symbol of the Kyrgyz people’s love of freedom.

Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Niyazov, who ruled from 1985 until his death in 2006, offered a remarkable alternative to this model. Instead of calling upon history or mythology, he made himself into a semi-religious, omnipresent symbol of the nation. His personality cult consciously emulated earlier examples from Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey. Niyazov’s likeness became ubiquitous in sculptures, monuments, posters, paper money, coins, watches, and even vodka bottles. A city, an airport, a comet, and the month of January were all named in his honor.

In 2001, the deification of the president reached new heights with the publication of the Ruhnama, a mixture of invented history, Niyazov’s personal memories, moral directives, and political ideology. The Ruhnama replaced the Quran as the nation’s holy book. For years afterward, it became the cornerstone of national history teaching, and once per year, civil servants had to take a test proving their intimate knowledge of the book.

Though the state certainly has the most resources available for reinterpreting history in the public space, it does not have a monopoly over doing so. There is a long tradition of grassroots initiatives to destroy, subvert, appropriate, or critically reinterpret symbols of collective identity in public spaces.

In post-socialist Bulgaria, the Monument to the Soviet Army in the capital Sofia (now in the process of being dismantled and relocated to the city’s Museum of Socialist Art) has been repeatedly vandalized by an anonymous street artist who became known as the “Bulgarian Banksy.” The monument’s Soviet soldiers and officers have been redecorated to resemble American superheroes, the Russian feminist anti-Putin punk rock group Pussy Riot, and the colors of the Ukrainian flag, among other iterations.

Among the former Soviet states, Ukraine’s reckoning with its communist past has proved more drastic than elsewhere. No country has eliminated—through state-sponsored removals or otherwise—more Lenin sculptures and monuments since 1991 than Ukraine. In similar fashion to its neighbors, in August 1991, Kyiv renamed its October Revolution Square to Independence Square; its Lenin sculpture was replaced with a monument to Berehynia, the mythological Slavic goddess of home and hearth.

Following the February 2014 Maidan Revolution that ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, in April 2015, the Ukrainian parliament outlawed all monuments, symbols, and street names referencing Soviet times except for monuments commemorating the Second World War.

Since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, this process has only intensified, making the country into one of the most conspicuous battlefields of the politics of history.



From ground level, a close-up of a fallen bronze statue dominates the frame. There are bystanders and a man crouching to take photos of the snowy scene. The monument lying on its back and covered in snow. The figure's outstretched right arm seems to reach toward camera with an open palm.
From ground level, a close-up of a fallen bronze statue dominates the frame. There are bystanders and a man crouching to take photos of the snowy scene. The monument lying on its back and covered in snow. The figure’s outstretched right arm seems to reach toward camera with an open palm.

A bronze monument to Soviet military commander Mykola Shchors lies toppled on the ground after being removed from its pedestal in the center of Kyiv on Dec. 9, 2023. This monument was one of the last large Soviet-era monuments remaining in Kyiv. Oleksandr Khomenko/NurPhoto

The story of the two murals in Mariupol shows that the rewriting of history can be pursued from different perspectives at the same time—top-down and bottom-up. For all their controversy, Korban’s and Jorit’s murals seem to be both: spontaneous expressions by street artists that also happened to be in tune with the respective ruling powers of their day.

In one sense, Jorit can be seen in the tradition of Western European artists and intellectuals whose legitimate criticism of the wrongs of modern capitalism inspired them to publicly support the enemies of their enemies. In November 1949, the artist Pablo Picasso famously drew a hand holding a glass of wine with the celebratory text “Staline, à ta santé” (“To your health, Stalin”), and upon the Soviet leader’s death on March 5, 1953, he drew a portrait in honor of the deceased dictator that was reproduced on the front page of French communist magazine Les Lettres Françaises. More recently, the Austrian writer Peter Handke, in his support of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, added a new chapter in the story of Western artists, writers, and intellectuals who, in their criticism of the defects of Western democracies, aligned themselves with authoritarian rulers.

Political power has long relied on cultural symbols to legitimize the present through a specific interpretation of the past, especially in times of conflict or transformation. Ukraine and the other former Soviet states are no exception. In this context, the image of a young, innocent girl has become a symbol of both a war against Russian imperialism and a war against Ukrainian and U.S. fascism—depending on the viewpoint of the artists and their public. Both are attempts to forge consensus over the state of Ukraine’s brutal present and its uncertain future, but only time will tell whose story prevails.

After all, to adapt a famous quote by Carl von Clausewitz: art is the continuation of war by other means.



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