October 15, 2017

Photo Essay: The Metal Mother Who Overlooks A War-Torn Land

The first time I remember feeling overwhelmed by the story and history of Ukraine wasn't actually in the Exclusion Zone, but while I was still in Kiev.

We were all hung over from our welcome dinner the night before and jet-lagged from our flights of varying lengths—and yet all but one of us trudged on throughout the day, trying to learn many centuries' worth of background info to explain how the country had gotten to be where it is today.

We were ending our day by visiting a museum devoted to "The Great Patriotic War"—or, the Eastern Front of what we know as World War II—which more or less started when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union.

The Soviets erected the "Motherland Monument" (Батьківщина-Мати) to commemorate their victory, and—unlike the monuments to Lenin that have (mostly) been toppled—it still stands as a kind of "Statue of Liberty" for Kiev, despite Ukraine's independence from Russia.

The museum itself is a pretty distinct reminder of the Soviet influence over Ukraine, with its Brutalist entryway...

...and many memorials to the fallen soldiers of the Great Patriotic War.

For nationalist Ukrainians, it stings more than just a little to see such an expensive (and some might say frivolous) statue stand there—bearing the emblem of the USSR (a.k.a. CCCP)—when the money (an estimated 10 to 12 million rubles) could be used for so many other, life-saving purposes.

Not to mention the fact that the so-called "Motherland" is another way of saying "Mother Russia"—making this statue the sister of the "Mother Motherland" monument in St. Petersburg and "The Motherland Calls" in Volgograd.

But, despite the anti-Russian sentiment that prevails in Ukraine today and the abolishment of Communist imagery and propaganda...

...the fact is that the Soviets did defeat the Nazis, and no Ukrainian can deny that that is a very good thing.

Perhaps that's an admission that comes begrudgingly...

...but nevertheless, World War II monuments and memorials are exempt from the outlawing of all Communist symbolism and nomenclature.

Made of stainless steel and erected in 1981, the Rodina Mat (a.k.a. "Nation's Mother") is known better to locals as "Brezhnev's Daughter"—a reference to the longtime and oft-scandalized Soviet leader, General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev.

She stands on a tapered pedestal that measures about 12 stories high, and she's an integral part of the museum.

While you could spend hours outside the building examining all of the decommissioned and still-active military vehicles on display...

...or inside the building perusing its murals and collections of relics, ephemera, and photographs... can also take a tiny elevator that holds just four passengers at a time up to the base of the first lady of Kiev.

Weighing 500 tons, the metal sculpture itself stands nearly 19 stories high and required a special welding technique (developed by Kiev's own E.O. Paton Electric Welding Institute Інститут електрозварювання ім.Є.О.Патона), an extant relic of Soviet engineering in Ukraine. She took nearly three years to build and assemble.

Regardless of who built it or why, the monument does provide a fantastic birds-eye view of the city of Kiev and the Dnieper River below.

And, for that, it serves a kind of nationalist purpose—at least for tourists.

So, for now, the Kievites are stuck with the behemoth—at least for the 150 years it's estimated to be structurally sound.

But none of that is what I found overwhelming about my visit to Kiev's largest museum and most recognizable monument.

No, it was the acknowledgement that Ukraine is currently at war with Russia in its easternmost region, where some Ukrainians are pro-Russian (especially in border towns) and where Putin is attempting to reclaim the former Soviet territory.

The New York Times calls the Eastern Ukraine conflict "The War No One Notices," despite the fact that it's been ongoing since 2014. And that seems to be true not only stateside, but also in western and northern Ukraine, where there's nary a mention of it—except at the Museum of the Great Patriotic War.

But how do you memorialize a war that's still happening or patriots who are still being killed (both military and civilian)?

I tried to remember if I've ever been in any other country that was, at the time, currently at war on its own land. England, Ireland, Scotland? No. Bulgaria? No.

Morocco? It was bombed after my 2008 visit, but still, no. Tunisia? No, although its revolution did occur less than a year after my 2010 visit.

Mexico, Turks and Caicos, Cuba? Nope, nope, and nope.

I suppose the closest I've gotten is living in NYC when 9/11 happened, a trauma that only gets worse as time goes on.

Otherwise, war has always been something that feels abstract or theoretical, rhetorical or historical—not really tangible, relatable, or local.

And yet so much war is still happening all over the world. The terms "genocide" and "holocaust" aren't isolated to the events of the dissolved Ottoman Empire or Nazi Germany (or even the white Europeans who began arriving to the "New World" in the 15th century and spent hundreds of years eradicating nearly all of the indigenous people).

Entire nationalities, ethnicities, races, and faiths are being wiped out while we sit back and do nothing.

Is it the natural order of the world? The evolutionary instinct of man to kill each other?

Are we nothing more than tigers or lions? Or some other savage beast that eats its young for no reason other than the fact that it feels like it?

Have we learned nothing from the past?

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: A Post-Soviet Playground Grows in Kiev
Photo Essay: A Giant Christ Towers Over Tijuana
Photo Essay: La Mona of the Tijuana Centennial

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