During my fourth trip to Kyiv since the total war, on March 23, 2024, thanks to my friend Konstantyn Sigov, I had the chance to visit the exhibition devoted to Alla Horska at the Ukrainian House, curated by Olena Grozovska, who was generous enough to comment on the works and photos presented here.

Alla Horska, Portrait of her mother. Exhibition at the Ukrainian House. Photo: Nicolas Tenzer, Kyiv, March 23, 2024

Her story, of resistance and darkness, resonates singularly today. I can’t summarize here her all-too-brief life, which was brutally ended by the KGB on Nov. 23, 1970, nor can I look at her diverse oeuvre, produced under increasingly constrained, uncertain and precarious conditions, and often doomed even in the present to obliteration and destruction.


One of her mosaics, in honor of the Azovstal workers, which was intended in reverence to the workers as much glorified as actually oppressed by Soviet rule, had already been covered over under the Soviet yoke because of its departure from accepted canons – the tree of life and liberation. Revealed after Ukraine rediscovered its independence, it was to be terribly mutilated when Moscow’s troops destroyed Mariupol. Continuity in crime and destruction is an integral part of Ukraine’s history; it does not escape the invasion of the present by the past. Awareness of the present is often mediated by an era that is never over, but always resurfaces like the lava of a destructive volcano that is never appeased.

Alla Horska, Fresco, Mariupol, picture presented in the exhibition. Photo: Nicolas Tenzer, March 23, 2024.


It is this need to reconstitute history, or more precisely, what I had called its thread, of which I intend to evoke a few elements here – and, to tell the truth, I didn’t know where to start. For this reweaving is at once choice, selection and truth; it is neither rewriting nor mythology; it is not a game, but a brutal exposition, in the light of present history, of the obvious. I thought that Alla Horska’s existence, both furtive and historically indispensable, could constitute this thread. It can only be so, however, through the desire to bring her life and work up to date, as evidenced by this moving and dramatic exhibition.

History and liberation

Alla Horska’s story is yet another entry into history: that of resistance and liberation, that of overcoming the conditions of her origins – a Russian speaker, she had decided to learn Ukrainian, the language used in her diary – and of relying on figures from the past, notably Taras Shevchenko, to make them emerge as our duty-bound contemporaries. To draw him behind bars, as she did in her stained glass windows, was already to signify that the Ukrainian nation was locked up. The Soviets did not allow the work created for Kyiv University to exist for long – it was not far, on the other side of the park to be exact, from St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, where today we pay tribute to those who have fallen since Maidan. All that remains here is a photographic testimony, as distant as the poor photos in some old books, but whose very distance is a sign of the will to erase it.


Alla Horska, Liudmyla Semykina, Halyna Sevruk, and Opanas Zalyvakha, Taras Shevchenko, 1964, gouache on board. Study for stained glass installation (destroyed in March 1964). Photo (from the exhibition): Nicolas Tenzer, March 23, 2024

I was reminded of this when a writer of Ukrainian origin asked me recently during a debate on my book Our War, why I asserted in it that Ukraine was first and foremost great because of the actions of its people in the present and not, any more than any other people, because of its past culture. For its part, it saw the power of its artists, most often unrecognized, either overshadowed by the so-called “great Russian culture,” or assimilated into a single Russianness.


But that was precisely not the point. In a way, it doesn’t matter whether Ukrainian artists are great or lesser: their re-institution in national history is a necessity in itself, but their quality has nothing to do with the heroism of Ukrainians’ current struggle. Recalling their historical existence is not a memorial duty inscribed in the past, but a requirement of the present: the fight against oppression. And, as we shall see later, their struggle has nothing to do with the glorious or dark pages of the past taken as a whole. These do not invalidate their combat, which is always singular and unique, and part of history, but History with a capital H does not assimilate them. They are singular, not part of a predefined continuity. We could say that the need to recall them today is not a necessity of history itself, as if it were determinism.

It’s also dangerous and risky to invoke “high culture” as an element of legitimization. There was certainly a German literary, musical and philosophical culture of undeniable quality, but it is hard to see how this could legitimize either Wilhelmian imperialism or the Nazi genocide. Past culture neither dictates nor justifies the present. Every nation can be both proud of the great works of its past and ashamed of its misdeeds.

Moreover, these cultural elements include not only works of art in the strict sense of the term, but also historical events that have been, so to speak, patrimonialized. In these works and events of the past, politicians and ordinary citizens choose, eliminate, prune, sublimate, disavow, condemn, glorify or excuse. No nation can take complete pride in its past: no nation is perfect or without blemish. Nor can it draw from it a justification for the present. We are still free legatees.


These realities are undoubtedly all the more essential, if not vital, for Ukraine, given that the very structure of its narrative does not match that of Moscow’s. Putin’s history bears no relation to history as it actually happened. We know that it eliminates Stalinist terror, active complicity in crime with Nazi Germany and the subsequent crimes of Communism.

Russian history is also a predatory history. It aims to annex the history of the other peoples of the former USSR, not only to make it its own, but also to distort it in its own way. What constitutes the possible dignity, but also the scope, of history written in the present lies in the selection it makes between worthy facts and abject episodes, not in the unconditional glorification of the whole of the past.

What Alla Horska’s terrible story tells, the persecution she and her companions experienced and the murder she suffered, is the heroism that was theirs and which allows them to enter the dramatic pantheon of those who fell for defending freedom or succumbed because they cherished it, from the victims of the Holodomor, of the Stalinist repression that did not cease after the tyrant’s death, to the dead of Maidan, then of more than ten years of war.


But it is also the ignominy of the murderers and torturers, those of the USSR in the past as well as those of Russia today, but also of the collaborators. Every history has its Righteous Among the Nations and its bastards – some of whom were French, Belgian, Norwegian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian. I don’t think there is the slightest exception to that rule in the history of any country in the world. There is no such thing as a smooth memory. The history of Ukraine, like that of all European countries, is at once that of the Holodomor and that of the Shoah by bullets. Memories cannot be set against each other, nor can one be favored over the other. The only real difference, which is political in nature and carries with it the future or the absence of a future, lies in the will to establish the truth or perpetuate the lie, always first and foremost to conceal the crimes of the present. Such is the exact nature of both Russian and Chinese revisionism.

It’s worth mentioning again the example of Tallinn’s Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom. If ever proof were needed of Estonia’s democratic exemplarity, this is it. This museum simultaneously bears witness to the heroism of the Resistance and the shame of those who collaborated with the forces of oppression. It features an interactive sequence where today’s citizens, especially younger ones who experienced neither Nazi nor Soviet occupation, are encouraged to ask questions – for there can be no certain answers – about what they would have done and why. The debate is also present elsewhere, notably in Lithuania, but it is probably less so, after a heavy debate on the opening of the Stasi archives and the high-profile film The Lives of Others, in the eastern part of Germany today.

Art and the discovery of crime

Alla Horska was also an explorer of Ukrainian history. In the end, this was the only way to make peace with Ukraine’s past and prevent its renewed nightmare from invading our present like a burning sun.

For the Holodomor, Babyn Yar, the graves of Bykivnia, all the atrocities of the NKVD and KGB and Russia’s present crimes in the Ukraine must be held together. It’s the crime that tells the story, because it cannot be separated from the resistance and heroism. In the case of Ukraine, more than for almost any other nation, crime is both the permanence and the thread.

Bykivnia forest, photo presented in the exhibition. Photo: Nicolas Tenzer, March 23, 2024

Alla Horska and her companions could not think of the reaffirmation of the nation without looking at it. And so, she drew those desperate hands emerging from the mass graves of Babyn Yar, where the Nazis and their surrogates had buried their victims, murdered by a single bullet, some still breathing. As Jonathan Littell recently wrote in his fascinating book An Inconvenient Place, during the Communist era, all traces of the Holocaust had been erased, because official Soviet history actually didn’t like anyone talking about it. But the supreme fault, according to the Soviet occupiers, of Alla Horska and her friends was to investigate and reveal the mass graves at Bykivnia.

Alla Horska’s diary, on Babyn Yar (from the exhibition). Photo: Nicolas Tenzer, March 23, 2024

In August 1962, Alla Horska, theater and movie director Les Tanyuk (1938-2016) and poet and journalist Vasyl Symonenko (1935-1964), as members of the Creative Youth Club’s commission to “investigate the crimes of the Stalinist period of anarchy,” visited the mass burial site of NKVD victims in Bykivnia Forest. They had learned of the existence of this frightening burial site. The official authorities had blamed the Germans for the massacres.

In fact, from 1937 to 1941, i.e., before the German occupation of Kyiv, tarpaulin-covered trucks drove here every night to transport to the forest the bodies of “enemies of the people” tortured in the capital’s prisons. They were dumped in pre-prepared pits, sprinkled with lime and covered with earth. The experts who examined the victims’ remains noted that most of the skulls had bullet holes in the back of the head. The remains of Polish soldiers murdered by the Soviets, whose names appear on the Katyn list, were later discovered.

What Alla Horska had seen at Bykivna had made a deep impression on her. She and her friends could not allow such crimes to be obscured or misrepresented. Among the bodies were the bones of children. They wrote an official statement to the Kyiv City Council asking for the graves to be investigated. There was no response. Instead, Symonenko was beaten by the political police at the Smila train station and died shortly afterwards, Tanyuk was attacked in Odessa and Horska was under constant surveillance.

Nevertheless, information about the Bykivnia mass graves spread unofficially in the circles of the Ukrainian intelligentsia and, at the end of the 1980s, became public. After the liberation of Ukraine, the initiative was taken to create a memorial complex in memory of the victims of the Communist regime. Between 30,000 and 50,000 people could be buried in the Bykivnia forest, maybe more. To date, the surnames of over 18,500 people have been established.

Alla Horska’s funerals (photo presented in the exhibition), December 7, 1970

It’s a short journey from Bykivnia to Izium, from the torture chambers of the NKVD to those of Putin’s Russia in Kherson and elsewhere. In 2021, another mass grave from the Stalinist era was also discovered in the Odessa region.

The crimes of Stalinism were certainly committed in all the republics of the USSR. However, in countries such as Georgia and Ukraine, and in all the non-Russian republics, they carry a specific meaning. Everywhere, in the former Soviet Union, they are crimes against humanity, but in the non-Russian republics, they are as well, literally, imperial and colonial crimes.

The history of Ukraine’s assertion of independence is also the history of the struggle against oppression. The affirmation of a Ukrainian culture of its own is not only a claim for and by itself, but a vital requirement and protection against crime. These are the two dimensions that need to be embraced to understand Ukrainian reality. What is sometimes referred to as “liberation through culture” becomes existential in the face of crime, which here is confused with the desire to eradicate not only freedom, but also the population itself – physically.

From this point of view, the ambition to suppress Ukrainian culture and people obeys the same movement. The destruction of Ukrainian heritage by Russia on a massive scale, and also specifically Tatar heritage in Crimea, is inseparable from the genocide undertaken against the Ukrainian population. Alla Horska’s story, by making public its first manifestations during the Communist era, brings to light this primary project.

In fact, it does more than that. It shows, a contrario, that defending the culture of “small nations” is a protective undertaking, as long as it is part of a policy whose end is anything but primarily cultural. Asserting the legitimacy of nations is certainly first and foremost a refusal to give in to an imperial vision of their alleged right to dominate what they claim, in defiance of all the rules of international law, to be their zone of influence.

Yet it is also a choice of new alliances, freely determined, and therefore of new promises. The Ukrainian nation does not portray itself as isolated in the world, as belonging to no group, still less as having a right, as a nation and a fortiori as an aggressed nation, to free itself from all rules. It inscribes its culture in a common belonging, at once specific but signifying more than itself. It is an attachment to the past because it is a gateway to the future and a liberation from the determinisms that others, in this case the Soviet Union and then Russia, wanted to impose on it.

When Ukraine turns to Europe, it is affirming its culture as European – an act of will, not a kind of “discovery.” It is carrying out – and no doubt still needs to make progress both in its awareness of this movement and in the elimination of dubious figures referring to a non-European nationalism – the movement finally accomplished by the other countries of Europe.

Europe’s past is not entirely glorious: land of human rights, freedom and the rule of law, emancipation of political religions and social rights, it was also the breeding ground of the Inquisition, the Terror, anti-Semitism, Nazism, totalitarian communism and colonialism.

By selecting the elements of their culture that contribute to emancipation, Ukrainians are spreading it not as a closure, but as a bridge. Saving the Ukrainian nation is not “nationalistic” in the usual sense of the term.

Certainly, this temptation may exist in certain parts of Ukrainian society, and it may still be fueled by frustration and resentment at the procrastination in the provision of decisive military aid by democratic nations. It would also be understandable if, in the future, Kyiv found it difficult to trust its declared or institutional allies and was tempted to go it alone. Nor can anyone predict how the Ukrainian scene will evolve over the next 10 or 20 years. But the reality today is that of an anti-European nationalism that wins one percent of the vote in elections, few EU countries can say as much. Tomorrow, pride in having fought for Europe, for rights and for dignity against an absolute and total enemy is likely to dominate. Pride also obliges.

Shame and exclusion

It is therefore the Ukrainians’ current struggle, both for their survival and for the founding principles of Europe, that both enables the re-appropriation of their culture and gives it meaning. It is history in the present that makes it possible for the historical past to emerge as a contemporary fact, and in this way, necessary. In concrete terms, it brings to the light of day Ukrainian writers whom the domination of “Russian culture” had kept in the shadows.

There is now also a kind of war writing, just as there was a kind of Nazi camp writing, which is indispensable, unique and universal. Conversely, Russia is destroying its own history and, in a way, its own culture. It annihilates its history by distorting it, silencing part of it and exploiting historical lies to serve a catastrophic cause, that of extermination. It may not abolish Tolstoy, Pushkin, Chekhov, Mussorgsky and Repin, but it does bury them in a past that can no longer be considered in the present. In the end, it resurrects crime as the foundation of its history, with a dark sheen that overwhelms everything else and renders it almost incidental in the collective perception.

Russian writing is doomed for a long time to remain a writing of shame. I regularly quote the confession of exiled Russian writer Mikhail Shishkin, who had the courage to call for national repentance on the part of Russians for the mass crimes committed in Ukraine: “My language has become the language of assassins.”

A German writer today still writes, or at least is in principle obliged to write, in the shadow of the Holocaust. Tomorrow, a Russian writer, at least worthy of the name, can only write in the shadow of the genocide committed in Ukraine and of totalitarian oppression. Whereas his or her predecessors excluded Ukraine and other countries colonized by Moscow, he or she will be summoned to write in the language of Ukrainians, Syrians, Chechens, Belarussians, Georgians and other peoples murdered by Russia. In fact, tomorrow this will be part of that indispensable redemption: writing in the language of others. There can never be another Russian pride. It will forever be haunted by the great figures of Victoria Amelina, Volodymyr Vakulenko, Maksym Kryvtsov and so many others – murdered and whose work will guide the letters we write.

It is also the testament that Alla Horska requires us to write.

This article was reprinted with the author’s permission. See the original here.

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post. 

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