16 January 2013

The Prison on Lonts’kyi Street: Memory Dialogue or Memory Monologue?

Courtyard of the museum, photo by Uilleam Blacker

The Prison on Lonts’kyi Street: Memory Dialogue or Memory Monologue?

Uilleam Blacker

First published on the Current Ukrainian Politics Blog:

L’viv’s wartime history is complex, and demands sensitivity and an understanding that victimhood and guilt are not always exclusive categories. The history of the site of the prison on Lonts’kyi Street speaks to this complexity. It speaks of the Polish state that forcefully oppressed Ukrainian political and cultural aspirations, and also of the Poles tortured, killed and deported by the Soviets. It reminds of Ukrainian victims of the Soviets, but also of Ukrainians’ part in the L’viv pogrom of 1941; it speaks of the Jewish victims of that pogrom, and of wider anti-Semitic violence and murder. This site speaks to the history of interwar Lwów, where Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews failed to build a strong enough society to withstand the chaos that the war would bring. For these reasons, it is a good thing that there is a museum at Lonts’kyi. Its history of the tragic intertwining of the fates of various groups makes it a perfect location to examine that history and learn from it. Unfortunately, the current museum does not take advantage of this opportunity.

Although its address is telling – 1 Stepan Bandera St – the museum is in fact hidden away on a side street, as though trying to avoid awkward encounters. Its entrance is nondescript, marked only by a modest sign. The building has clearly undergone little in the way of renovation since it ceased to function as a prison in 1991. Visitors walk its grim corridors, where peeling, yellowed signs inform prisoners how to behave. The exhibition, which aims to tell the story both of the prison and of the Ukrainian nationalist activists who suffered there, is threaded through the corridors, incorporating some of the prison’s original cells.

The museum represents the suffering and struggles of Ukrainians. The exhibition barely mentions the word ‘Jew’, while Poles appear, in a historically dubious comparison, only as one side of a triangle of evil ‘occupiers’ alongside the Nazis and the Soviets. The prison was indeed used by different regimes, including the Poles and Austrians. But the nature and legitimacy of these regimes varied drastically. The museum presents all these regimes, except the Austrians, as perpetrators of crimes against Ukrainians. It does not recognize that the victims of the crimes carried out here were also plural, and included Jews, Poles, and others. What’s more, the exhibition ignores other perpetrators linked to the site, skating over the question of Ukrainian participation in the L’viv pogrom of 1941.
Lonts’kyi not only denies the memories of others, however: it simplifies that of Ukrainians too. It ignores the complexity of Ukrainian society of pre-war and wartime L’viv and of Ukrainian nationalism. The tradition of fighting for the right of Ukrainians to political and cultural self-determination is bigger than the history of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and Ukrainian Insurgent Army (OUN/UPA), which dominates the museum. That wider story includes those dissidents whose pictures grace the walls of the prison in which they were once held, or whose works are sold at the doorway, and who cannot be simply absorbed into the ‘Liberation Struggles’ understood as a metonym for the OUN/UPA.
One striking feature of the museum is its mnemonic mathematics. Ukraine, we are told, had Europe’s biggest resistance movement during the Second World War, amounting to half a million people. Ukrainians were ‘enemy number one for the occupiers’. The math also shows that Ukrainians suffered most, according to the numbers of victims of various Soviet mass shootings that are displayed on the walls, on top of photographs of victims of those shootings. And yet on the museum’s website we read: ‘Of the population (of L’viv), Jews suffered most of all […] Ukrainians suffered no less.’ This statement perfectly encapsulates the paradoxical and narcissistic logic of Lonts’kyi. The numbers of Jewish victims of pogroms or Nazi executions is not given in such detail.

Sites like Lonts’kyi force us to interrogate the nature of sites of memory. Do they have meaning because of the events they witnessed? Do they retain an ‘aura’ of past events? Or are they invested with meaning only by those who inhabit and use them? Lonts’kyi indicates that the latter can never entirely be the case. Its selective narrative does not sit easily. Something else seems to surface underneath the veneer of nationalist rhetoric. Commentators have noted that the photograph onto which the numbers of Ukrainian victims are projected shows other dead too: Jewish victims of the pogrom. The names on the facsimile execution lists are clearly not all Ukrainian, and neither are those on the ‘wall of memory’ (despite being inscribed in the Ukrainian alphabet, rendering them illegible to those who don’t read Cyrillic). Traces of others stubbornly re-surface.

It is clear that from the point of view of historical accuracy, or of simple human empathy, the Lonts’kyi museum leaves much to be desired. Nevertheless, it tells a story that needs to be told. The story of Ukrainian resistance and suffering during the Second World War and beyond is hardly a dominant narrative, even in Ukraine. At home and abroad, this complex past is often reduced to western Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis and co-participation in the Holocaust. In the eyes of many, the current Ukrainian authorities undermine ‘everything that is Ukrainian’, as do voices from both Russia and the West, and Svoboda Party conveniently appears as the defender of this ‘everything’. This is a mnemonic zero-sum game, in which there is no room for admission of collective guilt, which means weakness, and plays into the hands of internal and external ‘enemies’.

It is a shame that the story of Ukrainian suffering and resistance can only be told in this atmosphere of antagonism, with this bunker mentality. The result is that the suffering of the majority of peaceful Ukrainians is always tainted by nationalist or anti-nationalist politics. It also means that Ukrainians fail to recognize the suffering of others: they are too busy protecting their own narrative. It is not Holocaust obfuscation as such that is the primary motivation behind Lonts’kyi’s narrative, as some have suggested; it is rather a paranoid determination not to undermine the purity of Ukrainian victimhood that precludes openness about the role of Ukrainian nationalists in the Holocaust. Of course, this is a subtle distinction, which many observers will not recognize.

A glance at the Lonts’kyi visitor book shows that a degree of recognition of the Ukrainian story is being achieved by the museum. Not long after Euro 2012, the book was full of entries by visitors from Portugal, Denmark, Germany, and other countries. Many were moved by a story about which they had known nothing. The museum’s story is indeed in many respects moving, but not necessarily for the reasons that the curators intended. For non-Ukrainian speakers, its nationalist bent will largely go unnoticed: the museum’s texts are solely in Ukrainian, with only a short leaflet in English available. True, English language tours are available, but I would venture that the majority of the visitors’ empathy is a response to human suffering, rather than to nationalist rhetoric. The tourist is confronted with mug-shots of frightened people, execution lists, pictures of naïve, young partisan fighters, and victims of mass murder; one can view the interrogation room, torture chamber, and the execution wall. The fact that the building remains close to its original state is in many ways more affecting than the content of the exhibition itself.

If the curators at Lonts’kyi want foreign visitors to understand what Ukrainians went through on this site on more than an impressionistic level (though it is not certain that they do), they need to invest in translation – admittedly, an expensive business. Entering into other languages cannot only be about repeating a monologue, however. Yes, it gives the opportunity to be understood; but it also gives the opportunity to understand. A site like Lonts’kyi, where multiple memories intertwine, needs not only to speak in the languages of others to others, but also about others. By doing so it will encourage others to listen to the Ukrainian story.

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