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Why a Russian Nationalist Militia Took Over an Arts Center in Ukraine

by Mostafa Heddaya on July 8, 2014

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Daniel Buren, “Colours in Cages,” in situ July 2012 at Izolyatsia in Ukraine (photo by Dima Sergeev, Izolyatsia)

An arts nonprofit in the Ukrainian region of Donetsk has found itself, and much of its collection, at the mercy of the Russian nationalist militia of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), an unrecognized, self-declared body. The takeover last month of the Izolyatsia arts compound, though peaceful, did not happen quietly, with the displaced organization carrying out a public relations campaign that resulted in widespread coverage of the incident in the art press. But as the occupation of the arts center has continued, with soldiers allegedly using sculptures by Daniel Buren for target practice and video surfacing of a militia member reading a poem onsite, a more complex picture of the cultural and ethnic politics at play has emerged.

Izolyatsia founder Luba Michailova told Hyperallergic about the circumstances surrounding the DPR militia’s takeover of her institution, which is located in a Soviet-era insulation factory. Michailova, an industrialist and daughter of the factory’s final director, attributes Izolyatsia’s present peril to its “international” program and its strident resistance to a xenophobic “monoculture” that prevailed in Donetsk well after the fall of the Soviet Union. As a collector in her own right, Michailova sought to create a “platform for cultural initiatives” that brought international art to Donetsk, with commissions from the likes of artists Cai Guo-Qiang and Daniel Buren, while providing a creative outlet for locals in the form of a 3D-printing laboratory and musical performances.

“[W]e are not political, we are for freedom of expression in this area, which is probably not what local authorities or local oligarchs wanted,” Michailova explained. She cited collaborations with the Goethe Institute, British Council, and Alliance Française and visits from foreign ambassadors (the mayor of Donetsk never came). When the Euromaidan protests erupted in Kiev, Izolyatsia showed documentary films from the pro-European Union (EU) integration movement.

IZOFON, the concert of contemporary music as a result of musical residency, photo Dima Sergeev, IZOLYATSIA

A concert performed as part of a musical residency in 2013 (photo by Dima Sergeev, Izolyatsia)

Founded four years ago, Izolyatsia had been an unusually international presence in Donetsk; though the industrial region is the country’s economic engine, it is hardly a cultural hotspot. Segodnia.ru, a Russian nationalist news source cited by The Art Newspaper in their initial report last month, called the arts compound a “fifth column,” celebrating its fall to the DPR and condemning it as a “museum of decadent art that was actively used by local [Ukrainian] nationalists and supporters of European integration for their goals.”

“On our street there are at least 15 other companies, but they chose [to take our facility] because we are an agent of change in the area,” Michailova said of the DPR’s decision to turn Izolyatsia into a depot for its militia.

Margaret Morton, a professor at Cooper Union, visited Donetsk to shoot photographs in 2005. She wrote last week in Design Arts Daily that she still hopes to return to the region later this month to show her work at Izolyatsia, where she is set to participate alongside Ukrainian artist Pavlo Makov in an exhibition by the center’s curator, Olena Chervonik.

Morton told Hyperallergic that prior to the takeover, Izolyatsia was keen on having her be present for the opening of the exhibition: “They were very insistent that [I be] there — that they would like people in Donetsk to have a different perception of Westerners … they were talking about how important it is for people in Donetsk to meet people from the West.”

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Luba Michailova and Roman Laygin in 2013 (photo courtesy Luba Michailova)

But the arts compound remains occupied and under the putative control of one Roman Laygin, “social policy” minister of the DPR. (He is identified in a Washington Post story as the “the head of the rebel election commission” that established the DPR in Donetsk.) According to Michailova, Laygin formerly worked in public relations for the Party of Regions, the political party of anti-EU integration Ukrainian leader Victor Yanukovych (currently in exile in Russia), a group distinguished by its support for ethnic Russian identity and the Russian language in Ukraine. In this previous capacity, Laygin frequently came by Izolyatsia’s events and openings, Michailova said, and even sought to have his photograph taken with her one year ago.

A subtitled video posted on YouTube two months ago features Laygin discussing the May referendum held in Donetsk to legitimate the formation of the DPR. “There is a war in each one of us, but I fight with the pen. This is my weapon.” He continues: “Those ballots were printed from my personal resources. This is a people’s referendum.”

In her conversation with Hyperallergic, Michailova pointed out that she had recently observed a similar, albeit more nuanced, ethnic politics at play at the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale. There, she noted, “at least 30%” of the Russian designers, architects, and artists were from Ukraine, naming the constructivist Yakov Chernikov as one example of this alleged omission. (Chernikov was born in Pavlohrad, Ukraine, moved to St. Petersburg at 25, and died in Moscow.)

Follow-up emails from Michailova brought Russian television footage of a DPR soldier reciting a poem on the grounds of Izolyatsia, as well as the aforementioned photograph depicting her with the now-occupier Laygin. Meanwhile, her organization’s leadership has set up a temporary headquarters “in exile” in the capital, Kiev, where the third of the center’s collection that could be evacuated is stored. These tumultuous developments at Izolyatsia, she wrote, “are very much a result of the last 20 years of political and socio-economic events, something that we should not lose sight of when discussing the crisis in Donetsk today.”

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