At the end of April, the city of Kyiv dismantled a Soviet-era statue that was meant to symbolize friendship between Russia and Ukraine. The sculpture was part of a complex in the city center that includes the Peoples’ Friendship Arch — a massive rainbow-shaped structure that was recently renamed the Arch of Freedom of the Ukrainian people. Writing for Meduza, architectural journalist Asya Zolnikova digs into this monument’s controversial history — and future.
The Arch of Freedom of the Ukrainian people is located right in the center of Kyiv, just a 10 minute walk from Independence Square. Until May 2022, this massive titanium structure, which stands 35 meters (about 115 feet) tall at its highest point, was known as the Peoples’ Friendship Arch.
The rainbow-shaped arch was part of a monument complex meant to symbolize the friendship of peoples in the Soviet Union. From 1982 until April 2022, it stretched above two statutes by Ukrainian sculptor Oleksandr Skoblikov — a granite stele representing the Pereiaslav Council of 1654 and a bronze sculpture depicting a Ukrainian worker and Russian worker holding up a Soviet Order of Friendship.
The bronze statue of the workers was dismantled on April 26, under the supervision of Serhiy Myrhorodsky — one of the three architects who helped design the original monument. “I feel joy. Finally the friendship with Russia is over,” Myrhorodsky told a Ukrainian television channel that day. The statue of the workers, he explained, had become a symbol of the enmity between Ukraine and Russia: “And to have a monument to enmity is a sin.”
‘Friendship of Peoples’
The construction of the Peoples’ Friendship Arch was timed to coincide with the 325th anniversary of the Pereiaslav Council, while its opening commemorated the 60th anniversary of the USSR and the city of Kyiv’s 1,500th anniversary.
As cultural historian Evgeny Dobrenko told Meduza, the arch itself was primarily inspired by Ukrainian poet Pavlo Tychyna’s 1938 poem “The Feeling of a United Family.” In the poem, Tychyna evokes the image of an “arch to all the peoples” and a “steel bridge between nations.”
According to Dobrenko, Tychyna’s poem was required reading in Ukrainian schools when he was growing up in Odesa. And its imagery fully corresponds with the propaganda narrative of the “friendship of peoples” — a concept linked to the “Soviet imperial project.” This theme of multinational unity began to take shape in the 1930s, as “Stalin turned from the idea of building a world revolution to building socialism in a single country,” Dobrenko explained.
“The Soviet Union turned into a macrocosm, into a separate, multinational world, which in the future could become a global, communist empire. Intensive Russification and the fight against local nationalism began — this was largely to Hitler coming to power. It became clear that war with Germany was practically inevitable and that it couldn’t be waged with an internationalist ideology. At this point, the theme of friendship and fraternity of peoples became one of the main [themes] in literature, and among national poets especially.”
The promotion of this “friendship” in the 1930s was accompanied by brutal repressions as the Soviet authorities attempted to wipe out “bourgeois nationalism.” The crackdown in Ukraine — where Stalin feared “excessive Ukrainianization” and the autonomy of Ukraine itself — began even earlier. “Stalin sent [in] Lazar Kaganovich as First Secretary [of the Communist Party of the Ukrainian SSR] and he ‘brought order’ there with an iron fist,” Dobrenko told Meduza. “Thus, by the early 1930s, 80–90 percent of Ukrainian cultural figures had been repressed.”
The term “friendship of peoples” was cemented after World War II, becoming the name of an array of monuments, awards, and buildings. These include, but are not limited to, Moscow’s Friendship of Peoples Fountain (1954), Peoples’ Friendship University (1960), the Order of Friendship of Peoples (1972), Bishkek’s Stella of Friendship of Nation (1972), Tashkent’s Peoples' Friendship Palace (1980), and the Russia–Georgia Friendship Monument (1983).
At the same time, as anthropologist Alexei Yurchak argues in his book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, official narratives about the equality and friendship of the USSR’s various national groups in many ways corresponded with the lived experience of most Soviet citizens in the late-Soviet period.
Meduza’s sources who lived in Kyiv before Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine agree that the Peoples’ Friendship Arch always elicited mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was colloquially referred to as the “Yoke” (yarmo, in Ukrainian). On the other, it’s an iconic location for Kyiv — not least because of its impressive view overlooking the Dnipro River and the city’s left bank.
Following the Maidan Revolution, the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the outbreak of the war in the Donbas in 2014, Ukraine adopted decommunization laws that led to the dismantling or alteration of many Soviet monuments. A big debate ensued over what to do with the arch: some suggested altering its appearance, while others wanted to get rid of it altogether.
The former head of the Kyiv City State Administration, Volodymyr Bondarenko, suggested tearing down the monument and replacing it with a church. In turn, Kyiv’s chief architect Serhiy Tselovalnyk declared the arch useless (“What kind of friendship is it, if Russian troops came to our land with tanks and there’s a real war going on?”) and suggested replacing it with a memorial to Ukrainian soldiers killed in the Donbas.
Ukrainian Culture Minister Yevhen Nyshchuk made a similar proposal in 2016. However, the Culture Ministry quickly walked back these plans. As it turned out, dismantling the entire complex would have cost some 4 million hryvnias (equivalent to $160,000 at the time).
When Ukraine hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in 2017, the arch was temporarily colored to resemble a rainbow and renamed the “Arch of Diversity.” Later, in 2018, rights activists adorned the arch with a sticker that looks like a crack to symbolize the impossibility of friendship with Moscow. The activists said it was a show of support for Ukrainian political prisoners incarcerated in Russia, such as film director Oleh Sentsov and activist Volodymyr Balukh. The crack remains in place to this day.
‘The workers were the best choice’
The debate over the Peoples’ Friendship Arch resumed with renewed vigor in February 2022. Even before Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Kyiv government set up a working group tasked with deciding the complex’s fate. By April, they had come to a decision: the statue of the workers would be dismantled.
“Russia has ‘commemorated’ its relationship with Ukraine with the brutal murders of peaceful Ukrainians, the destruction of our cities and villages, [and] a desire to destroy our statehood. The eight meters of metal of the so-called ‘friendship of two peoples’ will be removed from the center of Kyiv,” Mayor Vitaly Klitschko wrote on Telegram the day before the demolition.
The dismantling of the sculpture didn’t exactly go as planned. An initial attempt to lift it with a crane knocked off the Russian worker’s head. In the end, the statue was sawed from its plinth, leaving just the workers’ shoes. The stele depicting the Pereiaslav Council was boarded up and is also set to be dismantled.
The arch, however, remains in its original place. It was officially renamed the Arch of Freedom of the Ukrainian people on May 14.
“In this situation, when someone has to be sacrificed, Oleksandr Skoblikov’s ‘workers’ were the best choice. They’re big, very Soviet, and no one feels sorry for them,” wrote Yevhenia Molyar, a Ukrainian researcher who studies Soviet art.
It’s not yet clear what will replace the dismantled statue. On April 26, architect Serhiy Myrhorodsky told Interfax Ukraine that the bronze “workers” would be melted down to make a “monument in honor of a united Ukraine.” Myrhorodsky claimed that an artist had already begun work on the sculpture, but this has yet to be confirmed officially.
Molyar and other experts recognize the importance of dismantling propagandistic monuments. But they also underscore the need to “put down the jackhammers and work more with narratives and meanings.”
“We must understand how it [the propaganda] was created and what gave it a strong influence. This makes people stronger and less vulnerable to new propaganda — no matter which side [it comes] from,” Molyar told Meduza.
“We need not just to get right of the object, but to de-ideologize it, while preserving the work itself. Because there are very important 20th century sculptors and artists who worked in the field of monumental art and monumental propaganda [in Ukraine]. And a modern interpretation of their works is our way of preventing our heritage from being appropriated.”
In an effort to rethink ideological art, both Lithuania and Estonia have moved their dismantled Soviet monuments to dedicated parks. Ukraine opened its own Museum of Propaganda in 2020. But when asked about how the country might deal with Soviet propaganda going forward, Molyar said it’s too soon to say — it will have to wait until after the fighting stops.
Abridged translation by Eilish Hart