By John-Paul Himka
Controversy has erupted at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (NaUKMA) over the recent closure of the art exhibition “The Ukrainian Body” at the university’s Visual Cultural Research Center VCRC) and by the closure of the Center itself a few days later.
One can get a good sense of what was being shown at the exhibition from the review on the internet journal Art Ukraine (http://www.artukraine.com.ua/articles/812.html). It is clearly not pornography, as NaUKMA rector Serhiy Kvit disingenuously told the media when he closed the exhibition down (http://ua.euronews.net/2012/02/14/ukraine-modern-art-controversy/). Clearly Dr. Kvit has not gone on the internet to find out what real pornography looks like. Instead of functioning as pornography, “The Ukrainian Body” challenges the conventional sexual and aesthetic norms in Ukrainian society, and exhibitions like this have naturally caused controversy all over the world but also stimulated important debate about gender, sexual, and cultural issues. One would hope that Ukraine belongs to the set of countries where such a show can exist, rather than to the international pariahs that abort such exhibitions before they can even appear. It is more reasonable to interpret “The Ukrainian Body” not as pornography but as a contribution to the critical discussion about conservative morality that has emerged in Ukraine in conjunction with the proposed law on morality and also as a response to the activism of the innovative “Femen” movement.
The closure of the exhibition has raised questions about the extent to which the higher administration of NaUKMA respects the principle of academic freedom. It is generally accepted in the global academy that the university should be a place where all manner of opinions can be aired.
But the situation soon took a turn for the worse. Following hard on the heels of the closing of “The Ukrainian Body” came the closing of the VCRC itself. This was motivated by the VCRC’s willingness to host a lecture on the Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera by the German scholar Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe. The talk was sponsored by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, well known for its promotion of democracy and human rights. In his announcement on 24 February abolishing the VCRC, Dr. Kvit referred to the proposed talk by Mr. Rossolinski-Liebe as having a “scandal-propagandistic, and not scholarly, character.” Mr. Rossolinski-Liebe is highly critical of Bandera and the radical right nationalist movement he founded, as am I. The rector, however, is a declared admirer of the nationalist theoretician Dmytro Dontsov and is himself active in radical right political initiatives.
Rector Kvit’s ideological disagreement with Mr. Rossolinski-Liebe, however, do not justify preventing him the latter from speaking; even less can it justify completely shutting down the institution that was to host the lecture. Thorough discussion of alternative perspectives is an integral and normal component of scholarly discourse. Mr. Rossolinski-Liebe has published in serious scholarly venues, such as Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, and will soon be defending his doctoral dissertation on Bandera at the University of Hamburg.
The VCRC has in the past hosted challenging talks on a variety of themes. It is one of the few forums for thinking outside the box in contemporary Ukraine. Far from being perceived as a nuisance at NaUKMA, it should be valued for its intellectual courage in difficult discursive circumstances.
The situation at Kyiv-Mohyla is complicated by a number of factors. The critical and activist VCRC has had a tense relationship with the conservative administration at NaUKMA. Mr. Rossolinski-Liebe not only takes an unpopular position vis-à-vis the heritage of the radical nationalists, but he has a confrontational and accusatory style that has alienated a number of scholars who otherwise agree with the thrust of his research. The ultranationalists in Ukraine, particularly young adherents of the Svoboda (Freedom) party, are aggressive, and there are fears at NaUKMA that a lecture by Mr. Rossolinski-Liebe could result in an unpleasant incident. NaUKMA is also at loggerheads with the Ukrainian minister of higher education, Dmytro Tabachnyk, who, it is feared, might take advantage of controversy and unrest to intefere in the governance of the university. On 27 February unknown persons telephoned Mr. Rossolinski-Liebe at the apartment he has been staying at in Kyiv; the callers claimed to be the police looking for him. Mr. Rossolinski-Liebe went for protection to the German embassy and will be evacuated to Berlin. An informant in Kyiv has reported to me that there have been intimidating calls and messages also to persons associated with the VCRC.
In spite of these complications, it should be clear that in the interest of academic freedom, the exhibition “The Ukrainian Body” and the Visual Culture Research Center need to be restored. Free speech does not require protection when it is easy to protect it; it precisely needs protection when it is difficult to do so.
(Author’s note: Since this commentary was written, the VCRC has been reinstated.)