Natalia Zabolotna’s primary job as director of the Mystetskyi Arsenal art museum in Kyiv was to oversee the pieces under her roof.
But on July 25, the night before a visit by President Viktor Yanukovych and the opening of an exhibit meant to celebrate Ukrainian heritage, she took a can of black paint and doused a piece that she deemed “immoral.”
A day later, the destruction of artist Volodymyr Kuznetsov’s “Koliivschina: Judgment Day” has prompted the resignation of the museum’s deputy, helped fuel a street protest, and triggered alarm within the country’s artistic community.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, Kuznetsov expressed shock at the destruction of his piece.
“I had agreed to come on Thursday night (July 25) to finish the work. In the afternoon, I was not allowed to come inside,” he said. “At first, I did not know that my work had been painted over.”
The painting, a mural measuring 11 meters by 5 meters, showed a flaming nuclear reactor with priests and judges semi-submerged in a vat of red liquid. A car that appeared to be carrying officials was shown plunging into the vat — likely a reference to the numerous traffic accidents caused by officials in the country. A hodgepodge of other figures were grouped alongside, including what appeared to be the image of Iryna Krashkova, the woman who accused two police officers and a civilian of beating and raping her last month. Her case has prompted a wave of protests.
Zabolotna, who has since apologized for destroying the work, cited the nature of the exhibit in explaining her actions. “Great and Grand,” as the exhibit is called, opened to the public this week in commemoration of the 1,025th anniversary of the baptism of Kievan Rus, the medieval kingdom that laid the Orthodox foundation for modern-day Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
In comments printed in the publication “Left Bank,” Zabolotna said the exhibit “should inspire pride in the state.”
“You cannot criticize the homeland, just as you cannot criticize your mother. I feel that anything said against the homeland is immoral,” she added. Zabolotna also claimed that Kuznetsov had diverged in his work from the concept that was previously agreed upon.
The same explanation was cited by the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture, which denied any involvement in the incident. Some observers have suggested that Zabolotna was under pressure to get rid of the work ahead of Yanukovych’s visit. Others suggested that she may have feared the state would cut funding to the museum over the painting.
But Kuznetsov said the act was unforgivable.
“No one has the right to destroy somebody’s work, especially to do this without permission,” he said. “Perhaps there is a hierarchy at Arsenal and it is against such a hierarchy — state and religious — that my work is directed.”
Another artwork, “Molotov Cocktail” by Vasyl Tsygalov, was also reportedly removed from the exhibit ahead of its opening.
The controversy helped fuel a small protest that was held outside of the museum on July 26. Eight people were arrested for holding the unsanctioned rally against what they described as the mixing of church and state in Ukraine and official censorship.
The incident has also led to two resignations. Kateryna Stukalova left her position as the editor in chief of the journal “Art Ukraine,” which was founded by Zabolotna. Alexander Solovyov, the deputy director of the Mystetskyi Arsenal museum, also stepped down in protest.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, he said, “This is not censorship but self-censorship. In the work of Kuznetsov, I see nothing more terrible than our life.”
Written by RFE/RL correspondent Richard Solash based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service.