Ukraine: Call to censor anti-Russian artist reveals culture war within a war

(Odesa) Ukraine’s Odesa Fine Arts Museum (ONFAM) are currently deliberating whether to allow or to cancel an exhibition entitled “With Ribbons and Flags” by David Chichkan. Chichkan is an acclaimed Ukrainian anarchist artist who has exhibited across Europe throughout the last decade. As a result of an unfolding controversy his exhibition in Odesa is in danger of being cancelled after threats from the far right.

David’s recent work consists of portraits of anarchist soldiers, LGBT Ukrainians and members of ethnic minorities who have taken up arms to defend their homes. There are strong Makhnovist themes as well as anti-nationalist and anti-authoritarian sentiments.

The gallery, the Odesa Fine Arts Museum (ONFAM) claims to have received explicit threats from the far right and have apparently stated in an instagram post that they will take one week in which to decide whether to host his exhibition.

David Chichkan in 2022 (source: Pravda)

In a Facebook post responding to the controversy, Chichkan blames the far right group "Tradition and Order" for the threats and menacing actions taken towards the host museum. This large far right organization was also behind a violent riot at the 2021 Odesa pride march which resulted in injuries and mass arrests. David’s art appears to deal with antifascist and pro-LGBT themes. Some of his pre-2022 work makes allegorical comparisons between Russian invaders and Ukrainian nationalists. 

Bohdan Krotevych (source: Wikipedia)

Bohdan Krotevych, Chief of Staff of the Azov Brigade and a major in the Ukrainian National Guard, issued a strongly worded statement on Twitter, accusing the museum of “cooperating” with the “artist” who “equates state symbols and slogans with Separatists, Nazis and Russians.” He further tags the Security Services of Ukraine and urges them to ‘pay attention’. This statement by a senior member of Ukraine’s military, and the leader of its most controversial unit, was made after the disclosure of violent threats from far right, anti-LGBT extremists. This is the culture war within a war.

One of Chichkan's works which positions the left wing "Autonomous Worker's Union" counterpoint to Ukrainian and Russian ultra nationalists. This piece is not included in the ONFAM exhibiton. (source: Twitter)

While perceptions and reactions to Chichkan's artistic critique of Ukrainian nationalism may vary widely, none of his controversial works are included in the planned ONFAM exhibit. Criticism of the Azov Brigade inside of Ukraine has become deeply unpopular following the martyrdom of many of the Azov Brigade’s members in the battle for Mariupol. David makes an allegorical comparison in his older works, between Azov and Russian ultranationalists. On the surface these comparisons do not appear to be inaccurate or motivated by some desire to misconstrue the group. In 2010, Andriy Biletsky, the founder of the Azov Battalion, called openly for a confederation with Russia, saying "We, social-nationalists, have completely different views on this issue. We understand that separation from Russia and division is idiocy.” Biletsky is currently a commander with the 3rd Separate Assault Brigade which was constituted in November 2022 out of special forces veterans of the now defunct Azov Battalion.

Chichkan is also noted for his depictions of Ukrainian heroes such as Nestor Ivanovich Makhno, the anarchist leader of the Revolutionary Insurgent Army of Ukraine, who presided over a successor state to the short-lived Ukrainian Peoples Republic, between 1917 and 1921, in an area which encompassed parts of East Ukraine and southwestern Russia.

Nestor Makhno fought the forces of the Tsar in the latter years of the First World War, helping resist White Russian forces alongside the Bolsheviks. Following a betrayal by Lenin who failed to deliver promised land reforms, this Ukrainian anarchist movement went to war with the Soviet Union as well. This history forms the foundation of a cultural understanding of resistance to Russian imperialism within the areas of Zaporizhzhia and Donbass in East Ukraine, the precise areas which are the frontline of resistance to the 21st century invasion by the Russian Federation.

A mural of Nestor Makhno in Lviv, by David Chichkan and Kateryna Pikarska (source: Suspilne)

David was involved in demonstrations at Euromaidan in 2013-2014, and the pre-war theme of his work seems to have been his dissatisfaction over a ‘missed opportunity’ (the title of one of his works) and apprehension and disappointment over rising extreme nationalism. As an artist he frames the Euromaidan “revolution of dignity” as one which failed to live up to the revolutionary ideals of all of its participants.

From 2010 till 2016 David was a member of the now defunct Autonomous Worker's Union a short lived unity front between Ukrainian Anarchists and Marxists which split internally before the Russian invasion.

Graffiti from a 2017 incident, accusing David of being a "Servant of Moscow" and "Separatist". (source: Hromadske)

This is not the artist's first brush with controversy. A Kiyv Exhibition by Chichkan, was attacked by a mob of masked vandals in 2017. In January 2022 only days before the outbreak of war, Chichkan’s exhibit at the Lviv Municipal Art Center was shut down following a physical irruption by far right groups which resulted in property damage and direct threats to a museum administrator. This exhibition consisted of portraits and other depictions of prominent historic left-wing Ukrainian figures.

This is occurring at a time where Ukraine is deliberating EU membership and NATO membership. It also occurs against a backdrop where the Ukrainian state is seeking further humanitarian and lethal aid from their international allies and partners. The EU in particular is presently working towards establishing a framework for permanent protection of artistic freedom. The vast majority of Ukraine's partners and allies have stringent protections in law, limiting both the power and spread of far right groups, and upholding and affirming the rights of their LGBT citizens. Even a total military victory for Ukraine, will be worth very little if the postwar order is dominated by these extremists whose escalating behavior, in threatening and intimidating artists and cultural centers is evocative of the early actions of critics of Charlie Hebdo.

Chichkan's work consists of incisive critiques of power, militarism and the far right in both Ukraine and Russia. This piece is not included in the ONFAM exhibiton. (source: Twitter)

Proponents of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have long engaged in criticism and vilification of Ukraine as a haven for far right groups and the Kremlin has exploited the presence of right wing extremist groups in Ukraine to justify their war aims. Meanwhile, Russia has promoted and weaponized anti-LGBT bigotry as a frontline in its information war against the Ukrainian resistance. 

The actions of the "Tradition and Order" group and statements made by the Azov Brigade chief of staff do appear to countermand the very European values to which the Ukrainian state aspires, ironically validating the artist's suggestion that these censorious extremists are ideologically aligned with the authoritarian nationalism and supremacism of the Russian Federation, even while they militantly oppose its efforts to subjugate their country.

There is no part of this incident (either the targeting of an artist and antifascist, or the intimidation of cultural institutions like ONFAM) which helps to further the cause of Ukraine either at home or internationally. The broader Ukrainian and European communities must speak up in defence of David's right to exhibit his anti-Russian, pro-Ukraine work, even if his political views do not align with the illiberal nationalistic fervor of extremist groups who have decided to perform purity politics in a war zone.