Activists fight back against decision of Kyiv authorities to build shopping mall on Kyivan Rus archaeology site

A poster advertising a concert of singer Katya Chilly at the Kyivan Rus-era excavation site beneath Poshtova Ploshcha in central Kyiv. Such charitable concerts are being held to raise awareness about the historical value of the location on which a shopping mall could be built. 

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As much as Kyiv urban activists were overwhelmed with joy two months ago, they are now enraged. April 2018 was the month when the Kyiv city council made a fateful decision to create a full-fledged archeological history museum at a randomly-discovered medieval street in central Kyiv instead of yet another shopping mall. Yet it was too early to celebrate: on 21 June, the council rolled back a previous decision to create a full-fledged museum on the archaelogy site in favor of a project suiting the interests of the shady investor of the shopping mall. Kyiv urban activists led by the charismatic Anabella Morina are not buying it. The place might just be the location of the legendary baptism of the Kyivan Rus, a medieval kingdom which stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. In a bid to stop the triumph of commerce over history, they have occupied the location of the potential museum – or shopping mall – and Anabella has launched a hunger strike. Will a bunch of dreamers stop the bulldozers?

Anabella Morina (third from left) in a headband saying “hunger strike” with a Lithuanian historical reconstruction delegation at the location of the future museum/shopping mall. Photo: Anabella Morina

The Kyiv city council’s new decision claims to “guarantee the preservation of the artifacts, which were found during the archaeological excavations on the construction site of the future shopping mall on Poshtova Ploshcha in Kyiv.” Kyiv mayor Vitaliy Klitschko announced that the goal of the adopted “compromise project” is to preserve the discovered artifacts, continue the archaeological excavations, and to organize a “public space” at this place.

The investor which is building the mall wants to construct two underground floors, inserting a concrete plate under the excavation level, which has reached the depth of 5 meters. This depth is equivalent to the XII century in this part of Kyiv. It is this plate which put him at odds with the archaeologists, who believe that it will damage their excavations, which have the potential to uncover deeper, older layers of Kyiv’s history.

The excavations have been frozen beneath the surface of the square. The investor wants this space to become a shopping mall, and the activists – a museum.

Another issue dividing the investor and the archaeologists is how the Kyivan Rus-era street discovered by the archeology center of Kyiv’s Institute of Archaeology should be preserved. The urban history activists and archaeologists demand to make a full-fledged authentic history museum on the spot, fully preserving the ancient street for posterity. The investor, Hensford Ukraine LLC, agrees to dedicate a small section of the shopping mall it is constructing to display a portion of the findings. The company is run by Andriy Kravets, who headed the State Management of Affairs during the rule of President Yanukovych. The two fled Ukraine in February 2014 following Euromaidan protests.

The story at Poshtova Ploshcha started in 2013, when Kyiv authorities permitted Hensford Ukraine to build an underground shopping mall beneath Poshtova Ploshcha, a square in the oldest part of Kyiv. The construction of the mall was outlined by the then Kyiv authorities as part of the reconstruction of the square. Hensford won the contest despite being created later than the date the contest was announced, which is a violation of the conditions, and started construction despite not having property rights for the plot of land.

However, the discovery of a street from Kyivan Rus times interrupted the shopping mall plans. Among the findings were wooden buildings, shops, jewelry from Scandinavia and jewelry from the Byzantine empire, the Kyiv prince’s seals, and what appear to be a medieval customs office and warehouses. An activist campaign spearheaded by Anabella Morina succeeded in building up grassroots support for creating an in situ museum which would preserve the discovered archaeological treasures and display them in their authentic appearance. Such a museum, the likes of which exist in Sofia, Krakow, and York, would allow to literally walk along a street from the times of the medieval kingdom which stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

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Some artifacts found at the dig

But there is additional intrigue involved. The modern square of Poshtova Ploshcha could be located an the very spot where, in 988, Kyivan Prince Volodymyr baptized the pagan inhabitants of the Kyivan Rus in the waters of the river Pochaina, cementing his rule over the state and bringing the medieval kingdom into the family of Christian nations. At least, that’s what the toponyms and old maps suggest. But only further excavations can prove or disprove this version. They will be made much more difficult if Hensford installs the concrete plate beneath the current excavation level.

Read more: Win for history in Ukraine: Kyivan Rus archeology site to become museum, not shopping mall (April 2018)

Anabella and friends succeeded in winning a participatory budget contest to create such a museum through a petition. Then, with the support of Samopomich MP Husovskyi, a decision to create this museum was greenlighted by the Kyiv city council on 19 Apil 2018. But two months later, on 21 June, the council adopted another “compromise” decision introduced also by Husovskyi.

“Accusations are being voiced that somebody [in the city administration] doesn’t want to create a museum. I always said: there will be a museum there. End of story. And we developed a step-by-step algorithm,” mayor Klitschko said on air of TV Kyiv.

The archaeologists and urban activists don’t believe him. Since the time the participatory budget petition started to be implemented, the Kyiv authorities proved that they are not interested in creating a real museum on Poshtova Ploshcha, Anabella Morina told Euromaidan Press. Morina believes that the Kyiv authorities are deliberately diminishing the importance of the archaeological discoveries and serving the investor’s interests and not the Kyivans’. And the investor is not interested either in continuing the excavations nor in building a museum, she says. The first hopes of the activists and archaeologists that the museum could be created as part of the mall proved to be naive, she told.

The new decision on 21 June has three major differences from the one from 19 April:

  1. The city canceled its decision to terminate the contract with the investor. And it is the investor who decides on temporary measures to stabilise the square, and the concrete plate that he wants to install will make going deeper impossible.
  2. It new decision envisions a committee of international experts for further excavations and restoration of the artifacts. Morina says this is code for squatting out the team of archaeologists led by Mykhailo Sahaidak, who has been in charge of all excavations in this part of Kyiv since the 1980s. This team has stubbornly advocated to create a full-fledged modern museum and protested the city authorities’ decisions serving the investor’s interests, Anabella Morina says.
  3. The new decision envisions an international contest for the museification of the artifacts and creation of a “public space” on Poshtova Ploshcha. This “space,” Morina says, is a far cry from the museum she and fellow activists want. Hensford’s plan for the center envisions a mere 100m2 for a “museum of ancient streets.” Meanwhile, the area of only the uncovered customs office measures 800m2.

Thus, the activists’ main demand is to terminate the city’s contract with Hensford Ukraine. But that is specifically what the Kyiv authorities have refused to do. Mayor Klitschko has claimed the company will need to be compensated UAH 500mn ($19mn), as it has threatened to sue the city in the High Court of London.

Anabella Morina, however, told Euromaidan Press that this sum is vastly inaccurate and that the investor spent only UAH 6 mn ($229,000). Olena Terestchenko, an urban activist and former Kyiv council deputy, also claims that Klitschko’s assessment is baseless. According to her, the city can easily cancel the contract, and it is unlikely that the investor will take legal action, as in that case, all its corrupt construction schemes of the pre-Euromaidan period will come to light.

On the day of the vote, 21 June, urban activists tore down the construction fence on Poshtova Ploshcha and established what they call a “termless protest” right above the excavations taking place beneath the level of the square. Archaeologists and activists hold regular excursions at the excavation site, and street concerts aim to raise awareness about the ancient history beneath the feet of unaware pedestrians.

Mykhailo Sahaidak holds excursions to the archaeological dig. Credit: snapshot from Hromadske video

Representatives of four NGOs have united into a “resistance coalition.” Petitions have been sent to the president and prime minister, asking to preserve the history of this place for generations to come. Meanwhile, Anabella Morina launched a hunger strike on 21 June and has set up a tent at the place, where she is living together with her parrot. She plans to hold the strike until 28 July, her birthday and the day of the baptism of Kyivan Rus, which she believes took place right at the spot she is fighting to turn into a museum. Each day, she coordinates resistance activities and posts updates about the situation on her facebook page.

Anabella is no novice in urban activism. Thanks to her last two-year campaign, the remaining natural riverside of the legendary Pochaina was saved from the fate of being built over by a freeway. The city adopted a plan to restore what was one a derelict wasteland into a riverside park. Now, she shows no signs of giving up on her dream of creating a museum at Poshtova Ploshcha, where Pochaina is believed to have once flown into the Dnipro river.

One way the activists plan to achieve their goal is to petition Ukraine’s central organs to grant the archaeological hotspot on Poshtova Ploshcha the status of a national monument. This “will allow to preserve the unique riverbank buildings and to create a national museum,” Olha Rutkovska, who represents Ukraine at the International Council on Monuments and Sites (IKOMOS), told RFE/RL.

Rutkovska is one of many urban activists fighting against the deterioration of many other historical landmarks in Kyiv. Deals with shady investors illegal land plot allocations for construction, an overall negligence towards cultural heritage are turning what could have been a charming European city into a collection of oddly placed shopping malls and generic glass-metal skyscrapers amid declining numbers of architecture preserving the unique spirit of Old Kyiv.

Ukrainian Minister of Culture Yevhen Nishchuk has promised to ensure that the archaeological site at Poshtova gains this national status. But thus far, promises of state and city officials to preserve the Kyivan Rus era find have not materialized. As of today, it’s the 12th day of Anabella Morina’s camp and hunger strike protest at the square above the dig, which she invites everyone to visit before it could be buried forever beneath yet another shopping mall in central Kyiv.

Anabella Morina sitting with a visitor next to her campsite at Poshtova Ploshcha. Photo: Serhiy Kutsenko

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