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Motherland Monument: Kyiv landmark, national symbol or soviet vestige  

The Motherland Monument towers over the Dnipro River in Kyiv. Photo: Oleh Stelmakh
Motherland Monument: Kyiv landmark, national symbol or soviet vestige  
Article by: Yevheniy Rudenko, Eldar Sarakhman
Translated by: Christine Chraibi
800,000 visitors in 2019. 40% are foreign tourists. The National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War is indeed one of the most popular tourist sites in Kyiv.

Many visitors come here to view the Motherland Monument, which is one of the ten highest monuments in the world.

In 1973, the Central Committee of the CPSU approved the construction of a memorial complex in Kyiv.

Prominent soviet sculptor and muralist Yevheniy Vuchetich, who was obsessed with the idea of creating a memorial in Kyiv, got the exciting news from his friend, sculptor  Friedrich Sogoyan. Vuchetich was so happy that he climbed on his desk and began tap dancing. Unfortunately, Yevheniy Vuchetich did not live to see his idea fulfilled; he died in 1974, and  the design of the memorial was substantially reworked and completed by Ukrainian sculptor Vasyl Boroday.

The overall structure is 102 meters high. It is taller than the Statue of Liberty in New York by nine metres and Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro by 56 metres.

The memorial in Kyiv appeared thanks to the idea formulated by Yevheniy Vuchetich, sculptor of Motherland Calls! in Volgograd. Photo: Eldar Sarakhman

Sinking only one millimetre in 39 years

If modern civilization suddenly disappears and a new one arises, future generations will probably wonder and ask:

“How could people living at the end of the 20th century build such a magnificent monument on the banks of the Dnipro?”

According to the Director of the museum, Ivan Kovalchuk, all the specialists and scientists who were involved in the design and construction of the Motherland Monument were ahead of their time.

Construction work began in 1976, and in 1981, Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, whose health was already failing, arrived in the capital of the Ukrainian SSR for the grand opening of the memorial complex.

During his visit, a year and a half before his death, Brezhnev dictated his message in the Book of Honoured Guests and signed his name below:

“It is with great excitement and profound emotions that I have explored the wonderful memorial complex erected in Kyiv… Many thanks to the brilliant creators! May it stand as an eternal monument to commemorate our Great Victory!”

Prominent leaders and politicians visited the museum complex at different times, among them the Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi. Photo: Eldar Sarakhman
The Book of Honoured Guests is displayed in a special room reserved for prominent guests and heads of state. Photo: Eldar Sarakhman

However, this monument should be remembered not by Brezhnev’s rhetorical soviet-style speech, but by the titanic and artistic work realized by metallurgists, builders, surveyors, architects and scientists.

“In order to build such a colossal structure, make correct plans and calculations, you had to be a topnotch specialist in your field. These men had to solve the most complicated engineering and logistics problems… without modern computers and technology.

During the construction period, some mechanisms were used for the first time.

The Motherland “sculpture” was the first large-scale all-welded metal structure in the world.” explains Ivan Kovalchuk.

The Motherland statue was assembled over an internal metal frame; the stainless steel sections were welded together by specialists from the Ye.O. Paton Electric Welding Institute.

The Motherland Monument in the capital of the Ukrainian SSR became a large-scale construction project, in which enterprises and specialists from different soviet cities took part.

The total length of the welded seam, unique even by today’s standards, is more than 20 kilometres.

“Every year, we conduct geodetic surveys according to the regulations developed by the specialists who designed the monument. There have been no deviations from the norm. After 39 years, the  monument has sunk by only one millimetre.” says Ivan Kovalchuk.

In addition to geodetic control, the museum’s technical department checks all joints, blocks and structural elements several times a year… as well as everything that is hidden from prying eyes deep underground.

17.8 metres below ground level. Restricted premises

Tourists usually want to visit the Motherland’s two observation decks to get a fantastic bird’s-eye view of the capital of Ukraine.

But, few people know that there is a huge underground foundation chamber which supports the massive 500-ton structure.

The information boards in the technical premises display safety rules and regulations. Photo: Eldar Sarakhman

Only a few museum employees have access to this area so as to avoid possible sabotage. We were granted an exclusive excursion of these restricted premises.

Even a criminal who knows how the load-bearing structure is built and has good engineering skills would probably get totally lost in this underground labyrinth.

In the event of global catastrophe, the underground chamber could be turned into a shelter. Photo: Eldar Sarakhman

To get into the chamber, you must first go through a maze of offices, go down several flights of stairs and open countless doors fitted with combination locks… all under the loud hum of a noisy ventilation system.

In some places, you have to bend over so as not to hit your head on lines of pipes running just below the ceiling.

To get to the very bottom of the underground chamber, you need to climb down several flights of stairs. Photo: Eldar Sarakhman

An enormous secret object is hidden behind a small hatch in the floor.

The foundation chamber is 17.8 metres under the surface. Diameter – 34 metres. The outer concrete shell is one metre thick.

For comparison, the average five-story Khrushchovka apartment block reaches 15 metres, and the depth of the Sea of Azov is 14 metres.

We have been at the bottom of the chamber for about five minutes when suddenly the room is plunged into complete darkness and total silence. A technician has accidentally turned off the power supply…

A thick 42-metre-high column rises in the centre of the room. Load-bearing beams run across the whole ceiling, ensuring the stability of the entire Motherland complex.

The actual frame and structural elements of the Motherland Monument are hidden deep underground. Photo: Eldar Sarakhman
The inner frame is made of solid concrete. The technical team refers to it as a “stiffening diaphragm system”. Photo: Eldar Sarakhman

Every three months, a specialist comes down here to check the different components of the underground structure, and to see whether groundwater has penetrated into the facility.

Our guide tells us that in all these years, the chamber has never been critically flooded.

First platform. An inclined elevator and a 360-degree view

Since its inauguration in 1981, the Motherland Monument has become the most prominent landmark in Kyiv.

The sculpture has been given many popular nicknames: “Halia” (according to legend, the prototype for the Motherland was Ukrainian sculptor Halyna Kalchenko), “Lavrentievna” (due to proximity to the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra), “Halyna Leonidivna” (in honour of Brezhnev’s daughter), “Baba with a sword” or just plain “Baba”.

During the soviet era, up to one million people per year visited the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War.

The current figures are no less amazing – 800,000 visitors in 2019.

In 39 years, a total of about 30 million persons have visited the memorial complex. Today, the war exhibits have been replenished with stories, photos and items from the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war in the Donbas.

Installed on the lower panoramic platform, the 1946 binoculars allow tourists to view Kyiv landscapes. Photo: Eldar Sarakhman
If high rises did not obscure the left bank horizon, in good clear weather the Motherland Monument could be seen from the town of Brovary (approximately 25 km). Photo: Eldar Sarakhman

Tourists are particularly attracted to the observation decks of the Motherland sculpture.

The upper one – at an altitude of 91 metres, located near the shield – was opened after the collapse of the USSR. Previously, only technical personnel were allowed in this area.

The most popular platform, the lower one, is located at the top of the pedestal and at the foot of the sculpture, at a height of 36.6 metres.

Admittance fee is 100 UAH for adults, 70 UAH for students. Children under six are not allowed.

According to one legend, the Motherland Monument was originally supposed to stand higher than the main bell tower of Pechersk Lavra in height, but the Lavra clergy allegedly persuaded the head of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine, Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, not to approve this plan. Photo: Eldar Sarakhman

A 360-degree panoramic lower terrace surrounds the top of the pedestal. It is open in good weather when there is no heavy rainfall.

Kostiantyn Lebed, who works as supervisor at the facility, says that 26,000 people visited the lower platform in 2019.

In order to get to the platform, you must take an inclined elevator that runs up and down inside the pylon at a 75-degree angle.

The elevators are very small, and you would not want to get stuck in one of them. Photo: Eldar Sarakhman

It is often very windy on the deck, so you should be properly dressed if you decide to visit the first platform.

The entire area is fenced with protective netting, so there is no danger of falling.

Special viewing windows are located in the netting so that you can take photos of the left and right banks of the Dnipro River.

Thanks to its favourable location, every year the Motherland Monument attracts up to 800,000 tourists that want to take pictures of the Kyiv skyline. Photo: Eldar Sarakhman

Second platform. Extreme sensations

Determined visitors do not stop at 36.6 metres. Adults are allowed to climb to greater heights (91 metres!), but it will cost them 300 UAH per person.

Corpulent individuals are not allowed to venture up the ladders. Nothing personal, but the last stage of the vertical climb takes place in a very small space where one can get stuck.

Visitors who want to ascend to the upper platform are attached together with a rescue rope. Photo: Eldar Sarakhman

Visitors are allowed to proceed only in good weather – no rain, no strong winds, and temperatures from +5 ° to +30 °.

Only two people at a time, accompanied by a supervisor. The platform is too small to accommodate more visitors.

Kostiantyn Lebed explains that the platform is closed if the temperature rises above 30C. This is a necessary measure so that visitors do not start feeling sick from the stuffy, stale air inside. In the event of an emergency, it is very difficult to lower a person from the top of the statue along such narrow flights of stairs.

Although Konstantin says that there have been no such incidents ever since he started working at the facility.

The journey to the upper observation deck starts at 30 metres. Before entering the vertical elevator, visitors are asked to leave all their belongings (backpacks, bags) at the desk. And, they are given a safety belt harness.

Daredevil visitors are given construction gloves to help them climb the many stairs. Photo: Eldar Sarakhman

We remark the old soviet-branded telephone in the tiny elevator.

“I tell foreign visitors that it’s the latest Apple model.” jokes Kostiantyn Lebed.

The elevator rises slowly and stops at a height of 64 metres. Kostiantyn informs us that we are now at the level of the Motherland’s waistline. We start climbing several flights of stairs and arrive at the level of the Motherland’s bosom.

When you are inside the Motherland Monument, it becomes clear how complex this construction really is. Photo: Eldar Sarakhman

At this stage, many visitors refuse to climb further.

“I guess it’s some kind of built-in instinct of self-preservation.” says Lebed as he hooks a swivel carabiner and rescue rope in his belt.

When you climb the stairs, the supervisor tells you what to do. It takes no more than five minutes to go up the stairs in the Motherland’s left arm. Photo: Eldar Sarakhman

The last stretch – up the stairs in a narrow tube, not at all recommended for claustrophobic visitors. It is located inside the Motherland’s left arm, which holds the shield emblazoned with a soviet star.

We climb at an angle, moving from the shoulder to the elbow of the sculpture, and then continue straight up.

A small round hatch in front of us – and here we are, standing on a small platform surrounded by netting, at a height of 91 metres!

Visitors should be agile and slim to fit through the only hatch that leads to the upper observation deck. Photo: Eldar Sarakhman

Only the tip of the sword in the Motherland’s right hand rises above us, at a level of 102 metres from the ground.

1,600 people managed to reach this platform in 2019.

“A lot of foreigners come up here. Polish tourists are very likely to say something like “Курва! (No shit!), while English visitors will exclaim “Wow, what the hell!” says Lebed.

Inside the sword, there is a special device to dampen vibrations.

The inside of the sword can also be accessed, but only by museum technicians.

Despite his climbing skills, Kostiantyn Lebed is not a mountaineer. He says that he has enough work inside the Motherland. Photo: Eldar Sarakhman

State emblem of the USSR: pull it down or leave it standing?

According to the Soviet designers, architects and builders, the Motherland can withstand an earthquake with a magnitude of 9 points on the Richter scale.

The creators of the sculpture guaranteed that it would stand until 2130.

The huge metal structure sometimes interferes with small aviation, causing drones to crash near the base of the monument. Photo: Oleh Stelmakh

Judging by how the construction has resisted wear and tear in the last 39 years, the forecasts for the future of the most recognizable Ukrainian monument in the world are quite optimistic. But, the question is whether it will be preserved in its original form.

Over the past few years, Ukrainian authorities and society have frequently raised the issue of the decommunization of the Motherland Monument.

Thanks to its high pedestal, the Kyiv Motherland is 17 metres higher than its Volgograd namesake. Photo: Oleh Stelmakh

Volodymyr Viatrovych, former Director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, stated that the soviet emblem on the shield should be dismantled. But, due to the complexity and high cost of this process, the idea was not implemented. At the beginning of 2020, the new UINM Director, Anton Drobovych, returned to this issue, announcing that he would try to have the soviet star removed.

The museum displays a lot of soviet symbols.

The museum is reluctant to discuss the initiative, referring to the official position published on its website.

In general terms, it boils down to the fact that the monument is a complex and massive construction. Therefore, before anything can be dismantled or changed, it must be discussed by technical experts and scientists.

One of the most notable examples of soviet monumentalism – the Motherland Monument – undergoes various forms of “modernization”. Photo: Oleh Stelmakh

First of all, it is important to answer the primary technical question: will the dismantling affect the overall stability of the Motherland Monument?

The museum board of directors proposes to conduct an national social survey to find out how people feel about the idea of ​​dismantling the soviet emblem on the shield.

Is it at all possible to remove the soviet emblem on the shield? Photo: open source

The museum says they have conducted a small survey among visitors, who were asked: “In your opinion, is the Motherland Monument a soviet symbol, an art object, a tourist lamdmark of Kyiv or a place of historical memory?” “Soviet symbol” got the least number of responses.

This survey can hardly be considered representative of national sentiment. Whether the soviet star remains or not, the monumental sculpture towering over the Dnipro River has long acquired another symbolic meaning.

Decommunization supporters want the Motherland Monument to have the Ukrainian emblem – the Tryzub (trident) – on the shield. Photo: Eldar Sarakhman

It is unlikely that its creators could foresee the future, but today, the Motherland Monument does not plunge Ukrainians into a state of cognitive dissonance. The “Berehynia” (Protectress), as she is often called nowadays, wields her mighty sword and shield, protecting the Ukrainian nation, gazing defiantly and fearlessly towards Russia.

Video of the Motherland Monument (3:19)

Photos: Eldar Sarakhman, Oleh Stelmakh

Translated by: Christine Chraibi
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