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Sparkling Identity: micro-history of one Ukrainian town

Bakhmut. Sparkling Identity
Bakhmut. Sparkling Identity | © Goethe-Institut

Research tandem: Stas Mendzelevskyi, Leri Matehha

Renaming of streets and cities became an integral part of decommunization processes in Ukraine as well as general attempts to rethink and to reinterpret Soviet past and heritage after Maidan events in 2014.
Does a name really matter? Is there another level of significance behind the name change, besides a ritualistic bureaucratic act? What does it mean to be renamed? What social, political and cultural implications does this ambiguous process cover?
The recent political changes in Ukraine illustrate the collective memory debate of what new generations have to remember and what they had better to forget. But, is it necessary to remove names and symbols of the past to have an independent future or do the (Soviet) memories of the past also belong to contemporary Ukrainians?
Cultural history of Ukrainian town of Bakhmut during XX century is a story of names, one name, to be precise - Artem. Over years Bakhmut experienced back-and forth name changes (Bakhmut (1574) - Artemivsk (1924) - Bakhmut (1942) - Artemivsk (1943) - Bakhmut (2016)). Moreover, we wanted to depict the history of the meta-monument of the town - Artem - a monument that was recently decommunized and removed to a backyard of a train station, where it RIPs next to Lenin.
Despite the fact that the ‘historical’ name Bakhmut was given back to the town in 2016, the name of Artem (after which the city was (re)named in 1924) is firmly integrated into the memory and material culture of the local community. Moreover, the whole Soviet history of the town is deeply connected to this name.
The former Bakhmut became Artemivsk in 1924 in order to commemorate the death of Stalin’s former comrade-in-arms Fiodor Sergeev, nicknamed “Comrade Artem”, eliminated, according to the town’s legends, by the order of general secretary himself. After the death of “Artem” Stalin also adopted son (named Artem) of the deceased revolutionary.
The first renaming of the town took place during the opening of a unique constructivist monument to Artem, made by the legendary Ukrainian sculptor and film director Ivan Kavaleridze. During the Nazi occupation, German soldiers have tried to demolish the monument and renamed the town to Bakhmut. The monument was destroyed, but not the pedestal. Soviet soldiers liberated the town, renamed it as Artemivsk and decorated the empty pedestal with a red star. In 1959 the star was removed and a brand new social realist monument of Artem was put in the town’s centre.
But the memory of the WW2 never leaves the town. Before the retreat, the occupation forces walled up about 3,000 Jews in the former gypsum mine. According to the popular version, the perfectly preserved bodies of the victims inspired Stalin to create a sparkling wine storage facility (later factory) in Artemivsk. In 1954 (the year of Stalin’s death) the factory produced the first bottle of Soviet champagne. In addition to Artemivsk salt, local champagne for decades became not only the symbol of the town, but also an integral part of the Soviet people's leisure culture. In independent Ukraine “Soviet” champagne became “Artemivske” and the assortment of the plant was replenished with the brand “Krym”.
Nowadays, the name of Artem is gradually being washed away from the public space and the town’s memory: a new memory is being constructed, new meanings and a new ‘brand’ of the town. After the decommunization processes, the Artemivsk Winery was named as “Art Winery”, and the well-known “Artemivsk salt” began to be produced under the new brand - “A-salt”.
In 2015, the Soviet monument to Artem was dismantled, and the town was named Bakhmut once again. There is an empty space of the missing monument and identity lack emerged in the central square, as well as in the identity of ordinary citizens. What happens to the society and people deprived of the old identity? Is there a place in the local commemoration culture to the old symbols and idols, or the emptiness is the only way out? In our documentary essay, we tried to answer these questions.
We decided to research the subjective level of this ‘objective’ decommunization process in the town of Bakhmut, focusing on the official side of this process.
Therefore we are using  the historical chronology to reveal personal stories of the representatives of the local community, because behind this official timeline of the town’s history, there is a mix of urban legends, local mythology, folcloric superstitions, state ideology, distortions of facts and calibration of the truth. Bad metaphysics, that’s how we called this backstage (ill)ogic of decommunization. And that is what our film/cinematic research is about.
The first thing we noticed in Bakhmut was that the city is filled with contradiction: on the one hand the “lightness” of beauty industry: nail art studios, esoteric services and absurd restaurant trends: sushi-pizza fusion food places, which are called something like: “Europe” or “New York”.

On the other hand, the heaviness of the political context (and a systematic denial of history) of the town. We wanted to avoid a 1:1 depiction of those things, rather than to find our own way to celebrate a very complex history of Bakhmut and to create a new narrative with those old and new facts.
Simultaneously we intuitively  were using  the local museum of Bakhmut as the representative of our narration- the spatial key point of our movie. Which also has a symbolic meaning: because generally speaking a museum is a conservator of a culture. Furthermore the theme of contradiction is not only represented in the content, but also in the form: the movie is filmed on 4K format as well as on mini-dv cassettes. Both formats are used equally and sometimes even simultaneously, so-to-say as a fusion of this contradiction in time and space.