WASHINGTON — Every time architect Larysa Kurylas walks or drives past the Holodomor Memorial in the American capital, she admits she experiences a thrill of excitement mixed with pride.
And that is easy to understand because Kurylas designed the memorial to the four million Ukrainians who Josef Stalin starved to death from 1932-33. She spent years shepherding the project into reality on one of Washington’s main thoroughfares.
This month saw the opening at the University of Maryland, where Larysa studied in the 1980s, of an exhibition that tells the story of how the monument came about.
Ronit Eisenbach, the curator at the exhibition center at the university’s architectural faculty, became an enthusiastic supporter of the exhibition and series of accompanying events after discussing the monument when Larysa started teaching a design course at her alma mater in 2018.
Kurylas, whose parents came to the U.S. as refugees after World War II, opened the exhibition on Feb. 12 with a lecture to a packed audience that included scores of students and lecturers from her alma mater. She chronicled the various stages of the monument from its conception to its manufacture and emplacement and the myriad bureaucratic, political and technical problems that had to be overcome in a race against a deadline set by U.S. officials.
Eisenbach and Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S., Volodymyr Yelchenko, welcomed the exhibition and spoke about the importance of the monument in promoting awareness of one of the 20th century’s most grotesque crimes, concealed while the Soviet Union existed.
Among those listening were two of Kurylas’ old friends — Bishop Borys Gudziak, now the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in America, and Boris Lushniak, a U.S. Navy retired rear admiral who served as the acting surgeon general, the top government health official, between 2013-14 and is now professor and dean of the School of Public Health at the university.
Holodomor is a compound of Ukrainian words for hunger and death. There are no precise statistics for how many people died because the Soviet Union and its successor regime headed by Russian dictator Vladimir Putin have either denied the genocidal mass murder ever happened or distorted its history and tried to minimize its extent. But estimates of the number of victims vary between around four million deaths to more than 10 million.
Kurylas was born in Baltimore, Maryland’s largest city, some 40 miles north of Washington. A seaport and industrial center, it was one of the places that saw a large number of Ukrainian immigrants settling there and create a thriving Ukrainian diaspora community.
Her parents steeped her in Ukrainian culture. She attended Ukrainian churches and Saturday school, was a member of the Plast Ukrainian scouting organization, learned traditional dancing and sang in a choir. But also, she told her audience, her parents stressed that the key to success in America was education “which led to the eventual pursuit of an architectural profession starting in these very halls.”
An idea is born and the clock starts ticking
She now has her own successful design studio in Washington. Kurylas said the idea of designing a monument first occurred to her on Dec. 2, 2008, when she attended the dedication ceremony on the site of the future Holodomor Memorial which had been authorized by an Act of Congress, signed by then-President George W. Bush in 2006, authorized.
The Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, spearheaded by Michael Sawkiw, and the Ukrainian Embassy of the United States, successfully lobbied Congress for permission to erect a memorial and provide a space for it in the American capital.
Under American law, once permission is given there are seven years for the idea to become reality. Otherwise the permission lapses and the whole laborious process begins again.
By the time she attended the dedication, two years had already elapsed. She said: “Standing there during the dedication, I began to wonder how one might actually memorialize the Holodomor.”
She had long known about the Holodomor and she became friends with Gudziak and Lushniak when they all attended a Ukrainian studies summer course at Harvard University where one of the lecturers was James Mace, an American academic who was an expert on the Holodomor and devoted much energy to educating the world about the genocide.
The idea that she should submit her own idea about memorializing the Holodomor crystallized during the ceremony: her Ukrainian background, her knowledge about the Holdomor, her professional skills, the fact that the memorial site was in “my backyard,”all combined to spark a passionate determination to produce a winning design.
But the clock was ticking and another year went by before the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Tourism announced an international competition, that Larysa entered, for the design of the memorial.
Kurylas had been turning over in her mind how to convey the idea of a deliberate famine in “built form” and particularly as the site allowed for the memorial, near the capital’s main Union Station railway station of Massachusetts Avenue, was incongruously near, for something representing mass hunger, to two pub restaurants.
Also the triangular site at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue, and North Capital Street, which leads to the Congress building posed a geometric problem.
Most importantly was what would the monument look like. Larysa soon dismissed the idea of something entailing human figures – victims of starvation had been suggested.
Instead, she thought that one of the few things Americans might know about Ukraine was that it was “the breadbasket” of Europe, producing an abundance of wheat that used to be able too to feed the whole of Europe for many years.
The Holodomor had been caused by Soviet forces requisitioning grain, at gunpoint, to sell on foreign markets to fuel Soviet industrialization. But, Kurylas knew: “The purpose of starving the population was also to break resistance to collectivization. The famine in the countryside, in conjunction with mass repressions and executions of the Ukrainian intelligentsia in the cities, effectively quashed any aspirations for independence in Ukraine for many decades to come.
Solving the puzzle of how to depict famine
“So, I asked myself, what form would a memorial take, dedicated to the victims of a secret famine deliberately created in Ukraine, but built in Washington, D.C, 80 years later, on a small triangular site next to two restaurants?”
The answer was “wheat.” She explained: “For this reason, the main sculpture of this proposed Holodomor Memorial represents a majestic ‘Field of Wheat,’ 1.8 meters high and 9 meters long. The depiction of wheat is dynamic. It changes from high relief on the left edge to deep negative relief on the right, reflecting the transition from a record harvest to a horrible deficit. As the wheat disappears, the term “HOLODOMOR 1932 – 1933” emerges out of the wall in greater relief.’
The curving wall of wheat also serves to obscure the nearby pubs. “The incongruity of the two pubs nearby influenced the very concept,” She said, “And the design also allowed space for gatherings near the memorial. “
A jury in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, voted her design as one of their top five choices out of 42 entries.
But then things started to go wrong in a way that seemed to spell doom for the project.
Political enthusiasm in Washington for a memorial had been sparked by the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine which brought pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko to power.
However, in 2010, he lost his bid for re-election in the first round of voting. The ultimate winner was his 2004 nemesis, Kremlin-favored Viktor Yanukovych, who downplayed the Holodomor so as not to anger Moscow. He immediately removed the Holodomor link from his official presidential website.
For 18 months the project languished in limbo but then, in June 2011, without explanation, the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington received instructions to get things moving again. Kurylas has a theory that the person who persuaded Yanukovych to reinstate the project was none other than Paul Manafort, whose PR skills were credited with getting Yanukovych elected. In 2016 Manafort became leader of Donald Trump’s election campaign when he ran for president. But Manafort was investigated for failing to pay taxes on millions of dollars in secret payments made to him by Yanukovych and is now serving a seven-year jail sentence in the U.S.
Kurylas told the Kyiv Post she has no evidence but suspects Manafort told Yanukovych the monument project should proceed and “quietly told him to just do it because it would be worse if he didn’t.”
After a series of meetings involving the Ukrainian embassy, American officials and experts on memorials and monuments in the capital, Kurylas’ design, entitled “Field of Wheat,” was chosen.
“What carried the day, however, I think, was the communicative power of the ‘Field of Wheat’ sculpture. The inherent beauty of the wheat belies the gruesome way in which it was weaponized to starve the farmers who produced it. The relentless movement of wheat from positive to negative across nine meters captures the slow and deliberate nature of the Holodomor. The sculpture is, at once, representational and abstract.”
But the subsequent review processes and design modifications lasted over two years. And there were doubts that the Ukrainian government, responsible for financing the monument, would actually provide the money. But in the end, Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash covered the costs with what Kurylas estimates to be a $2.5 million donation.
All the American government requirements were finally met on Oct. 1, 2013, jut 10 days before the seven-year law to establish the memorial expired.
Kurylas used real sheaves of wheat, harvested at a farm in Beausejour in Canada’s Manitoba Province near Winnipeg owned by a Canadian-Ukrainian, for the sculpture.
They were first cast in plaster and then transformed into metal by father Larry Welker and son Lawrence, at their foundry, Laran Bronze, in the state of Pennsylvania. Larry Welker suggested inserting three small mice into the wheat field.
She said farmers and their families starving after their wheat had been confiscated would scan fields for signs of mice as a pointer too where some fallen wheat kernels might be found.
ion. Seventeen bronze castings created the wheat field and on Aug. 4, 2015, the five-ton sculpture traveled was bolted into its place on Massachusetts Avenue.
On Nov. 7, 2015, the monument was officially unveiled. The previous year had seen Yanukovych flee Ukraine after mass protests and the shooting of protesters by government forces led to the country’s Revolution of Dignity, also known as the EuroMaidan Revolution.
Elation at the revolution was dampened by the Russian invasion that followed, with the seizure of Crimea and now 14,000 killed in a defensive war against Moscow-backed forces in Ukraine’s east. But the dramatic events catalyzed a surge in patriotic feelings and pride in Ukraine. And the Holodomor monument graphically demonstrated that Ukrainians were still in a fight for survival.
Some 5,000 Ukrainian-Americans attended the ceremony as well as members of the American Congress, diplomats from the Ukrainian Embassy. Then Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was represented by his wife, Maryna.
Kurylas lives not far from the monument and told the Kyiv Post that she sometimes goes to watch people’s reactions to the memorial. Many caress the reliefs of the wheat and she often finds that visitors have left flowers or lighted candles.
The memorial has joined the statue, in downtown Washington of Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko, as a place that visitors from Ukraine or diaspora members make a point of seeing. Diaspora communities from America and Canada have organized group visits, especially for young people.
All of that is pleasing to Kurylas. But she is also troubled that the Ukrainian government has been neglecting its responsibility to maintain the memorial, as stipulated under the terms the American side provided the site. She said: “For a year or two there was a contract with a landscape company to trim trees and bushes and mulch the plant beds on the site. But now nothing is happening. City cleaners don’t work on the plant beds or even on the pavement. I sometimes collect trash at the memorial myself.”
Her idea is to have Ukrainian organizations such as Plast, Ukrainian Youth Association, church congregations, and others to take turns at maintenance. She hopes that the exhibition and attendant publicity will inspire the diaspora in Washington itself as well as nearby centers in the neighboring states of Virginia and Maryland to nurture an affinity for the monument.
The exhibition, which lasts until July, comprises models, plans, sections of the moulds used to cast the bronze memorial, and an explanation about the famine deliberately engineered by Stalin’s regime in 1932-1933.
Other events are planned around the exhibition including a panel discussion of architects on the scope and diversity of memorials in DC and why they are built and another panel consisting of University of Maryland History Department faculty about the Holodomor in Kazakhstan as well as Ukraine.
On March 2, Kurylas, Mary Kay Lanzillotta of Hartman-Cox Architects, who advise D.C. on memorials and sculptor Lawrence Welker from the Laran Bronze Foundry will speak.
On April 1 there will be a symposium entitled “The Politics of Memory and Place” with Anne Applebaum, Ukraine expert and author of the bestselling book about the Holodomor, “Red Famine.” In early April there will be a screening of a film called “Mr. Jones” and a question and answer session with Andrea Chalupa, the screenwriter. The movie is about Welsh journalist Gareth Jones’s courageous, illegal trip to parts of Ukraine affected by famine and his attempts to counter Moscow’s disinformation about the mass murder it was perpetrating.