Art Professor’s Walls, Empty Spaces Speak Quiet Volumes About Historical Memory

Photo of paper model of Soviet Lada-style car hitting a telephone pole, with one wheel off Image by Pavel Romaniko
"Russian history is an accident that keeps repeating itself," photographer Pavel Romaniko says, in explaining his photo, "Untitled (Accident I)."

By Katharine Webster

Asst. Teaching Prof. Pavel Romaniko, whose family has roots in both Ukraine and Russia, is divided by war. 

Yet long before Russia invaded Ukraine, Romaniko, of the Department of Art and Design, was meditating on the diminishment of free artistic and political expression and the erasure of historical memory in Russia through his photographs of reconstructed, depopulated spaces.

His book, exhibit and ongoing photographic project “Nostalgia: A Guide to Collective Melancholie” brings to mind the saying, “If these walls could talk.” 

Photo of model of mostly empty room with window looking onto the walls of another building Image by Pavel Romaniko
In Romaniko's photographs, windows in the walls look onto other walls, as in "Untitled (Empty Room III)."
Romaniko’s walls and rooms are empty of people, except propaganda portraits and statues of authoritarian Soviet and Russian leaders. But they speak quiet volumes about history and Russian society for those who know how to read them: the glorification of former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin; the absence of art in a famous art gallery; windows that look onto more walls. 

Romaniko, who directs the new digital media major, first came to the United States from Russia as a high school exchange student and later earned his B.A. at Northwestern College, a small Baptist school in St. Paul, Minnesota. He earned his M.F.A. in imaging arts at Rochester Institute of Technology and has taught at UMass Lowell since fall 2015.

Recently, he spoke about his work and the war.

Q: All of the works in “Nostalgia” are photos of intricate paper models. Why make these detailed models in paper when you could create images digitally?

A: In “A Guide to Collective Melancholie,” I restore things. I either go to a physical space or I find a photograph – mine or someone else’s, significant or insignificant – and then I reconstruct it as a miniature paper model, light it and re-photograph it.

Photo of model of building on Lesnaya Street where journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered Image by Pavel Romaniko
In "Untitled (Lesnaya Street)," Romaniko portrays the building where an independent journalist was assassinated in 2006.
Paper is essential because it’s a documentation. I am constantly writing things on paper; I’m always documenting things. 

In the Soviet Union, they would say, “If you don’t have a document, you don’t exist.” My birth certificate is a piece of paper that has no actual relationship to fact, yet it’s so important. 

I was born in Kazakhstan when it was part of the USSR, but when I was 1 month old, my family moved to a small town outside Moscow where my dad’s parents lived. When my grandfather died shortly afterward, my parents wanted to rename me after him – and to get a new birth certificate with a new name on it, they had to list me as being born there.

Q: Why is your work titled “Nostalgia”? 

A: The title is satire. Nostalgia is dangerous because it requires no imagination.

Nostalgic thinking never implies an actual place; it implies a return to a utopian space. It employs a sense of historical forgetting, and in the present moment, it manufactures a context for that past that’s utopian or idealistic – and then seeks to project that into the future. 

Photo of model of art gallery where Kazimir Malevich exhibited "Black Square" in 1915 Image by Pavel Romaniko
Romaniko recreates the art gallery where Kazimir Malevich exhibited "Black Square" and other paintings in 1915 in "Untitled (Dobychina Bureau)."
Nostalgia always requires an audience, and any analytical inquiry into it will crumple it. But inquiry requires reflection, and people who deal in nostalgia do not want to reflect.

My art is a reflection on my own futility and impotence in knowing or understanding certain things, but not being able to do anything about them. Protesting in Russia is a deadly sport. There are all these brave people who have resisted knowingly and courageously, and I’m not one of them, so there’s always that sense of helplessness. 

Q: The only people present in your “Nostalgia” photos are portraits and sculptures of Soviet and Russian leaders, from Vladimir Lenin to Vladimir Putin. What is the historical context for some of your works?

A: The book begins and ends with photos that show a car, modeled on the Soviet Lada, that has been in an accident. Russian history is an accident that keeps repeating itself. Russians haven’t dealt with their past; they haven’t explicitly acknowledged that what Stalin did in Ukraine was wrong, fundamentally wrong, against his own people. And now they’re trying to bring Stalin back as a hero of the past. 

“Untitled (Lesnaya Street)” and “Untitled (Stairwell)” are recreations of the building and hallway where independent journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated on Vladimir Putin’s birthday in 2006. 

Photo of model of empty rooms with portraits of Soviet and Russian authoritarian leaders including Vladimir Putin and Josef Stalin Image by Pavel Romaniko
"Untitled (Gallery II)" is a display of standard propaganda photos of authoritarian Soviet and Russian leaders.
In the room with four chairs facing a television set, the TV is the type on which people would have seen (former Soviet Premier Nikita) Khrushchev give Crimea to Ukraine in 1954.

“Untitled (0.10)” is a reconstruction of the gallery where the artist Kazimir Malevich exhibited his famous painting “Black Square” in 1915, as part of “The Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting 0.10.” 

Q: In your reconstruction, the gallery is empty, with only a single canvas turned to the wall. And your photo “Untitled (Gallery)” contains not art, but the standard propaganda photos of Soviet and Russian leaders – minus Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, who oversaw the dissolution of the Soviet Union and an era of greater political and artistic openness. In your view, what is the relationship between politics and art?

A: Art is never apolitical. The act of making artwork in a totalitarian society is an act of dissent. Simply producing artwork is a form of free expression: It’s why literature is a danger to totalitarian societies, because it undermines their message. 

Photo of model of room with four empty chairs facing a 1950s Soviet TV set Image by Pavel Romaniko
In "Untitled (TV I)" Romaniko portrays the type of TV set on which Soviet citizens would have watched Nikita Khrushchev "give" Crimea to Ukraine in 1954.
Art exposes the mechanics of thinking of the artist himself. Visual art suggests a space in which one could say, “That’s an interesting way to think about this.” And what a totalitarian space says is, “No, you can’t think about this in any other way.”

Russia just passed a law killing internal dissent. That’s the context of my work.

Q: You have spoken out about your opposition to the invasion of Ukraine. How has it affected you?

A: Until the minute of the invasion, I and many Russians I know thought the military buildup was a bluff. I just broke down and I wept. I have a lot of friends I would see cry on the phone; they would never support the invasion, but we feel guilt even though we don’t live in Russia and there’s nothing we can do. It’s a feeling of impotence.

It’s hard to find a Russian who doesn’t have connections to Ukraine one way or another, and that’s what makes it almost impossible to grasp. On my mother’s side of the family, my great-grandparents were forcibly resettled from Ukraine to the plains of Kazakhstan under Stalin. My cousin, who I’m very close with, lived in Ukraine most of her life, but she just moved to Russia a few years ago. My uncle lived there for a good part of his life. 

The invasion really is just a war of one man, but unfortunately, everyone else is complicit by affiliation. I think that’s what a lot of Russians are feeling now: There’s a lot of shame, a lot of guilt, because they’re feeling complicit. 

I love my country, but I don’t love my nation.