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Visual Design and Augmented Reality Expands the Story of the Holodomor

H90 Staff and Yuliya Fedorovych

Reflecting on the efforts of the Ukrainian community to commemorate the victims of the Holodomor on this 90th Anniversary, it’s important to acknowledge and appreciate the individuals who have dedicated themselves to raising awareness about this famine-genocide. One individual who is using her artistic and creative design abilities to shine a light on the Holodomor is Yuliya Fedorovych.

Yuliya Fedorovych is a Ukrainian graphic designer and artist who has created a series of posters and an animated short film to raise awareness about the Holodomor, the genocide of Ukrainians by the Soviet Union in 1932-1933. She was prompted to create this work after learning that the Holodomor is not widely taught in North America, and especially in U.S. classrooms as she obtained her Masters of Fine Arts in Visual Communications Design at the University of Notre Dame.

Fedorovych’s posters are designed to be visually striking and emotionally evocative. They use a limited color palette of red, black, and white, and typography that is reminiscent of Soviet propaganda posters. The posters also incorporate traditional Ukrainian embroidery patterns.

Fedorovych also implemented the use of augmented reality in her designs, allowing viewers to use an app on their phones to enhance the experience and storytelling of the Holodomor.

Caption: Presentation of Fedorovych’s work at Carleton University

Fedorovych’s animated short film, “My Name is Eugenia Sakevych-Dallas,” tells the story of a Ukrainian woman who survived the Holodomor. The film is based on the sparse historical records and images that exist from that time.

Fedorovych hopes that her work will help people to learn more about the Holodomor and to understand the importance of preventing future genocides. She believes that the Holodomor is a reminder of the dangers of genocide and the importance of fighting for human rights.

What prompted your interest in the Holodomor?

In 2018, I won a Fulbright fellowship and traveled to the United States to pursue a master of fine arts in Visual Communications Design at the University of Notre Dame. As part of the degree, I had to conduct a series of independent research projects. I was the only Eastern European international student in my department, so I focused my work on Ukraine. While at Notre Dame, I realized that Americans generally know very little about Ukraine and Eastern Europe. Even the most socially and culturally aware of them know nothing about the Holodomor, despite it being one of the most deadly genocides in history. As a result, I spent my graduate studies creating work that informs people about the Holodomor and its consequences. During this time, among other projects, I created a series of posters HØLØDØMØR, and also an animated short film entitled My Name is Eugenia Sakevych-Dallas.

Was it eye-opening to learn that the Holodomor was not widely taught in North America, and especially in U.S. classrooms?

Yes. However, I was even more shocked that although the United States was one of the first countries to start investigating the events of the Holodomor back in the 1980s, awareness amongst the general public about this genocide remains low. The vast majority of Americans have never heard of the word “Holodomor” and it is not included in most of the dictionaries1. Moreover, U.S. high school history textbooks usually address the period and region from an American perspective. The USSR is considered a key ally of the U.S. in World War II, Stalin is considered a “necessary evil”, and the crimes of the Soviet regime are mentioned fleetingly without focusing on the ethnic dimensions of the Soviet repression.

This lack of general knowledge about the period and the crimes of the USSR permeates other aspects of North American culture. For instance, on major retail services like Amazon and Google Shopping, one can easily find a variety of novelty products like mugs and pillows with portraits of Stalin. Reproduction Soviet propaganda posters are widely available for decorative use. There are also a variety of food products in the U.S. and Canada that use the hammer and sickle as part of their design. Needless to say, mugs displaying other symbols of hate and throw pillows featuring other perpetrators of genocide are less socially acceptable and not widely available.

Fedorovych discusses the meaning behind each poster here

How do your posters differ from other exhibits on the Holodomor?

Most of the visual art that addresses the topic depicts the consequences of the Holodomor: lack of food, death, suffering, and starvation. It uses images of food (i.e., ears of wheat), death (i.e., human bones, or the grim reaper), and memory (i.e. candles, or dates). These images are well understood by people who know what the Holodomor is, but not necessarily those who have never heard of this genocide. I realized the necessity of creating a visual language that builds on the Western audience’s existing knowledge of Eastern Europe at the time. This prompted me to reclaim visual elements of the soviet propaganda posters of that era which were used to hide these atrocities. The ‘aesthetics’ of soviet propaganda posters have had a significant influence on Western art, advertising, and design. They are often thoughtlessly positioned as stylish or amusing in popular media and day-to-day life. For example, in the hit sitcom Friends, numerous soviet propaganda posters are hung in the main characters’ apartments. These posters are presumably from the late soviet period (1960-1980), and while none of them directly depicts Stalin, soviet symbols, or soviet slogans they promote the triumphs rather than the crimes of the USSR. Another example is a 2008 M&Ms ad campaign entitled The Redolution Is Now!… Vote Red. The Red M&M is depicted as Lenin leading an uprising of the working class in homage to early soviet propaganda posters.

Finally, a variety of Soviet-themed restaurants and clubs are sprinkled across North America. Their interiors are decorated with propaganda posters, and busts of soviet leaders, and their branding sometimes utilizes the hammer and sickle. Many of these businesses for various reasons were permanently closed in the 2010s (e.g., Hammer and Sickle restaurant in Minneapolis, Red Square in Las Vegas, and Atlantic City). However, others remain, including the Avant-Garde Bar in my current home of Ottawa, Ontario which features menu items like the “exiled green salad”. My great-grandmother was exiled to Siberia and barely survived an experience that is shared by hundreds of thousands of other Ukrainians. For me, and for many others it’s difficult to to comprehend this phenomenon. It’s also difficult to imagine advertising, art, or design themed around other genocidal totalitarian regimes. Given the widespread adoption of Soviet propaganda’s ‘aesthetics’, I was determined to use these visual cues to inform people about the terrible crimes this propaganda was created to hide.

How did you develop the visuals for your work?

I started by researching the best methods for communicating information about genocide. It was a long non-linear process involving many approaches and concepts. Some of my initial concepts were focused on exposing the perpetrators behind the Holodomor, and communicating how the tragedy was concealed from the world. Subsequently, I decided to start by introducing the word ‘Holodomor’ to Western audiences and communicating the magnitude of the tragedy. The first iteration of posters was displayed in 2019, as part of the Solarium Show in Bond Hall at the University of Notre Dame, and is still permanently displayed there.

Caption: Yuliya Fedorovych beside the original three posters at the University of Notre Dame, 2019

Later I decided it was more important to talk about the Holodomor in a broad sense and not focus exclusively on the death toll and consequences. Therefore, I developed the current series of ten posters that walk the audience through the history of the Holodomor, the various atrocities that took place, and its aftermath. I defined the visual style of my work around the limited high-contrast red, black, and white color palette, distinctive typography, and visual minimalism of soviet posters. I also wanted my work to be strongly associated with Ukraine, so I adopted the symbols and patterns of traditional Ukrainian embroidery.

Caption: Yuliya Fedorovych talks about the HØLØDØMØR project at the University of Ottawa, 2022

As I was explaining the meaning behind the posters to attendees at one of my shows, I realized that It would be ideal if the posters were interactive—this would allow viewers to better understand the story and the meaning behind each of them. In early 2023 I added an augmented reality to each poster, which can be accessed using a mobile app. This project has since been shown in multiple locations in Ukraine and Canada.  

The exposition at the National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide, Kyiv, Ukraine

When audiences view your work, are there one or two things that you want them to take away from them?

Yes, first of all, of course, I want people to continue to learn more about the Holodomor and become more aware of genocides of the past and present in general. Such awareness provokes dialogue and produces empathy, which in turn can motivate audiences to make informed decisions and act in the interests of social justice. In other words, I hope that such awareness will encourage people to systematically take some small but concrete steps to prevent the genocide and crimes against humanity that are happening now.

I also want the audience to understand that the USSR made a concerted effort to hide the Holodomor from the Western public. As a result, no one was ever punished for these crimes. This impunity emboldened the Soviet Union and subsequently Russia to continue repressing Ukrainian independence through mass murder and violence. This can only be stopped by telling the truth, exposing the murderers and perpetrators, and condemning their genocidal crimes and atrocities.

You also created a short film on the Holodomor, specifically about a survivor – Eugenia Sakevych-Dallas. Can you tell us a little more about that?

Yes, I recently finished a short animated film entitled My Name is Eugenia Sakevych-Dallas. Eugenia was an incredible woman who survived the Holodomor and later became a well-known model in Europe and the United States. The film reconstructs the story of her life and survival based on the sparse historical records and images that exist from that time. As I researched the Holodomor I was impressed by the stories of survivors’ unbreakable spirit and strength. Eugenia in particular is one of only a handful of survivors who used her real name while witnessing before the U.S. Congress Commission on the Ukraine Famine, one of a few who openly shared her experiences. Her life story, albeit horrific, is also uplifting in a way, as it highlights the incredible strength of the human spirit.

Although My Name is Eugenia Sakevych-Dallas describes the events of the past, this film has the potential to help Western audiences better understand present-day Ukraine and its people, who fight for their freedom and independence so desperately. The film is available on YouTube.

Teaching genocide is important because it helps us to understand the past, to prevent future genocides, and to promote human rights. By learning about the Holodomor, we can gain a deeper understanding of the factors that can lead to genocide, such as extreme nationalism, racism, and political repression. We can also learn from the mistakes of the past and work to prevent future genocides from happening.

1As of November 2023 the word ‘Holodomor’ is not included in the New Oxford American Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and Cambridge Dictionary. Since 2021, the word Holodomor appeared on Dictionary.com

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