In the centuries before photographs and videos could preserve each wrinkle, the exact angle of a nose, and the curve of a smile, a molded cast was used to capture the final likeness of the deceased for posterity. This so-called death mask was hung in private parlors, displayed in grand museums, or sold to cultured citizens—so countries and families would never forget the faces of their loved ones. Everyone from William Shakespeare to Abraham Lincoln to gangster John Dillinger had their last expressions set in a three-dimensional mask.
On a historic street in the Ukrainian capital, this time-honored tradition is being used as a surprising way to celebrate the country’s increasingly shaky sovereignty. On Thursday, a museum in Kiev will dust off a selection of its extensive collection of death masks to commemorate Ukraine’s most famous figures for the country’s 23rd Independence Day on August 24.
In an exhibit called “Ukrainian Pantheon,” One Street Museum seeks to build “a temple of great people” in the tradition of the ancient Greeks. Instead of chiseled marble, these famous faces will be represented by plaster impressions taken from them at the moment of death and collected in what may be the world’s largest stockpile of death masks.
“It’s said history can be realized through a person,” says the museum’s founder, Dmitry Shlyonsky. And after a spring of toppled leaders, annexation, and mass casualties, it’s in uncertain times like these when Ukrainians need to recall their past. “We are worried about our independence, we are deeply concerned,” he says. So what better way to craft that reminder than with a retrospective of famous, dead figures who defined Ukrainian identity?
That’s why the faces of notable nationals like Symon Petliura, a leader in Ukraine’s four-year war of independence after the 1917 Russian Revolution, and Stepan Bandera, a controversial political activist and anti-Soviet fighter, will be displayed prominently with their last expressions preserved by plaster.
These icons of the 20th century have maintained influence over Ukraine’s divide between the East and the West even decades after their deaths. In Kiev's central Maidan Square during protests this March, protesters strung up a poster of Bandera as a uniting figure against Russian expansionism. “The question of Bandera is not history for us. It is still about the present day,” one nationalist protester told the media. “The Russians want to call him a fascist, but I feel he was a hero for our country. Putin is using him to try to divide us.”
Bandera’s is just one of the many faces One Street Museum has added to its collection over the past decade. The small exhibition space now owns the faces of leaders from across the world—Vladimir Lenin, Abraham Lincoln, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Queen Victoria, Evita Peron, Francisco Franco—and a similarly wide range of philosophers and literary greats, from Pushkin to Tolstoy, Nietzsche to Voltaire.
Death masks are made from a cast of layered plaster strips laid on the face soon after death. Once dried, a liquid, such as plaster, wax, or bronze, is poured in for a perfect representation of the face. The most interesting masks, Shlyonsky says, are originals that came straight from the deceased’s face. These are distinguished by the fine wrinkles and details like hair that is sometimes stuck to the cast. Others are smoother, cleaner duplicates.
Twelve years ago, after spotting some unusual death masks in the studio of a sculptor, Shlyonsky began to seek out the macabre pieces for his own collection. He gathered 25 masks and put them on display in the small museum, which became enormously popular. Encouraged to build up his treasury of death masks, he scrounged through eBay, private studios, and other museums’ stocks. In the years since, he’s amassed 260, making his possibly the largest collection in the world.
Sometimes Shlyonsky, who has now become a historian of death masks, trades faces across borders. He hammered out a deal with London’s Imperial Museum in which he handed over Josef Stalin’s death mask in exchange for that of Nazi SS leader Heinrich Himmler.
One Street Museum is dedicated to the picturesque old Kiev street called Andriyivskyy Descent, on which it is situated. The sloping, stone-laid road, known as the “Montmartre of Kiev,” has long been considered the center of Kiev’s bohemian culture, home to writer Mikhail Bulgakov and various prominent leaders of science and the arts.
It’s the ideal place to gather a compendium of leaders from Ukraine and across the world. Death masks have been of particular fascination in Eastern Europe; the faces of Soviet figures like Lenin and Trotsky still garner high auction prices and are on prominent display.
In Russian history, it’s a tradition that began with Peter the Great and has continued with a rumored mask made of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who died in 2007.
But the tradition of crafting a mask from the recently deceased stretches back far earlier than the creator of St. Petersburg. Since the early Egyptians bejeweled funerary masks, and later, when the ancient Romans made wax casts of their prominent dead, communities have sought to preserve the physical likeness of their leaders after death.
One Street Museum will be showing off the faces of important Ukrainians until the end of the year. Shlyonsky says he hopes it will inspire visitors to remember their country’s path toward independence and the significance of its 23-year-old breakup with the USSR.
“It was the first year when Ukrainians realized themselves like Ukrainian people, and it’s very important,” he says of the anniversary. “We have a problem with the state now, but…we believe we can build the new state.”