Since Ukraine broke with the U.S.S.R. in 1991, Kiev’s aptly-named main plaza, Independence Square, has hosted rallies, demonstrations, and protests, like the landmark 2004 Orange Revolution. But one day every year, this capital city's central hub holds a different observance of freedom: Hundreds of students flock to the plaza to mark the end of the school year by jumping into the fountain spray.
The traditional Last Bell ceremony, observed across Russia and some post-Soviet countries, takes place just after classes finish, but before the pressure of final exams. Often the smallest female student sits on the shoulders of the tallest graduate to literally ring a bell. Teachers give speeches of encouragement, while proud parents tear up over applause. Graduates may pursue college or tech school—or search for other options, their future as unclear as their country’s as it struggles to form an identity while stuck between Russia and Europe.
“Students in Ukraine are looking toward the future and toward the West, instead of backwards toward the Soviet past,” explains Ukrainian-born photographer Dina Litovsky, who documented the ritual while on assignment for National Geographic. “Many people rebel against Soviet uniforms by wearing normal clothes now. Everyone in Ukraine is eating Big Macs and talking on cell phones, and I wanted to focus on the modernity, not the nostalgia.”
Yet evidence of the past remains, as some students still feel comfortable in the subdued colors of the communist era. “Soviet people didn't have much choice when it came to clothing, so having black and white would be a very practical way out for an official occasion. Soviet people didn't like to stick out from the crowd,” explains Kiev resident Olga Zaporozhets.
Others wear vyshyvankas, intricately embroidered shirts with symbolic colors handmade for centuries. There’s even an official holiday in May, Vyshyvanka Day, to honor the beloved Ukrainian national costume. Still, other students carry the hipster Fjällräven backpacks or don jeans and plaid shirts for the Last Bell ceremonies. In today’s Ukraine, anything goes.
Before 1917, schools held dedication ceremonies at the end of the academic year, says University of Oxford professor Catriona Kelly, who specializes in Russia culture, national identity, and the history of childhood. Today's Last Bell festivities likely date from the 1960s: “an era for all kinds of threshold rituals, including 'First Day at Work' celebrations, ceremonial presentation of first passport at 16, baby-naming ceremonies, and so on,” she says.
“I suspect that the ritual of the tallest pupil lifting up the smallest pupil to hit the bell is a bit too informal and potentially comical for the Stalin era–it seems much more characteristic of the Khrushchev period, when there was more spontaneity,” Kelly says, referring to increased decentralization of government and openness toward the West.
Although long-anticipated by graduating students, jumping into the Independence Square fountain still feels spontaneous. Like teens anywhere, they mostly care about hanging with friends, making out with significant others, or sneaking some alcohol. On this day, filled with hope, suspended between the past and future, nothing else matters.
Dina Litovsky is a New York-based photojournalist. She was born in Ukraine and moved to New York in 1991. Follow her on Instagram @dina_litovsky.