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The fight to save Ukraine’s cultural spaces and heritage

By Beverley D’Silva

“Attacking a country’s culture is to attack its humanity. Historic monuments, works of art and archaeological sites – known as cultural property – are protected by the rules of war,” stated the International Committee of the Red Cross (which is guided by principles, including the Geneva Convention 1949) in 2017. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, the war has had terrible consequences for the country and its people – including massive damage to the entire Ukrainian culture sector.

One month after the invasion, the effects were being reported, as workers went on desperate rescue missions. In Lviv, at Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum, the country’s largest art museum, staff were seen struggling to move heavy baroque pieces, and a giant piece of religious art, the 18th-Century Bohorodchany iconostasis, to safety. We saw empty display cabinets at the Museum of the History of Religion; and at the Latin Cathedral, sculptures were wrapped in foam and plastic to protect them from the threat of shrapnel.

Damage to Ukraine’s cultural sites has been extensive, according to Unesco (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation). Its Red List of Cultural Objects at Risk records verifiable damage to more than 259 cultural sites since the war began (not including damage from the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka Dam, where full assessment has not yet been possible).

Destroying the cultural heritage of a country as a weapon to undermine its people has long been a tactic of war. In recent decades, that has included the destruction of cultural and religious sites in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s; the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001; and The Great Mosque of Aleppo in Syria in 2016.

Cultural property protection (CPP) has a long history in military law. The earliest surviving code of discipline for an English army is the 1385 Durham Ordinances, drawn up for Richard II’s invasion of Scotland, which included an article not to damage religious or other cultural buildings. The US is accepted as the first country to make CPP part of its military policy, through the 1863 Lieber Code, written for Federal forces during the American Civil War.

Today, intentional targeting of cultural and religious sites that are not military goals or contribute to military action is prohibited in international humanitarian law, in the 1954 Hague Convention on the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict, and its second protocol drawn up in 1999.

In October 2022, Vladimir Putin imposed martial law in four Ukrainian territories illegally annexed by Russia. According to The Art Newspaper, when he did that, he also “explicitly ‘legalised’ the looting of the country’s cultural heritage in the name of ‘preservation'”.

The ravages of war is not just to physical structures, says Unesco, it’s an attack on the “intangible heritage and the cultural and creative industries of the country” too. According to Krista Pikkat, Unesco’s director of culture and emergency situations, in 2022, the Ukrainian government reported that 37% of the country’s creative industries had lost their jobs, and that 90% of creative businesses suffered vast losses of turnover.

Cold statistics don’t even begin to reflect the deep and life-changing impact of this war on individuals, like Yulia Danylevska, a young Ukrainian artist from Kherson. She has documented life under occupation in the city by drawing with permanent marker pens on white tiles. Her tile “stories” are colourful, dramatic renditions of her observations – of Mariupol, looters, a burning house and other wartime symbolism. “I didn’t want to paint piles of corpses… so I decided to show subtle moments that could remain unnoticed compared to the other crimes of the Russian army,” she posted. In one of her artworks, “the occupier’s hand removes a gold earring from the ear of a Ukrainian woman”.

As fighting in Kherson intensified, she continued to work, even through a 26-day blackout. “I am not afraid, even though people are being kidnapped in Kherson, and not all of them come back,” she wrote in the early months, adding “for the occupants, I am a ‘no-name’, they are not aware of the modern art.” But when the block in which she and her husband lived was badly bombed, they decided they had to leave. “I was very scared, life was too dangerous.”

Now in a safer place, though far from her home, she is rebuilding her life. But since the war, her art feels more “gloomy”, not helped by the disappearance of a friend, the artist Viacheslav Mashnytski. He established the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art in his own home, and has been missing since October. “We don’t know if it was murder or kidnapping, or a violent attack – it’s still under police investigation,” she says. “We are waiting every day for news, but the hope is very little.”

Another great artistic loss is the life’s work of late artist Polina Rayko. She began painting at 69, to process her grief after the death of her husband, and losing her only daughter in a car crash. She painted every inch of her house, in Oleshky, in southern Ukraine, in a fantastical, folk art style. It was considered a national treasure, drawing many visitors. But then in June came the destruction of the huge Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power station, in a Russian-controlled area of Kherson. The resulting flood is believed to have engulfed Rayko’s house-museum, as well as villages and towns downstream of it. The power station itself, built in 1954, was the only structure of its kind in the Soviet monumental classicism style, which has deep European roots.

Olia Hercules, a chef from Kherson, posted on Instagram about Rayko: “Her story and art gave strength and inspired me immensely… Only photographs and documentaries on YouTube remain. I cannot stop crying.” She added: “Please remember her and her beautiful house full of unique art, now under murky water of the catastrophic flood.”

The flood also submerged Scythian and Cossack burial mounds, old Cossack settlements and Tyagyn Fortress, a monument of Lithuanian and Crimean Tartar architecture from the 14th and 15th Centuries. But as the waters receded there was a small win, as an ancient settlement, named the Cossack Meadow, was revealed.

Survive and rebuild

The fight is on to preserve Ukraine’s precious culture, and support is pouring in from all quarters. Save the Spot is a not-for-profit fund-raiser based in London. It has partnered with 15 cultural venues in Ukraine, so far, such as Borodyanka music school for children, XII Months Zoo and Pokrovsk Historic Museum, in the Donetsk region. Donors can buy “entrance tickets” to their chosen venue, to support them to survive and ultimately rebuild. Its founder is Tatiana Fokina, CEO of a fine wine emporium and a Michelin starred restaurant in London, where she and her partner, Yevgeny Chichvarkin, have lived since 2009. Both are Russian by birth, have been “very vocal” on the war and critics of Putin – so much so, she says Chichvarkin is “a political refugee”.

She discusses the importance of preserving cultural heritage in any war. “But in this one, particularly so as Ukraine has been saying all along ‘we are a different nation, we have our own language, culture, border, territories, and this is what we shed our blood for’.”

Prior to the war, Fokina would visit Ukraine six times a year, loving its historical monuments and budding modern culture, “So it breaks my heart to see what’s happening,” she tells BBC Culture. She talks of the deep bonds that go back centuries between the countries: “There has been so much movement between the two historically… that is the horror, these two brotherly nations involved in this bloodshed.”

At the Museum Crisis Centre (MCC), an NGO in Lviv, Bogdana Brylynska works on the monitoring group. It has been salvaging creative works since the war’s outset, prioritising aid to small, regional museums in Eastern and Southern Ukraine, where fighting is most intense. “Without help, the smaller institutions and their unique collections risk damage or even total destruction,” she tells BBC Culture. It is not known how many cultural institutions have been affected in occupied areas, she says. “Museums are just trying to carry on – especially if they’re far from the frontline.”

MCC connects culture workers to financial as well as psychological support. “People find group therapy particularly beneficial, to share experiences. It’s important to know you’re not alone,” says Brylynska. She is also head of office of the Lviv Unesco City of Literature: “Though last year we were without money, as all the funds went for the war.”

Writers and artists have joined the forces, many on the frontline. One is Bohdan Bunchak, an artist and researcher, from Kyiv. He joined the army, but was injured and taken to the city for emergency spinal surgery.

Brylynska had recently attended the funeral of the writer Victoria Amelina, who died from injuries she sustained in the Russian missile attack on a restaurant in Kamatorsk on 27 June. An award-winning novelist and poet, Amelina, 37, was awaiting publication of her book, In War and Justice Diary: Looking at Women Looking at War, when she died. Days before, she had written: “At night I looked at fireballs in the sky from my balcony in Kyiv and listened to explosions.”

What is chilling, says Brylynska, is what’s happening in libraries in occupied cities. “When Russians invade, the first thing they do is remove all the books from the libraries and destroy them, and replace them with their own books.” In Kherson, and Melitopol, there are no Ukrainian language books left in the libraries, she says. “They are using their culture to fight us, so we need the power to fight back.” She sees one positive lesson in this: “It shows the strength of Ukrainian culture is the scariest thing for them. They are threatened by it.”

That strength comes over loud and clear in Ukraine Rising, a new book that showcases young Ukrainian creatives working in all art forms. Its editors Masha Erman and Robert Klanten reflect on the catalyst for contemporary culture in Ukraine: the collapse in the early 1990s of the Soviet regime, and the vanishing of that rule’s “somber reality and monotonous certainty”. At liberty to reinvent itself, Ukrainian culture today has been “built from the ground up by a young generation… nurtured by a perpetual state of uncertainty and political turmoil”. The book’s publisher is also partnering with Talan World to raise support for Ukraine’s creative community.

A distinctive subculture has flourished in the hands of exciting, vibrant, sometimes shocking talent – artists, such as Andriy Kalkov, whose bright optical art is writ large on buildings in Kyiv; Dzvinya Podlyashetska, who translates eclectic art influences into her own unique, emotive style; and Olga Navrotska’s striking photo images, inspired by Ukrainian traditional attire and AI.

The dedication in Ukraine Rising is to those “whose bravery, sincerity and ingenuity set a proud example for us all”. When it comes to showing the incredible spirit of the Ukrainian people, the artistic community are no exception. There’s their courage and hope, but it’s not without uncertainty, says Danyslevska: “We are waiting for the day our army will defeat the occupiers… All artists are waiting for the day when the left bank of Kherson, and all areas are liberated.

“The community has been scattered since the conflict, but of course we are in touch all the time. Still, it feels as if the future is in a fog. We just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

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