Ukraine’s Cultural Resilience
On October 10, 2022, Putin waited when people in Ukraine — and Russia — would wake up after the weekend and start leaving for work, and then launched his missile terror show. Yes, that was nothing but a terror show: he wanted everyone to watch it online instead of learning about it upon waking up in the morning, because this way the effect would be stronger.
Then, in contrast to his previous “military targets only” rhetoric, the Kremlin dictator actually admitted attacking civilian infrastructure including multiple energy facilities.
But several missiles also landed in downtown Kyiv, with no such objects in the vicinity. In particular, they struck between a few meters and a few dozen meters from the monuments to St. Volodymyr, Mykhailo Hrushevskyi, and Taras Shevchenko, three important figures in Ukraine’s history.
St. Volodymyr, also known as Volodymyr the Great, was one of the most glorious rulers of Kyivan Rus’. He not only converted to (Orthodox) Christianity, but, in 988 AD, made it his land’s official religion. Thus, he was to Kyivan Rus’ what Constantine the Great was to the Roman Empire. Although in both cases the act itself is subject to controversy, the historical significance is undeniable. His monument, the oldest statue in Kyiv — erected in 1853, — is located on a hill overlooking the Dnipro river, near the pedestrian bridge that barely avoided destruction by a missile.
Mykhailo Hrushevskyi (1866–1934) is sometimes called the first president of Ukraine, but in fact he was the head of the Central Council of the shortly-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1917–1918. Due to his activities in the national movement of the period, he can be compared in importance to George Washington and other Founding Fathers of the United Stated, even though Ukrainians had to fight for independence for much longer. But he was also a historian, an author of a monumental ten-volume work that became the standard guidebook for all the later researchers of the history of Ukraine. His monument stands near the crossroad that you probably saw on the photos with burned cars and bodies of civilians murdered by the Russian terrorists.
Taras Shevchenko (1814–1861) is the greatest national poet of Ukraine. He is to Ukraine what Shakespeare is to Britain, Goethe to Germany, or Adam Mickiewicz to Poland. He is known for his calamitous life. Born as a serf — which, back then in the Russian Empire, was barely different from being a slave — and then liberated, he underwent several arrests and exiles for political reasons. His poetry collection Kobzar can be found in almost every Ukrainian home along with the Bible. Almost every Ukrainian can quote at least a dozen of his poems — not necessarily in full, but no other poet has so many idiomatic lines in their oeuvre. His monument stands close to that of Hrushevskyi, in a small park bearing his name where a missile hit a playground.
Since in these cases the missiles struck closer to the monuments than to any truly strategic objects, it may have been not a coincidence considering Putin’s hatred for Ukrainian culture and his love of symbolism. Of course, there are some better-known iconic monuments in Kyiv such as the Motherland Statue, the monument to the city’s founders, and the Independence Column, but if one were to choose the most important personalities in Ukrainian history with monuments in Kyiv, then these three are arguably the most obvious — perhaps along with Bohdan Khmelnytskyi (1595–1657), the leader of the uprising that resulted in the creation of the Cossack Hetmanate, an autonomous Ukrainian state-like entity, whose monument, erected in 1888, is located in Sophia Square.
In the latter two cases, a number of historical buildings were damaged, including several museums. Among them is the Khanenko Museum, one of the oldest museums in Kyiv which was founded in 1919 and exhibits many valuable works of art.
This wasn’t the first attack on Ukrainian cultural heritage. But Ukrainians don’t let the enemy demoralize them and don’t wait for the war’s end to start rebuilding. They restore destroyed and damaged objects, continue projects started before the war, and even open new museums.
Here are some examples of this cultural resilience:
The Hryhorii Skovoroda Museum
Hryhorii Skovoroda (1722–1794) is often viewed as the first Ukrainian philosopher. Known as a wandering philosopher for his extensive travels in Ukraine and abroad, he was influenced by both Christian and Classical Greek philosophy. In 2022 Ukraine celebrates his 300th anniversary. His significance for the country can be seen from the fact that, along with the aforementioned St. Volodymyr, Taras Shevchenko, Mykhailo Hrushevskyi, and Bohdan Khmelnytskyi, he is one of those whose portraits are printed on Ukrainian banknotes.
On May 7, 2022, a Russian missile destroyed his museum in the village of Skovorodynivka near Kharkiv. Housed in the estate where the philosopher spent his last years, it wasn’t the only museum dedicated to Skovoroda, but it was the most important one. Fortunately, the most valuable exhibit items were taken to a safer place at the beginning of the war.
But Ukrainian Ministry of Culture already has plans for rebuilding the museum and has opened a special account for this purpose. Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, a famous Ukrainian musician and political activist, donated a significant amount. It has been reported that UNESCO is going to contribute as well.
The Maria Prymachenko Museum
Maria Prymachenko (1909–1997) is one of the most important Ukrainian 20th-century artists. Along with Kateryna Bilokur (1900–1961) and some lesser-known artists, she represents Ukrainian primitivism — in fact, one of several “characteristically Ukrainian” schools of art, — which is heavily influenced by folk crafts.
On February 27, 2022, the Russians burned down a museum in Ivankiv near Kyiv where her paintings were exhibited. Locals were able to rescue 14 paintings, but about a dozen others were destroyed.
There are already plans to not only rebuild the museum, but also to open an art residency named after Prymachenko and to transform Ivankiv into a culture center. Moreover, at an exhibition of the rescued paintings, a project was presented for a new art center in the village of Bolotnia where the artist was born.
Restoration Projects: Shuvalov Palace, Lvovich Mansion, Jam Factory
Several projects are underway for objects that haven’t suffered from the war, but had long been in need of renovation or restoration. Despite anything, Ukrainians are finding resources and inspiration to proceed.
The palace of Count Shuvalov in the town of Talne in Cherkasy Oblast, Central Ukraine, was built in the early 20th century by the Danish architect Andreas Clemmensen and is considered the only example of Danish architecture in Ukraine. The restoration project was developed before the war, but now the architect team is left without government funding. However, they decided to proceed relying on their own resources and donations.
The building in Lviv that reminds a Neo-Gothic castle and is known as the Jam Factory was built in the late 19th century as a distillery. In the Soviet era, it was a factory that produced jam and other foods, hence the name. Today it already functions as an art center, however it’s still in the process of renovation. The works that started in 2020 were originally supposed to be finished by August 2022, but then the war interfered. However, the project team isn’t going to give up and proceeds with the renovation.
The mansion in Vinnytsia built in 1913 for Baruch Lvovich, a rich Jewish entrepreneur, is the latest restoration project presented as recently as September 2022. After the restoration, it will function as a museum.
A New Museum in Mukachevo
It was really a surprise to learn that a new museum has been opened in Ukraine during the war. It is located in the town of Mukachevo in Zakarpattia (Transcarpathia), the country’s westernmost region, under the hill of the Palanok Castle.
The museum is dedicated to the artist Adalbert Erdeli (Erdélyi) (1891–1955) who is considered one of the founders of the Transcarpathian art school. The restoration of the artist’s parental home had started in 2021, and the museum was opened on September 19, 2022, on the anniversary of Erdeli’s death. Moreover, since the summer the house has been hosting artists who had fled from front-line regions.
Rebuilding not only housing and infrastructure, but also cultural heritage, and even embarking on new projects, demonstrates the collective Ukrainian will to survive as a nation, the will that no missiles can suppress.