Art Under Fire: Ukrainian Cultural Institutions 

I have a friend who is currently working in Kiev. He asked me not to share his name, to protect his safety and identity. He was originally on his semester abroad, but since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he has been working in a local art gallery and cultural museum with his fellow classmates…

The indomitable spirit of Ukrainian cultural institutions 

CW: Discussions of violence, sexual violence, armed conflict

I have a friend who is currently working in Kiev. He asked me not to share his name, to protect his safety and identity. He was originally on his semester abroad, but since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he has been working in a local art gallery and cultural museum with his fellow classmates. 

He wakes up every morning – when he sleeps –to news of new terrors, new threats to the country he has come to love, new threats to the city he sees beauty in every day. But he slips on a pair of coveralls, dons a mask, and heads back to the gallery. 

My friend stocks bubble wrap and tape and newspaper. He sandbags stained glass windows and spends most of his days in a cellar or fumbling through rolodexes. 

He is working with a team of volunteers to help hide, ship, and protect pieces of art. 

Alongside the onslaught of physical violence that has swept Ukraine since Russia’s repulsive invasion, another threat has emerged:  an assault against the ephemeral that is deeply worrying. War signifies the threat of the cultural destruction of the Ukrainian people. 

Museums across the country are in the process of evacuating their artwork. The National Museum in Lviv, which maintained its collection through both the first and second World Wars, dismantled their exhibits within the last month. A literary museum in the heavily besieged Kharkiv boarded its windows and evacuated “the most valuable parts of the collection… that show Ukraine wanted to be part of Europe, not Russia.” In an interview with TIME, the museum’s director Tanya Pylypchuk reiterated how those texts were banned under Soviet rule and represented a liberal history that would not be accepted by modern Russia. Several museums have been destroyed by Russian forces, including the Kuindzhi Art Museum in Mariupol and the facades of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kyiv. State archives have been swept clean by Russian cyberattacks and museums of manuscripts profiling Ukrainian literature have been torched. 

The museums that remain are manned by volunteers and staff members who have decided to stay in the line of fire to protect their cultural heritage. From the Eastern Front of the conflict to the Black Sea ports, in areas decimated by missile strikes and forcible occupations, creative institutions have emulated the spirit of the Ukrainian people in their refusal to abandon their exhibits. The stakes have never been higher, and as conflict comes to define every facet of Ukrainian life, the individuals who have chosen to fight against the destruction of their culture serve as a reminder of the power of art in the face of violence. 

Military occupation is traditionally accompanied with the looting or destruction of the invaded nation’s cultural resources. From the dawn of conquest, the destruction, desecration, or theft of formative art has been a devastating side effect of war. British theft of the Benin Bronzes, Nazi pillaging of Jewish art collections, the demolishment of the Tetrapylon amongst scores of cultural heritage sites by the Islamic State; the calculated destruction of a conquest’s culture is a deeply imbedded militaristic concept that never ceases to devastate. The primary motive behind the seizure or destruction of art is at best to humiliate and degenerate the invaded country’s creative identity, and at worst to destroy it entirely. The masculine act of war has little room for sympathy or reverence. Like tactical use of sexual violence in conflict zones, it serves to dehumanize victims and reiterate superiority of the vanquisher. It is a masculine action that destroys the core of a nation’s cognizance, that is to say the genesis point for national identity. Destroying culture obliterates the history from the individuals it deems ‘enemies’, for a society without culture is not a society. The aim of art destruction therefore is to depersonalize the act of violence and remove all vestiges of identity from the conquered. 

But Ukraine is not conquered. It never will be. 

As we have seen Ukrainian civilians bravely take up arms against their invaders, we have seen international curators scramble to create digital libraries for the country’s cultural resources. As Russian troops have been repelled from village after village, art has been smuggled across borders and into bomb shelters, safe from damage or destruction. And as the political powers of the world stand on the precipice of intervention, we have seen their creative counterparts amass immediately to provide solidarity, protection, and funding to continue the great Exodus of Ukrainian culture to safer ground. 

Museums have no observation towers, no armarmants or sniper nests. They are not dictated by the laws of the battlefield or the absence of ethics inherent to war. The institutions that remain in the line of fire are instead affronts to the masculine perpetuation of destruction, exemplifying the Ukrainian will of survival with packing tape and disc drives. Perhaps it is their constant exposure to the wounds of history, or perhaps it is their proximity to their nation’s greatest art, but the volunteers and workers who are protecting Ukraine’s cultural resources have exemplified more patriotism and strength than any foreign invader. By protecting what is beautiful, Ukraine has shown its ferocious defence of not only its border, but its core identity. 

Just as the words Слава Україні have spilled into common consciousness, so have the facets of Ukrainian culture that these museums are in the process of saving. Across the world, people are moved by traditional Ukrainian dress and song. Leitmotifs of nightingales and sunflowers have reached every corner of the internet as Indicators of solidarity. Massive swells of donations have served to feed volunteers and curators who have stayed to protect their country’s art. 

When I asked him why he wanted to stay, back in February before tanks rolled on the eastern flanks of Ukraine, my friend paused. 

“The way they care about their art, it makes you feel like it’s your home too.” 

His home, and the home of millions is still under attack. The art endemic to this nation is still under attack. The beauty, strength and passion that the rest of the world has come to revere is still under attack. This war is not over, though it may be fading from your Instagram. May the history, culture, and lives of the Ukrainian people be protected forever. 

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Julia Hegele, Arts and Culture Editor (she/her)

Header image by one of our wonderful graphic designers, Peggy Mitchell