Putin's Culture War: Ukrainian Museums Under Attack
Iain Overton surveys the damage inflicted on Ukrainian history and culture and the fierce resistance shown by their curators
The mining-fly, like war itself, destroys the very thing it feeds upon.
Like war, such flies disrupt entire ecosystems, leading to cascades of decay then death. And, like the Russians in Ukraine who have dug deep in, consuming resources and territory, the mining-fly can burrow deep into fertile plants, killing in their mindless search for food.
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But rather than revile such insects, Yuliia Guglya is drawn, inexorably, to their tiny worlds. As she sits on the top floor of Kharkiv’s now empty State Museum of Nature, she has learned to love the lives of these insects more and more over the months since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Looking slightly irritated when called away from the microscope that she hunches over to carefully examine thousands of such creatures, she tells you she is an expert on the mining flies of the Agromyzinae of Ukraine’s Transcarpathia. It is a narrow field of research – insects peculiar just to the Zakarpattia Oblast of Western Ukraine – yet it is a field she is willing to die for.
Last year, when rockets rained down on her museum, here in Kharkiv’s leafy streets, she did not run. She did not pack her bags for the next refugee train. She stayed and protected her life’s work.
“I couldn’t do anything else,” says this carefully-worded, exact woman in her 40s. “Here was something I must save – here is my collection and my collection is my life. It’s all I have.”
That collection is over 40,000 mining-fly specimens laid out in careful order: 20 years of labour captured in neat rows. Guglya has discovered 25 species; the first one she found, she named after her son.
In February 2022, as Russian troops moved towards her city and people kissed farewell to those they loved, Guglya stayed and took her army of flies – pin-still on entomologist’s mounting cards – down into the basement of the museum. There she slept in the mole-dark cellars, while above her the crash and whirl of Russian missiles smashed hundreds of the museum’s windows and laid wreck to that cathedral of nature.
But her flies stayed safe.
She no longer speaks to Russian etymologists.
It’s hard, perhaps, to understand why someone might do this – risk their life to protect a catalogue of dead insects. “When I am deep inside my work, everything disappears,” she says. “All the world vanishes, and the war as well. It’s comforting, which is why I stayed. To protect my little world.”
Her soft-spoken words can move you to tears. For, as the air-raid sirens across Kharkiv kick back into life, warning of another threat, in this museum dedicated to the examination and preservation of the natural world, an idea is brought to the fore. An idea that someone might actually want to obliterate this space, a beacon of nature and nurture.
It feels like a rupture.
This rupture is suffered on a daily basis in Ukraine. This is a country whose institutions of learning remain closed, whose museums stand empty, whose cultural centres are largely silent. The Bulgarian former Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Irina Bokova, once called the purposeful destruction of culture in modern conflict “a war crime that is now used as a tactic of war, to tear humanity from the history it shares”. So it is here.
By late July 2023, UNESCO had verified damage to 270 cultural sites in Ukraine since the major invasion, including 27 museums. The damage that this has done is, the Russians hope, irreparable.
But they are wrong.
In the State Museum of Nature, two floors below Yuliia Guglya, the dead are being brought back to life.
Under a steady hand, a brush, dipped in viridescent lacquer, is tracing an emerald green line along the neck of a corpse. Its crown, nape and rump are of a similar colour. The bristles dab until the job is done. Anna Sviridenko has finished painting the Alexandrine parakeet, and it sparkles.
The bird was gifted by a Professor of Taxidermy, who had it as a living pet. The bird should have lived for 30 years after it hatched in a distant Asian land. But now, it no longer chatters to its owner. A Russian rocket exploded and the shock killed it. He is now being painted to enter the next stage of his life: as a new exhibit.
Sviridenko has had her work cut out. Not just adding to the displays, but also repairing the harm from the bombs. She has had to mend at least 15 specimens, personally. Fifty more have been restored by her staff; there are 50 more to do.
Kharkiv’s State Museum of Nature had 165 windows shattered when shells first hit it on the 1 March 2022, and then again in April. The museum stands so close to the border, that often the air raid sirens are just a warning that there has been an attack, not that there is about to be one.
“First, we get the shells, then the sirens. Once you hear them, the danger has already passed.” says the museum’s curator, Rosislav Eduadovych.
“When I came here and saw what they had done, I cried,” he said. “The corridors were filled with broken glass. Some of the exhibits were decapitated, the birds declawed by shrapnel. We ended up shifting around ten tonnes of glass, and we are still finding glass and metal in the exhibits.”
Throughout the museum stand empty vitrines. A manta-ray from Mexico died, along with dozens of other fish, when the cold winter air reduced the temperature in the galleries so much that frost layered on the tropical tanks’ glass.
Today, Javelin, the museum cat, roams the museum’s empty halls. Before COVID-19, the museum had 32,000 visitors, mainly students, a year. Now it’s just Javelin and 35 staff that look after the damaged exhibitions. Yet no-one abandoned their posts. Like Anna and Yuliia and Rosislav, the staff remain. The Russians might have caused their museum roles to be turned into ones of protection not preservation, defence not display, but they are unbowed.
“We are like a family now”, Anna says. Her father preserved the exhibits here. Her grandfather, too. She will not leave.
Perhaps that is what the Russians didn’t consider when they let their weapons target these institutions of civilisation in Ukraine’s northeast. That civilisation has a habit of crystallising under the pressure of violence, not breaking.
The Museum of Archaeology was also hit in Kharkiv.
The bones stored in the protective dark of the basement were not spared the violence overhead. Water poured in from burst pipes and immersed the ancient mandibles and sternums and femurs in a new, watery grave.
Russia’s violence even tried to drown out the past.
One hundred bones had to be lifted and dried and handled with the measured care that comes easy to those who look over the old-dead, under a barrage intent on creating the new-dead.
But the dead are now protected, they tell you.
It makes you think of that line by the German-Jewish philosopher, Walter Benjamin – that the only true archivist of history capable of sparking hope “is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”
This enemy has not ceased to be victorious
Outside the archaeology museum, where the dead from a long-forgotten invasion are laid in quiet rows, the air-raid sirens sound again.
“Under foreign rule” the Ukrainian ethnographer Oleksa Voropai once wrote, “our people preserved their national clothing – as a symbol they carried through the centuries–long sufferings and oppressions from invaders.”
His words – now printed on a museum stand – serve as an introduction to a row of mannequins. Each bears a cloth head, round and faceless; each has their bodies wrapped in the beautiful white of “vyshyvanka” linen, shirts alive with floral embroidery; each bears “vinok” flower wreaths, trailing yellow and blue ribbons around their still frames.
The figures wear home-spun hemp displays of thick-belted clothing; plakhta skirts with a galaxy of embroidered stars; men's leather belts or “cheres” boasting six buckles, decorated in buttons and chains; leather vests, or keptars, from Zakarpattia and Bukovyna. It is a line of reds and blues and yellows; a woven field of wild-flowers.
Here, in these serried ranks, is a living, cultural relic of an ancient right to nationhood. Here is a Ukrainian culture finding its voice above the insurgent’s hammer.
This exhibit was put together in Kyiv during an invasion. As some sought out weapons to defend from the onslaught, others carved a different form of defiance. The Sviato exhibition at the Ivan Honchar Museum calls its display “a national treasure beyond space and time”. The words used might be forgiven for their bombast. These clothes may not have the “sacred and protective” function promised, but they serve a more prosaic purpose. To provide evidence that Ukraine is not Russia.
The clothes are not the sarafans, kosovorotkas, and the ponevas of the Russian Steppes. Instead, they bear a Ukrainian distinctiveness that, as Petro Honchar the project curator says, has carried the national identity through “the decades of destructive assimilation processes’''.
These silent lines of Ukrainian garments act like a parade ground’s warning. Not the symmetry you’d find in military uniforms, but something more rooted in an ancient tradition that cannot be so easily undone. Attack our museums, the traditional costumes state, but you won’t erase our past.
New material comes in all the time, says Alla the museum guide. Their general director goes on “expeditions” for fresh items. The first tranche came in last year.
In 2019, this Kyiv museum hall, near the Motherland Monument that dominates the capital’s skyline, was filled with photographs. Images of fallen Ukrainians killed in another war – a Soviet conflict; a commemoration for those who died in the far-off fields of Afghanistan. Now they host the detritus of another, more recent invasion.
The Russians left on the 2 April 2022 and by the 5 April the curator was on-site, collecting the remnants of a departing army. People rebuild so quickly here, Alla says, that you have to capture the recent past before it is lost. The first floor is awash with Russian-issued clothing and weapons and rations. In the centre is a Soviet star and in the centre of that empty military issue boots.
The basement has been turned into the reconstruction of a bunker used by civilians during the Battle of Hostomel. In the dim light, you see lives lived on the jagged edge. Toilet paper, cough medicine, coffee, matches, soap powder, bottles of wine, water filters, blankets, bandages. Everything is covered by a handful of dust.
My friend, Pavel, a refugee twice in this invasion – first from Donetsk and then from Kramatorsk – grows quiet. He says this shelter takes him back straight to his past. “History really repeats,” he says. And the past isn’t even past.
Above, the curators have manoeuvred the rotor blades of a shot-down Mi-24 Russian helicopter into the shape of a cross, and called the exhibition ‘Ukraine Crucified’. In the centre, they placed the shattered icon of a silver-edged Jesus above a bed of burnt vigil candles; above that they put a broken Ukrainian church cupola. And if you stand and stare at the central dais, a mirror to the side reflects your image back at you, making you part of the iconography. Part of the war.
Then you realise that, by merely seeing yourself there, you are at risk of a salvo of Russian missiles and – in that moment - all the pastiche, all the embellishment, suddenly shrinks and you see this metaphor as totally acceptable. Culture here is under attack. So, as you leave, a small poster tells you that there are five bomb shelters nearby, and you say to yourself that it will all be OK.
But the truth is the war never felt so close.
Iain Overton is the executive director of the Action On Armed Violence charity
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