Since Russia launched its full bloody invasion of Ukraine last February, innumerable acts of destruction have been wreaked on its towns, and atrocities against its people. But away from the front line, in the burnt-out shells of theatres and across the bullet-riddled busts of poets, another battle is being waged.

Ukraine’s culture itself has become a new front in the war. It has not been merely caught up in the crossfire. Russia has looted ancient treasures from Kherson’s museums; emptied libraries of Ukrainian books; repressed the Ukrainian language itself. The Ukrainian language has been repressed in occupied areas, with teachers and civil servants detained, threatened or worse for refusing to teach enforced Russian curricula in schools.

KHARKIV, UKRAINE - MARCH 27: A statue of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko is seen protected by sandbags on March 27, 2022 in Kharkiv, Ukraine. More than half Kharkiv's 1.4 million people have fled the city since Russia's invasion on Feb. 24, which was followed by weeks of intense bombardment. Russian forces remain to the city's north and east, but have met heavy resistance from Ukrainian troops here. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
A statue of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko protected by sandbags in Kharkiv, Ukraine (Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Writers and artists have been murdered. The conductor Yuri Kerpatenko was shot for refusing to participate in a concert in occupied Kherson. The children’s author Volodymyr Vakulenko was kidnapped, killed and thrown into a mass grave.

This is not collateral damage but a cultural “genocide”, according to Oleksandr Tkachenko, Ukraine’s Culture Minister. Libraries, museums, galleries, churches, memorials, statues, schools and universities have all been damaged or destroyed since February 2022. About 1,600 cases of possible damage have been documented, including 122 museums, 684 monuments and over 500 religious sites.

Unesco has verified 241 which should have been protected under the Hague Convention. This “deliberate destruction” of Ukraine’s culture, history and language is likely an attempt to erase its identity, the UN said last month.

Chernihiv, view of a destroyed library in a residential area of the city damaged by bombing during the Russian invasion on April 16, 2022. Russian military forces entered the territory of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. (Photo by: Nicola Marfisi/AGF/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
A destroyed library in a residential area of Chernihiv on April 16, 2022 (Photo by: Nicola Marfisi/AGF/Universal Images Group via Getty)

This war is different from others. It is not simply about taking territory or natural resources. “This is a real war of independence and a war for identity, for culture, for language,” Tetyana Ogarkova, professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy National University, tells i. “[The Russians] have this imperialistic mindset and they proceed by colonising their neighbours … they are trying to deprive people of their identity.”

Olga Honcharova, temporary director of the Kherson Regional Museum, specialising in local history and natural history shows shows an empty glass display cases in Kherson, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. - Russian military forces and civilians operating under their orders pillaged thousands of valuable artifacts and artworks from two museums, a cathedral, and a national archive in Kherson, before withdrawing after an 8-month occupation of the city, Human Rights Watch said on December 20, 2022. (Photo by Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP) (Photo by DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images)
Olga Honcharova, temporary director of the Kherson Regional Museum, shows an empty display cases, after valuable artefacts and artworks were pillaged from the city (Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP)

Vladimir Putin has claimed repeatedly that Ukraine is not a country, but a sub-region of Russia, without culture, history or identity.

So any expression of that becomes a threat to the idea of a Russian empire comprising the former Soviet Union. Over its history, Ukraine has been subjected repeatedly to repression, or Russification, first under the tsars and then the Soviets.

The Ukrainian language has been banned hundreds of times. During Stalin’s Great Terror a generation of writers and artists – the “Executed Renaissance” – were persecuted and murdered. What Mr Putin is doing appears to be a continuation of this policy.

KHARKIV, UKRAINE - 2022/07/30: Memorial plaque at the Museum-estate of the Ukrainian philosopher Hryhoriy Skovoroda after a Russian bombardment. The museum of the Ukrainian philosopher Hryhoriy Skovoroda was destroyed during a bombardment by Russian forces. Fortunately, though museum premises were almost completely destroyed, it's collections were not damaged. According to the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine, Russian forces have damaged or destroyed more than 250 cultural objects since the invasion began in February. (Photo by Mykhaylo Palinchak/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Memorial plaque at the museum-estate of the Ukrainian philosopher Hryhoriy Skovoroda after a Russian bombardment (Photo: Mykhaylo Palinchak/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty)

“A lot is at stake,” says Volodymyr Sheiko, director-general of the Ukrainian Institute in Kyiv, which promotes the country’s culture. “If we win this battle we can survive. If we lose this cultural battle, Ukraine will not survive eventually, even if it wins the war militarily, in the longer term.”

However, unluckily for Mr Putin, his efforts to stub out Ukrainian identity and culture have sparked a surge of interest around the world, with people discovering Ukrainian writers, fashion and filmmakers.

Books are now being translated in swathes. Ukrainian ballet companies and orchestras are touring the West. In May, Ukrainian music will be centre-stage once again at the Eurovision Song Contest in Liverpool.

Ukrainian fashion designers are participating in London Fashion Week. The Kyiv designer Ivan Frolov recently dressed Beyoncé for her Dubai performance, as well as Sam Smith in the music video I’m Not Here to Make Friends.

Even Ukrainian borscht, a soup made with beetroot, was inscribed on Unesco’s list of intangible heritage in need or urgent safeguarding.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JANUARY 21: Beyonc?? performs on stage headlining the Grand Reveal of Dubai's newest luxury hotel, Atlantis The Royal on January 21, 2023 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Mason Poole/Parkwood Media/Getty Images for Atlantis The Royal)
Beyoncé wears ‘The Firework’ dress by Ivan Frolov during a performance in Dubai in January (Photo: Mason Poole/Parkwood Media/Getty Images for Atlantis The Royal)

“The surge of interest has been incredible since February,” Mr Sheiko tells i. “All the doors that had been closed suddenly opened. It’s never been easier to get things staged – literary festivals, new publications of Ukrainian works, translations, poetry.

“We were approached to put together literary programmes for international book fairs etc. Similarly, we’ve seen an interest from film festivals, theatre festivals, publishing houses, mainstream media, museums, galleries, universities, who wanted to programme something about Ukraine.

TOPSHOT - Members of the band "Kalush Orchestra" pose onstage with the winner's trophy and Ukraine's flags after winning on behalf of Ukraine the Eurovision Song contest 2022 on May 14, 2022 at the Pala Alpitour venue in Turin. (Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP) (Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images)
Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra after winning the Eurovision Song Contest in Turin last year (Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP)

Oksana Zabuzkho, author of Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex and one of the country’s foremost writers, has described how there used to be three “token” Ukrainian writers known to the rest of the world. “Nowadays,” she says, “you have an avalanche of names and you have ‘literature’… this has changed in the past year.”

Peter Doroshenko, director general of the Ukrainian Museum in New York, said visitor attendance had “skyrocketed” since the February invasion. “It’s a kind of turbocharger,” he says. “From month to month, [interest] accelerates at such a large level… that it’s almost hard to keep up.”.

Red beet soup borscht in ceramic bowl with garlic buns pampushka and dry cured pork belly on rustic table viewed from above. Traditional Ukrainian cuisine
Borscht was among traditional Ukrainian foods joining Unesco’s list of intangible heritage in need or urgent safeguarding (Photo: Getty)

Mr Sheiko adds: “Ukraine’s survival and sustainability and prosperity will depend on how effectively and efficiently we can protect and safeguard our culture and identity today.” However, he adds regretfully: “It took a war for so many people to understand that this is an interesting country worth looking at.”

Even Ukrainians themselves are rediscovering and celebrating their language and culture. A growing number of Russian-speakers now refuse to speak it. Last year a poll found that 76 per cent of Ukrainians considered Ukrainian their native tongue, up from 57 per cent in 2012. After Mr Putin gave a speech on 21 February 2021 that suggested he planned to invade, the phrase “this is my last tweet in Russian” trended on Twitter in Ukraine. After the invasion, posts on social media of Ukrainians announcing they would no longer speak the language went viral.

TORONTO, CANADA - 2022/03/26: Visitors seen during an immersive fundraising exhibition. An ??????Immersive Shevchenko: Soul of Ukraine?????? exhibition dedicated to the work of Taras Shevchenko (1814??????1861), a Ukrainian poet and artist, is held in Toronto, Canada. Proceeds from the project are distributed between the Red Cross and National Bank of Ukraine Fund. (Photo by Katherine Cheng/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
An immersive fundraising exhibition dedicated to the work of Taras Shevchenko, the Ukrainian poet and artist, in Toronto (Photo: Katherine Cheng/Getty Images)

Professor Ogarkova said her students at university were now choosing to study Ukrainian subjects. “They are making their choices in favour of Ukrainian, culture and tradition. So, it has become something prestigious, interesting… this is a kind of trend,” she says.

Previously, Ukrainian culture was overlooked by many, she adds. “We had that image of Ukrainian culture as old-fashioned, boring, not interesting,” she said. Now, however, “we were discovering for ourselves that there are a lot of things that deserve our attention.”

Marina Pesenti, an independent researcher and board member of the Ukrainian Institute, points out that Ukrainians’ interest in their own history and culture has been rising since Russia illegally annexed Crimea and began the war in the Donbas. There has been a “cultural flourishing” since 2014,” she tells i. “It’s not something new that happened a year ago all of a sudden, because there has been quite a big transformation in the cultural sector in Ukraine .”

KYIV REGION, UKRAINE - AUGUST 24, 2022 - Monument to Taras Shevchenko and a residential building damaged by the russian shelling in Borodyanka, Kyiv Region, north-central Ukraine. (Photo credit should read Pavlo Bahmut/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)
Monument to Taras Shevchenko and a residential building damaged by Russian shelling in Borodyanka, near Kyiv (Photo: Pavlo Bahmut/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

Yet “this massive rethinking of history and identity is happening,” now, she adds. A shift has taken place since February 2022, and people understand that something has changed. With each continued assault against their culture Ukrainian artists further interrogate and explore what it means to be Ukrainian.

This is now a “war of narratives”, declares Ms Zabuzkho. “This about-turn started when attacked with annihilation… … that Ukraine should not exist.”

Oksana Zabuzhko, a Ukrainian novelist, poet, essayist, speaks in Krakow, during the Open Eyes Economy Summit 2022. On Tuesday, November 22, 2022, in Krakow, Lesser Poland Voivodeship, Poland. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Oksana Zabuzhko, the Ukrainian novelist has written My Longest Book Tour, a book in which she discusses the origins of Russia’s war against Ukraine (Photo: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty)

For many artists, war is now their focus. Many are helping by joining the army. The well-known writer Andriy Lyubka is raising funds for vehicles for the front line. The novelist Victoria Amelina has stopped writing novels and retrained as a war crimes investigator. Many are volunteering in other ways to help the war effort. As the writer Oleksandr Mykhed, who has taken up a “virtual residency” at Oxford University, says: “You could not protect your family from a rifle with your poems.”

Others see their art as their most powerful weapons. Oleksiy Sai, an artist, said: “I envy those who fight with arms, but for now I am more effective as an artist.”

The Ukraine House Davos pavilion ahead of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, on Monday, Jan. 16, 2023. The annual Davos gathering of political leaders, top executives and celebrities runs from January 16 to 20. Photographer: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The Ukraine House pavilion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland (Photo: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In January, one of his films was exhibited at the World Economic Forum at Davos in January. It depicts Russian war crimes, and features radio intercepts of Russian soldiers in Ukraine. In one recording the girlfriend of a soldier is heard encouraging him to rape Ukrainian women, but warning him to use a condom. The film was also shown at Nato’s headquarters and at the European Parliament.

“There’s no more illusion that art would live in a kind of separate reality from what we live through,” says Professor Ogarkova. “In Ukraine because everything is about politics.”

But for many artists, creating art in the midst of such horrors is impossible. “At the moment, what is happening is documenting war crimes,” says Ms Pesenti. “Of course, there are first reflections, radio programmes, articles, but not so much works of art because it takes time. Some are traumatised.”

Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov, poses on Khreschatyk Str. on March,17 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine. Kurkov is the author of thirteen novels and five books for children. His books are translated into twenty-five languages, including English, Japanese, French, Chinese, Swedish and Hebrew. AFP PHOTO / VOLODYMYR SHUVAYEV (Photo by VOLODYMYR SHUVAYEV / AFP) (Photo by VOLODYMYR SHUVAYEV/AFP via Getty Images)
The Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov, has stopped writing in Russian until the war ends (Photo: Volodymyr Shuvayev/ AFP)

Andrey Kurkov, another of Ukraine’s foremost writers, best known for the novel Death of a Penguin, said he was unable to keep writing novels after the war broke out, but turned instead to documenting its early days and writing newspaper columns for international audiences. Amelina has given up writing novels and turned to poetry. Nonetheless, in one poem, No Poetry, she claims: “This is no poetry too/ Poetry is in Kharkiv/ volunteering for the army.” Meanwhile, for Lyubka, “a writer who does not write has become a symbol of this war”.

“This is something that is common to many artists now,” says Ms Ogarkova. “War is something which goes beyond any kind of representation. The wounds are so fresh, the experience is so tragic that you have problems to fix it in artistic form. Representatives of Ukrainian culture who are unable to create.”

PARTYZANSKE, UKRAINE - JANUARY 5: A portrait of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko lies in the rubble of the House of Culture on January 5, 2023 in Partyzanske, Ukraine. The village was occupied by Russian forces and liberated in November 2022. (Photo by Pierre Crom/Getty Images)
A portrait of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in the rubble of the House of Culture in Partyzanske, Ukraine(Photo: Pierre Crom/Getty)

Furthermore, creating and exhibiting new art, literature or music has huge challenges during wartime. All public funding for cultural projects has been paused, many writers have fled abroad, and cultural institutions have been physically damaged. “The war has had a devastating impact on Ukrainian culture,” says Mr Sheiko.

However, Ms Pesenti expects a flowering of Ukrainian culture after the war. “There will be this rethinking of the war experience, of the trauma, which is going to take, I’m sure, many years,” she says. “If Ukraine is given a chance to speak in its voice it certainly will have lots of stories to tell.”

KYIV, UKRAINE - NOVEMBER 23, 2022 - Minister of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine Oleksandr Tkachenko attends the opening of The Leica That Saw the Holodomor exhibition at the Hall of Memory of the National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide, Kyiv, capital of Ukraine. The main exhibit is the camera with which Austrian engineer Alexander Wienerberger captured the man-made famine, known as the Holodomor, in Kharkiv Region in 1933. A photo album compiled by the author himself, a specific device with which Wienerberger managed to secretly take photos and the brochures - Russland wie es wirklich ist (Russia as it really is, 1934) and Um eine Fuhre Salz im GPU-Keller (Cargo of salt in the basement of the GPU, 1942) - accompanied by Alexander Wienerbergers memoirs about life in the USSR are also on display. (Photo credit should read Volodymyr Tarasov / Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)
Minister of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine, Oleksandr Tkachenko, has called for a boycott of Russian artists including Tchaikovsky (Photo: Volodymyr Tarasov/Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

At the same time, as Ukrainians embrace their own culture, there has been a fierce reaction against Russian culture as part of a move to ‘de-Russify or “decolonise”. Mr Tkachenko has called for Western allies to boycott Tchaikovsky and other Russian artists until the war is over, pointing to the Kremlin’s use of culture as a “weapon of war”.

Many Ukrainians now refuse to play Russian music or read Russian literature. Shops are refusing to sell Russian books. There have been mass pulpings of Russian books, while Ukraine’s parliament adopted a law banning their import. Writers including Kurkov, who formerly wrote in Russian, have vowed to stop writing in the language until the war is over.

A photo shows a statue of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin painted with the words "Go away", on Pushkin Street in Odessa, southern Ukraine, on November 10, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by OLEKSANDR GIMANOV / AFP) (Photo by OLEKSANDR GIMANOV/AFP via Getty Images)
A statue of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin painted with the words ‘Go away’, on Pushkin Street in Odessa, southern Ukraine, on 10 November, 2022 (Photo by Oleksandr Gimanov / AFP)

Streets named after Alexander Pushkin or Anton Chekhov are also being renamed after Ukrainian writers. Volodymyr Yermolenko, a philosopher and the editor in chief of UkraineWorld, has condemned streets’ Russian names as a legacy of the imperial past. “Every prominent Russian name was a way to exclude a Ukrainian one. Street names were a tool to erase local memory,” he has said.

Even Kyiv-born Russians are at risk of being dragged into the culture war. Recently Ukraine’s national writers’ union called for the Bulgakov Museum, where The Master and Margarita writer Mikhail Bulgakov was born, to be closed down, citing the author’s dislike of Ukrainian nationalism. Zabuzkho has described Bulgakov’s work as “propaganda literature”. However, the museum’s director, Lyudmila Gubianuri, defended Bulgakov as a “man of his time” whose “work is definitely part of Ukrainian cultural space”, and the culture minister has – for now – kept the museum open.

This photograph taken on September 19, 2022, shows Liudmila Goubianouri, director of the Mikhail Bulgakov Museum, the former home of the Kyiv-born Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov, talks with the AFP in Kyiv. - Following the annexation of Crimea and the Donbass war in 2014, Ukraine began the path of decommunization which was manifested by the dismantling of monuments from the Soviet era and the change of toponyms. Since February 24, it is any Russian presence in the private and public space that is questioned by the Ukrainians. (Photo by Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP) (Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images)
Liudmila Goubianouri, director of the Mikhail Bulgakov Museum, the former home of the Kyiv-born writer (Photo: Sergei Supinsky/ AFP)

Mr Sheiko rejects such terms. “I don’t like the words boycotts, cancel, ban, sensor. It’s not about that. It’s about looking at all the imperialist and colonialist tropes, that are woven into Russian culture, both classical and contemporary, in film, in music, in literature,” he says. “Tchaikovsky might not be part of today’s contemporary Putin’s Russia, but it’s used very effectively as a tool of cultural expansion, of propaganda, of cultural domination by the Putinist regime… And that doesn’t allow other countries cultures to be visible in the world.

“We call the world to actually give that space to cultures that have traditionally been underrepresented internationally.”

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 27: Oleksii Kniazkov and Vladyslava Ihnatenko of the United Ukrainian Ballet perform during rehearsal for Swan Lake at ICC Sydney Theatre on October 27, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Don Arnold/WireImage)
The United Ukrainian Ballet rehearse Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in Sydney, Australia last year (Photo: Don Arnold/WireImage)

Others in Ukraine are calling for the reassessment of art and artists formerly claimed by Russia. Last year the National Gallery renamed Edgar Degas’ drawing Russian Dancers as Ukrainian Dancers, and other changes have been made by other galleries. Olesya Khromeychuk, director of the Ukrainian Institute in London, criticised the “deliberate or just lazy misinterpretation of the region as one endless Russia”, and called for artists from smaller countries, whether Ukraine, Belarus or Georgia, to be described as such.

Painting titled 'Russian Dancers' by Edgar Degas (1834-1917) a French artist famous for his paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings. Dated 19th Century (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Edgar Degas’ ‘Russian Dancers’ has been renamed ‘Ukrainian Dancers’ (Photo: Universal History Archive/Universal Images via Getty)

Ukraine is now claiming figures formerly taken to be Russian, such as the avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich was born in Ukraine and spent a considerable part of time in Ukraine. “I believe 30-40 per cent of Russian culture is built on Ukrainian culture, and which is never talked about rarely, rarely written,” claims Mr Doroshenko.

“Many artists in early 20th century who were all Ukrainian-born and raised, maybe moved to Petrograd or Moscow, and they’re all labelled Russian. I don’t know how that happened. Because last time I checked, Picasso was born and died a Spanish artist and not a Parisian.”

LONDON - OCTOBER 02: Sotheby's employees hold Kazimir Malevich's 'Suprematist Composition' on October 2, 2008 in London. The 1916 work renowned as a premier painting from one of the most sophisticated and innovative artistic movements of the 20th century is expected to bring in in excess of $60 million when it is offered at auction in New York on November 3, 2008. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Kazimir Malevich’s ‘Suprematist Composition’. Ukraine-born Malevich was traditionally considered a Russian artist (Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty)

However, amid the battles over culture, its importance has only grown. Amid war, Ukraine’s culture and history is finally receiving the recognition its artists have long wished. Concerts and films are being played in the metro, dancers are still rehearsing in basements. Amid the horror being inflicted, culture refuses to end. “People cannot live without it. It gives meaning to a person’s life,” Kurkov has said.

In this photograph taken on August 13, 2022 Ukrainian novelist and poet Serhiy Zhadan recites his poems in the House of Cinema in Kyiv, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine. - Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan believes that Ukraine will win the war against Russia thanks to the courage and extraordinary mobilisation of its citizens. (Photo by Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP) (Photo by DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images)
The Ukrainian novelist and poet Serhiy Zhadan reciting his poems in the House of Cinema in Kyiv (Photo by Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP)

Even the Ukrainian Government has set up a website encouraging the public to upload their poetry, declaring “Every poem, every line, every word is part of Ukrainian history… wars end but poetry does not.”

KOSICE, SLOVAKIA - JUNE 12: Ukrainian ballet dancers receive standing ovation after their performance during the evening Gala Concert in the State Theatre Kosice on June 12, 2022 in Kosice, Slovakia. Due to the ongoing war, Ukrainian ballet dancers of Taras Shevchenko National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre of Ukraine began an official charitable tour in the European Union with a repertoire made up of fragments of Ukrainian and international ballet plays. (Photo by Zuzana Gogova/Getty Images)
Ukrainian ballet dancers receive standing ovation after their performance during the evening Gala Concert in Slovakia (Photo: Zuzana Gogova/Getty Images)

As Volodomyr Zelensky said at the Venice Biennale last year, at the opening of the exhibition This is Ukraine: Defending Freedom: “There are no tyrannies that would not try to limit art because they can see the power of art. Art can tell the world what cannot otherwise be shared.”

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