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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
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.”.
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.
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 .”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”