Late on a Friday afternoon in early December, a lively crowd gathered in Kyiv’s Ukraine House, a cultural hub, to mark the opening of “The World of Skovoroda,” an exhibition dedicated to the country’s venerated 18th century philosopher, credited as the originator of modern Ukrainian culture. The show launched as Russian missiles bore down on the electrical grid, causing blackouts that made short, cold days darker and icier. The exhibit features mounted panels that glow in the dark, even when the electricity is out, and a 3-D rendering of the village of Skovorodynivka in Kharkiv where a museum devoted to Skovoroda stood until it was destroyed last May by Russian shelling. The exhibit’s centerpiece is a salvaged statue of the stage, its surface scarred and pockmarked in the bombing, but its structure and stature left miraculously intact.
As Ukraine battles Russia’s military, its people are fighting with vigor against a cultural assault, determined that their arts, letters, and cosmopolitan life will withstand the onslaught. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s armed invasion has been met with unexpectedly potent military resistance. In parallel, his effort to erase Ukraine’s distinct culture has provoked a firm rebuke on behalf of the country’s history, thought, art and culture.
Erasing Ukraine’s culture was at the heart of Putin’s war, both his motivation and a means of subjugation. In a televised address launching the war, Putin denied that Ukraine had ever enjoyed “real statehood” and claimed the country as part of Russia’s “own history, culture, spiritual space.” A PEN America and PEN Ukraine report, Ukrainian Culture Under Attack, documents how the country’s museums, libraries, statues and icons have not merely been caught in the crossfire, but deliberately destroyed. Libraries and performance venues lie in ruins. Museums have been looted and stripped bare. As of mid-November more than 529 cultural sites had been damaged or demolished.
The fight over culture is not simply a matter of preserving riches from the past, but a battle for the present and future. Following a playbook used after the 2014 occupations of Crimea and other provinces, in territories newly captured by Russian forces, Ukrainian-language library books have been removed, teachers fired and schools forced to begin teaching in Russian. An orchestra leader, who refused to take part in a concert in occupied Kherson, was summarily murdered. Marjana Varchuk, a director at a Kyiv museum damaged in early October told PEN: “Destroying our culture is the purpose of everything the Russians are doing. Culture and language strengthen our nation, they remind us of our history. That’s why the Russians are shelling our monuments, our museums, and our history. That’s what they’re fighting with.”
Alongside his military miscalculations, Putin appears not to have grasped that hitting Ukraine’s culture would instead fuel its vitality. A large portion of Ukrainians traditionally spoke Russian, but there is now a defiant push to popularize the Ukrainian language. Authors who once published novels and poems in Russian have proudly switched linguistic gears. In a half-destroyed library in the town of Chernihiv, women gather on Saturday mornings with a tutor to brush up their Ukrainian, wanting to overcome the impulse to revert to Russian, once their mother tongue. Newly passed laws require all Russian publications to be translated. Newsstands must offer at least half of their materials in Ukrainian.
Even as the city endures rolling blackouts, Kyiv hosts nightly classical music performances, including a version of La Traviata set in wartime. Concert halls and theaters are sold out. A museum exhibition focused on food will open in the coming weeks, taking on added poignancy given how the war has threatened Ukraine’s role in global grain supplies. Author talks and book events are convened in bomb shelters. The restaurant of Ukraine’s most famous celebrity chef Ivegen Klopotenko is filled to capacity on Saturday nights and pastry chefs are concocting desserts shaped to look like tank barricades. Stylish Ukrainian women are turning embroidered peasant garb and babushkas into fashion statements.
In Bucha, the site of mass killings and torture during six weeks of Russian occupation last spring, a cathedral, the grounds of which became a mass grave, now hosts a photo exhibit including images of the bodies left on the town’s curbs and sidewalks. A nearby plasma screen shows renderings of an architecturally ambitious memorial that residents hope to build on the site.
Ukraine’s cultural surge is making itself felt globally. Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts will soon host a Ukrainian visual art exhibition. Ukrainian writers are favorites at literary festivals and Ukrainian poets say it has never been easier to get their work published in translation.
The funeral of children’s book writer Volodymyr Vakulenko became the occasion for a literary show of force, with writers traveling more than six hours from Kyiv to stand alongside his family and neighbors. Vakulenko was kidnapped by the Russians in March and identified in November after his body was found in a shallow mass grave in Kharkiv. A diary he kept of his ordeal has been discovered and editors and publishers are working to bring his and other first-hand accounts to publication.
The country’s cultural upswell is powered in part by a government that understands how pop culture, advertising, imagery and social media can rally the people. The military’s short videos, set to music, have helped foster faith in the national defense. A local fashion house has adopted the slogan “Bravery Is Ukraine’s Brand,” brandishing it with a trademark sky blue and bright yellow background in storefronts. As President Volodymyr Zelensky implores Ukrainians to shelter and endure what will be a punishing winter, cultural pride and identity are proving life-sustaining.
Ukraine’s cultural combatants are patriotic, but not blindly so. Writers and filmmakers have mobilized to oppose the Zelensky government’s attempts to commandeer a beloved Kyiv film archive. Directors, film critics and move buffs are protesting the Culture Ministry’s appointment of manager with no experience in the film sector..
Like its soldiers, Ukraine’s culture warriors are scrappy and determined. But just as on the battlefield, their energy and pluck will need to be augmented by sustained assistance to safeguard the cultural wealth they are fighting to preserve.
The fate of Ukraine as an independent democracy will be decided on the battlefield and perhaps ultimately at a negotiating table. But its trajectory as a vibrant, flourishing society will be shaped by the books, art, music, thought, narratives and institutions that nourish and help to heal a people beleaguered but unbowed.
Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, recently returned from Ukraine where she led a delegation of American writers to witness the destruction of cultural infrastructure.