War gives fight to preserve Ukraine’s cultural identity new urgency
By Jason Farago
At the thousand-year-old Cathedral of Saint Sophia here, standing on an easel in front of a towering Baroque golden altar, is a new, freshly painted icon that is just 1 foot square.
It depicts a 17th-century Cossack military commander with a long gray beard. He looks humble beneath the immense mosaics that have glinted since the 11th century — through Kyiv’s sacking by the Mongols, its absorption into Poland, its domination by the Soviet Union.
This icon has been painted on three planks of knotty wood: the planks of an ammunition box recovered from the devastated Kyiv suburb of Bucha. Out of Bucha’s mass graves, in the wake of terrifying Russian atrocities against civilians, something new has come to Saint Sophia: an image of mourning and resolve, of horror and courage, of a culture that will not give up.
As Ukraine celebrates its independence from Russia on Wednesday, many Ukrainian artists, intellectuals and writers have sought to emphasize Ukraine’s unique culture as a form of protest against President Vladimir Putin’s claims that Ukraine and Russia “are one people” and his efforts to abolish their statehood.
“This is a war about cultural identity,” said curator Leonid Maruschak. With Russia actively trying to erase Ukraine’s national identity, this country’s music, literature, movies and monuments are not recreations. They are battlefields. Ukrainian culture, past and present, has become a vital line of defense for the whole liberal order.
Every war endangers cultural heritage. Walk through Kyiv or Lviv today, and on every other corner is a statue bundled in flame-retardant blankets. Hapsburg stained glass is sandwiched between particle board, and Soviet mosaics are overlaid with plywood. The appalling damage to theaters, libraries and religious sites in these past six months alone broadens a horrendous tide of cultural destruction this century, in Syria, Iraq, Ethiopia, Mali, Armenia and Afghanistan.
But the risks to Ukrainian culture are more than mere collateral damage. For Putin, there is no Ukraine as such; he maintains that Ukraine is a Soviet fiction, that the Ukrainian language is a Russian dialect, that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people.” And so since February — indeed, since 2014, when the war first began in the east of Ukraine — cultural manifestations of Ukrainian independence have been directly in the crosshairs.
The war has turned contemporary Ukrainian culture into an archival enterprise — one in which preservation is everyone’s job, and new creations are rooted in history the enemy would deny.