I have spent my whole life trying to stay as far away as possible from politics. I am a curator and art critic, I organize exhibitions in museums and write books. But if you’re from Ukraine, you cannot permit yourself the luxury of existing outside of politics. One way or another it catches up with you, as it has done for me and my generation. The USSR collapsed when I was 10 years old. The 2004 Orange Revolution took place when I was a student at university. I became an active participant in Euromaidan when I was 32. That revolution was followed by the annexation of Crimea and war in Donbas — all of which seemed, to me, to be the very worst we would have to endure.
But here I sit on my American couch, 40 years old, scrolling through Facebook, which is still very popular in Ukraine. This is the first time in my life that I am so far from home for so long, and this website, with all its faults, remains a vital thread connecting me with Ukraine and my social bubble — artists, critics, and curators.
“I heard a huge explosion,” wrote the artist and art-critic Asya Bazdyreva in a fearful Facebook post.
In Kyiv it was five in the morning.
At that moment the artist Borys Kashapov sent me a message: “Alisa, something has blown up, do you know what’s going on?” I did. Putin’s forces had begun their invasion of Ukraine.
22nd of June
Four o’clock sharp
Kyiv was bombed and we were told
War had begun.
These are the first lines of the most popular Soviet song from World War II. It still seems unbelievable that Kyiv is being bombed again 80 years later — and this time by Russians, hiding behind their taunting, absurd slogans about the “denazification” of Ukraine.
The teachers of my childhood took care to highlight the underhandedness of the German fascists in 1941, who launched their attack on us in the dead of night. Even in the ancient Indian epic, the Mahabharata, which describes the bloody war between two related clans, both sides faithfully put down arms after the sun sets. Meanwhile, in the 21st century, the Russians are carrying out their airstrikes by night. People shiver in cold bomb shelters, not sleeping for days. This is their strategy to demoralize the population.
Yet it turns out Ukrainians are hard to demoralize. “I must admit your people have guts,” my 80-year-old neighbor tells me here in California. Common people face down tanks without weapons. What about artists? Helpless and vulnerable? No, it’s during a crisis like this that we remember art’s mystical roots: it holds great power, and it’s not by chance that dictators often fear it.
Many artists who now find themselves hostages of a global catastrophe continue to create art — in bomb shelters or in endless lines at the EU border, adapting to their new status as refugees. The Internet in Ukraine is still working, so pieces of art can quickly gather an audience. One of the first viral images from the war was a drawing by Catherina Lisovenko. She depicted a mother and child, the woman dressed in a Greek tunic. However, instead of taking the beatific classical stance one would expect, the woman holds up her middle finger to an unseen enemy, refusing to take on the role of a passive victim. And the child, instead of peacefully suckling at her breast, also looks directly at the viewer and holds up his middle finger.
Catherina Lisovenko. Untitled.
Mixed media on paper. February 22, 2022. Kyiv
Catherina Lisovenko left Ukraine with her children in the first days of the war. She was given shelter by a Polish artist residency. “The rotting underbelly of any war is dehumanization,” she wrote on Facebook after a harrowing crossing at the Ukrainian border. “Before they came, they dehumanized us. They accuse Ukraine of Nazism while burning our people and our cities.”
With our society in a state of shock, crude language has become normalized. The main meme from the first days of the invasion were the words of the soldiers defending Zmiinyi island: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.” The video of the soldiers’ response to the demand for surrender, after which contact with them was lost, spread like wildfire. Now the phrase is on everyone’s lips. It’s used as a greeting and farewell, and the Odesan artist Igor Gusev incorporates it into his World War 3. Atop a reproduction of a 19th-century Russian masterpiece, Ivan Aivazovsky’s The Ninth Wave, which depicts a terrible storm, Gusev drew a ship with legs; his caption reads, “Russian Warship Sets off to Go Fuck Itself.”
Igor Gusev. Russian Warship Sets off to Go Fuck Itself.
Mixed media on paper. February 25, 2022. Odesa
Just as the Nazis’ crimes cast a shadow over classical German poetry and the music of Wagner, forcing many to doubt the value of a culture that gave rise to Hitler, it is impossible now not to ask the same questions about “high Russian culture,” which has often given voice to imperialist attitudes that are in line with both Stalinism and Putinism. Igor Gusev had just returned to Ukraine from Thailand before the war broke out. He believes that Ukraine will be victorious. While the artist speaks Russian in his day-to-day life, he writes to me in Ukrainian. Using Russian has become unbearable for him and for many others.
The first serious blow to Ukraine’s cultural heritage dealt by Putin’s forces was the destruction of the Maria Prymachenko Museum in Ivankiv. Prymachenko was a prominent 20th-century artist; the magical creatures from her paintings have come to symbolize Ukraine and are loved by millions of people. The artist and contemporary icon painter Danylo Movchan lives in Lviv. At the moment, Lviv is relatively safe, so Movchan, together with his wife Yarina, are creating new drawings every day. They combine real images of tragedy and hope with the Christian symbols that have long been part of their work. After the destruction of the museum in Ivankiv, Yarina and Danyl dedicated a series of drawings to Maria Prymachenko. Danylo drew one of Prymachenko’s enchanting yet threatening creatures, painted in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, attacking a small black figure. That is how Russia is seen today by Ukraine: dark, yet petty and odious.
Danylo Movchan. Struggle.
Watercolor on paper. February 28, 2022. Lviv
The Kahrkiv native Artem Volokitin began his painting series Spectacle back in 2014, at the height of the war in Donbas. He depicted joyful firework displays, explaining that after periods of shelling, fireworks triggered panic attacks in many people. Artem and his wife, the artist Tatyana Malinovskaya, are currently hiding with their five children in a shelter in Kharkiv, a city suffering round after round of Russian rocket attacks. When the shelling started, a section of Kharkiv’s art community hid in the basement of the city’s main art gallery, the Ermilov Art Center. Unfortunately, the gallery is located on Freedom square in the very center of the city, which is precisely where the Russians are aiming their most devastating attacks.
Arsen Savadov, one of Ukraine’s most famous painters and photo-artists, is spending his time walking through central Kyiv, navigating the numerous checkpoints along the way. Back in the 1990s he went down into the mines of Donbas. Convincing the tough-as-nails miners to change into delicate ballet tutus, the artist created a powerfully transgressive performance: Donbas Chocolate (1997). It has since become a classic of Ukrainian art. Savadov took razor-sharp photos not only down in the mines, but also in graveyards and in morgues. Although best known for the Donbas series, he is a Kyivan through and through. During this dark time, he has remained in his home city. Walking its deserted streets, he notices what everybody else does not.
Arsen Savadov. Red Star Hotel.
Photograph. March 1, 2022. Kyiv
For instance, the former Soviet hotel Krasnaia Zvezda (Red Star) on Yaroslaviv Val Street, in the center of town, stands in a prolonged state of “reconstruction.” Just a few years ago, old photographs were mounted on the building’s windows as part of an art project. Over time, the authorities made holes in the windows for ventilation. Today, these holes in old pre-revolutionary photographs, mounted on the walls of a crumbling Soviet hotel, have become a powerful symbol of the black holes of Ukraine’s 20th century — a century of suffering for Ukraine that Putin has tried desperately to reconstruct. Savadov uploaded photos of the abandoned hotel’s windows. “Glory to Ukraine,” he writes to me. “If only we could stop that monster.”
Arsen Savadov. Red Star Hotel.
Photograph. March 1, 2022. Kyiv
In Dnipro, Nikita Shalenny, an artist of Jewish descent, has taken up arms and become a member of the local territorial defence. He has no time for art, spending whole days transporting humanitarian aid, helping refugees, and preparing for a Russian attack. Darya Koltsova, from Kharkiv, moved to Odesa on the eve of the war, making a new home for herself in her new apartment. Back in distant 2014, she began her installation series Theory of Defense. She was inspired by the geometric patterns people created while applying tape to their windows to stop the glass from shattering in case of an explosion. Today, you can find those same geometric patterns on the windows of every Ukrainian apartment, and this has prompted Darya to continue her project. In the last few days she crossed the Romanian border, with great difficulty, and plans to travel farther into Western Europe — where, exactly, she doesn’t know.
Darya Koltsova. Theory of Defense.
Many are fleeing, especially those with small children. Borys Kashapov, to whom I spoke at dawn on February 24, decided almost immediately to get his four-year-old daughter and wife out of the country. His wife is Lesya Kulchinskaya, curator at the largest Ukrainian art institute, PinchukArtCentre. For several weeks before the invasion people had been packing so-called “emergency suitcases.” Of course, in the end it turned out that the majority of people were not really prepared for the war. Kashapov and his wife, leaving in a great hurry, threw a strikingly absurd assortment of objects into their suitcase. The result, in of itself, could be considered a work of art, depicting how defenseless a creative person can be when confronted with war: a roll of toilet paper, a child’s party dress, a candle, and a hammer. They were lucky, being among the first to get the Romanian border. They managed to cross even though Borys, in his panic, had forgotten his passport. After spending a couple of days in a refugee camp, the family made it to Bucharest, where local artists helped them find temporary shelter and the supplies they needed. Lesya and Borys, like nearly two million Ukrainians who have escaped the country, must now ask themselves: What next?
Borys Kashapov. The Fear that Hides My Face.
Pencil on paper. March 5, 2022. Bucharest
The Kyivan artist Nikita Kravtsov has been living in Paris for a long time. We rang each other on February 23; I had written the foreword to his art book, War of the Mushrooms, and we were preparing for its release. The book is a remake of Heorhiy Narbut’s 1906 classic of Ukrainian modernism, a folk tale that, for Kravtsov’s book, was retold by Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov. The tale’s plot is fairly simple: the peaceful world of mushrooms is invaded by the bloodthirsty tsar of the peas. The parallels with the current situation are easy to see. Everything ends well in Kravtsov’s book, but it’s not clear how this war will end. Since the first days of the conflict, Kravtsov has been hard at work, drawing placards, organizing protests, and making appearances on TV. In recent days, the European art community has been heroic in their efforts to help Ukrainian colleagues. They have offered residencies, stipends, and assistance with food and documentation. But that is for those who have managed to get out. The majority of Ukrainian artists are still in Ukraine, in great danger.
Nikita Kravtsov. War of the Mushrooms.
Mixed media on paper. 2022. Paris
It is six in the morning in the Bay Area. Every day I wake up and call home. My mother is sheltering from air strikes and spends her nights in a metro a station not far from our home. “Stop sighing,” she writes to me. “Think it will be fine, and it will be fine. Time changes, and everything passes.” Her name is Nadezhda, which means “hope.” Nearby, her mother-in-law, my 94-year-old grandmother Olena Lugova, lives in her own apartment. In 1937, during Stalin’s Great Terror, her father was shot. She survived World War II and, in 1960, as a historian of Ukraine and member of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, wrote an article in which she mentioned, for the first time in Soviet historiography, Ukraine’s colonial status within the Russian Empire. For this, she was denied the right to publish her work for five years. Throughout my childhood I lived with my grandmother’s dream of a joyful and flourishing independent Ukraine. The older I became, the more that dream was challenged by reality. A few weeks ago my grandmother fell very ill. For the sake of her heart, my mother and I decided not to tell her about the war. We lie that the TV and radio have broken, and have instructed our relatives and friends not to raise the topic. Though hard of hearing, she is sometimes awakened at night by the sounds of air strikes. My mother tries to convince her that they are bad dreams. That’s all I want now — for this to be a bad dream.
Self-translated with Nathan Jeffers
Primary illustration: Kinder Album, Lviv (March 4, 2022).
Alisa Lozhkina is curating a charity event, “Proof of Love to Ukraine,” featuring artworks by more than 35 contemporary Ukrainian artists.