Culture as Witness in Ukraine

By Sasha DovzhykNovember 1, 2022

Culture as Witness in Ukraine
When a friend finally took me to a cinema half a year after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I looked for a belt to buckle up: by that point, I was more used to crossing the country in the back seat of press and volunteer cars. It was by watching a Ukrainian film from 1971, with its artistic brilliance spread over Soviet ideological clichés, that I felt rooted in the historical dimension of this struggle. Our culture bears witness to our resistance beyond the present moment. It testifies that we prevail over those who want to silence us.

Back in the third week of Russia’s all-out war, I was typing up my dispatch in the bathroom of a rented flat in Lviv while an air raid siren was wailing outside. Occasionally credited as a literary scholar, I noted that I didn’t refer to literature in the third text in a row. The only voices I wanted to include were those of people I talked to in the city. Their message was uniform: “Glory to Ukraine, death to the enemies.” The energy of real-time resistance, unanticipated from the outside, unanimous on the inside, fierce from wherever one looked, was more than any book could offer.

It was not only literature or art I withdrew from. Alcohol could not be bought in Lviv: Ukrainian authorities were keen on keeping us sober and ready to fight or flee. A coffee addict, I abstained voluntarily, reckoning that an espresso would stop my racing heart. There was power in austerity, in allowing oneself to run on the purest of feelings: love and fury. Everything else seemed decadent, gratuitous, a vestige of that long-gone epoch of three weeks ago. We didn’t need any props in the country whose people discovered they had spines of steel.

The purpose that brought me to the first cultural event in the capital in May, 50 days after the Ukrainian army cleansed the Kyiv region of the invaders, was fundraising. Sasha Koltsova, a singer and comedian, was collecting money for an ambulance in the Pink Freud bar in the Podil neighbourhood, which used to be the heartland of Ukrainian youth culture. Thanks to an excellent bomb shelter, the bar turned out to be well suited to house a few staff members and a group of local journalists who hadn’t fled the capital during the battle for Kyiv. In March and April, the space functioned as a hybrid of a newsroom and a field kitchen, where all the dwellers worked in shifts to cook 300 meals per day for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. In May, I felt honored to attend their consecrated hub.

The performance turned out to be a musical stand-up. What else? The mass graves the occupiers left throughout the Kyiv region gaped at us as if asking: “Will this break you?” The answer resounded in the bursts of laughter under the arcs of the Pink Freud bar. “If we laugh or if we cry,” writes Georges Bataille, “it is because […] death momentarily appears light to us. That does not mean that it has lost its horror: it simply means that for an instant we have risen above it.” With each day of continuing Russian atrocities, the accumulated death we have to rise above is bringing us closer to the sky that our western allies are reluctant to close. Instead, the Ukrainian Air Forces are performing the task.

Although Russia was expected to reach immediate superiority in the sky, it failed to conduct a thought-out campaign, to destroy or blind Ukrainian air defence at the start of the full-scale invasion. Ukrainians used their limited airpower creatively, from conducting defensive operations to inflicting huge aircraft losses on the enemy. During the mass bombings of critical infrastructure on October 10, half of the rockets Russia launched at Ukrainian cities were intercepted.

On the Day of the Ukrainian Air Forces back in August, I found myself in the 11th-century Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, at the so-called festival of Ukrainian “high culture.” My friend and I begged and cheated to get in — highbrow cultural events were hopelessly overbooked in this impossible country of ours. Five months into the all-out war, we could have co-signed Susan Sontag’s account of staging Beckett in the besieged city of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War: “In Sarajevo, as anywhere else, there are more than a few people who feel strengthened and consoled by having their sense of reality affirmed and transfigured by art.”

The Saint Sophia Cathedral was constructed under Iaroslav the Wise, one of the most eminent rulers of the mediaeval state of Kyivan Rus. Echoing the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople, the cathedral was built to argue in gold and stone that Kyiv was the true disciple of Byzantium. Four centuries prior to Muscovy emerging as an independent polity, the apses of Saint Sophia had already been inlaid with mosaics, its walls covered in majestic frescoes depicting princes, warriors, prophets, and saints. As evidenced by Russian ideologues’ pseudo-historical treatises and speeches, a search for a convincing Russian origin story and a desire to tie it to ancient Kyivan Rus motivated the imperialist invasion of Ukraine.

We stood in the gallery of the Saint Sophia Cathedral listening to a classical choir. From the mosaic in the central apse, we were watched by the Orans of Kyiv, an almost six-meter-high figure of the Virgin with her open palms raised in prayer. One finds the prototype of this gesture in the Book of Exodus: Moses prays for the Israelites fighting the Amalekites, and as long as he is able to hold up his hands, his people prevail. Likewise, the prayer of the Virgin Orans is not only a bodily but a spiritual feat. The image is known by the name “Indestructible Wall.” Solid and firm, clad in a blue chiton against the radiant gold of the mosaic, the Virgin stands as a barrier between her people and darkness external. The Greek inscription above her head is taken from Psalm 46:5: “God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved; God shall help her, just at the break of dawn.” Dawn after dawn, from the first explosions behind the Saint Sophia Cathedral on the morning of February 24 through the recent terrorist attacks on the city center, Kyiv stands.

Standing as a community under the wakeful eyes of the Virgin Orans and listening to the classical ensemble on the Day of the Ukrainian Air Forces did not feel decadent or gratuitous. It felt like a miracle. Eradicating Ukrainians as a nation as well as obliterating our cultural heritage is the invaders’ openly declared intent. Proof is scattered all over the country. Next to the burnt carcasses of apartment blocks in Borodianka village north-west of Kyiv is the statue of the national poet Taras Shevchenko, shot in the head. A direct hit of the Russian rocket ruined the museum of the baroque Ukrainian philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda in the Kharkiv region, where each recently deoccuppied village has revealed a mass burial of Ukrainian civilians. When I talked to a resident of Mariupol who managed to escape from the city now erased by Russian bombs, he wept because of the destruction of mosaics by the dissident Soviet artist Alla Horska.

Among the sites of cultural heritage ruined by the invaders is the Local History Museum in the village of Ivankiv, northwest of Kyiv, where the collection of the folk artist Maria Prymachenko was stored. When the building was set on fire by deliberate Russian shelling, local residents pulled out the bars from windows, went inside the burning house and, risking their lives, rescued the paintings. In September, I was privileged to see an exhibition of Maria Prymachenko’s works in Lviv.

The paintings of the peasant artist were humoros, “naïve,” and decorative only on the surface. They unleashed upon the viewers flocks of many-headed beasts, interlocked in deadly combat or embrace. Images of bright-colored flowers cracked their voracious, sharp-toothed mouths. Prymachenko lived through the Holodomor, the famine manufactured by Stalin to starve the Ukrainian peasant class in 1932-33, as well as the Purges that wiped out the Ukrainian cultural elite, the Second World War in which Ukraine lost seven million citizens, and the Chornobyl nuclear disaster with the Exclusion Zone established only 10 kilometers away from Prymachenko’s village. Some of her paintings are dedicated to a fellow villager, engineer Valery Khodemchuk, the first victim of the explosion at the fourth nuclear reactor, whose body was never recovered. As we settle into a world in which Russia routinely uses nuclear blackmail to achieve its goal, Prymachenko’s creations look less like folkloric fantasies and more like portents.

Russia’s goal has been made clear: to silence Ukrainians forever, to leave no trace of our identity, our political and cultural traditions. An unreachable goal. With every Russian rocket strike, Ukrainians grow more determined to outlive the genocide, testify to every Russian war crime, and bury the abject empire that seeks our elimination. Of all Ukrainian cultural products for export, it is this determination that the outer world seems to need most.


The author's work in Ukraine is supported by the IWM project Documenting Ukraine.

LARB Contributor

Sasha Dovzhyk is a special projects curator at the Ukrainian Institute London and an Associate Lecturer at the School of Slavonic and East-European Studies (UCL). Since Russia's full-scale invasion, she divides her time between London and Ukraine. 


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