Meet the artists, writers and musicians defending Ukraine

Some of Ukraine’s cultural creators have taken up arms while others battle Russia through poetry, films and concerts, finds Helen Fitzwilliam.

The World Today
3 minute READ

Helen Fitzwilliam

Journalist and filmmaker

During Russian bombardments of Kyiv, the National Philharmonic orchestra plays on despite power cuts. Musicians perform by the light of battery lamps. The audience is limited to 160 – which is the number of people who can be rushed into the theatre’s underground bunker if the missiles start to fall.

Conductor Yuri Kerpatenko was murdered by Russian soldiers for refusing to collaborate

Keeping the theatre open is an act of artistic defiance. The musicians are holding the cultural line to boost the morale of those who attend. As their director, Larysa Parkhomyuk, says: ‘We will play the music, as without music life would be a mistake.’

Russia is seeking not just land but to erase Ukraine’s artistic patrimony, history and language. Anyone resisting these efforts is on the front line.

Conductor Yuri Kerpatenko refused to collaborate with Russian authorities in the occupied city of Kherson. He continued to post his pro-Ukrainian views and wouldn’t take part in a propaganda concert. He was murdered by Russian soldiers at his home in September 2022.

Championing Ukrainian culture abroad

As well as musicians, a few artists, writers, dancers, pop singers and poets are part of a movement to protect Ukrainian culture and champion it abroad. Graphic designer Mykola Kovalenko, known for his anti-war posters, declared on French television that his pen is his Kalashnikov.

In the 12 months since Russia’s full-scale invasion, many painters have switched their style in order to document the conflict. ‘This war is a marathon,’ Oleksiy Sai told me from his Kyiv studio. ‘I envy those who fight with arms, but for now I am more effective as an artist.’

Painting of smoke called 'News' by Oleksiy Sai

‘News’, by Oleksiy Sai, evoking smoke from a Russian missile

While his short, raw films of war crimes are too graphic to be broadcast, his latest was shown at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January. Still and moving images are edited to the sound of a heartbeat – a mother screaming above a baby in a tiny white coffin; bodies in cars shredded with bullets; emergency workers bandaging wounds. It is almost unbearable to watch.

Image from exhibition Russian Warcrimes

An image showing a still from Oleksiy Sai’s film shown at Russian War Crimes, an exhibition mounted at the World Economic Forum at Davos in January. Photograph provided by Victor Pinchuk Foundation © 2023. Photograph by Valentyna Rostovikova.

Another of his videos had a powerful impact when shown at NATO headquarters, the European parliament and the US Congress. Juxtaposed with images of atrocities cut to a metronome beat are radio intercepts of Russian soldiers speaking to their girlfriends. One says: ‘It’s okay to rape a Ukrainian woman but use a condom.’

Sai says news reports alone cannot capture Ukraine’s suffering. Only art can fill the gap between knowledge and feelings. ‘It’s a kind of weapon,’ he explains.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy understands the importance of culture in dark times. Addressing the Venice Biennale in 2022, which despite the war featured a Ukrainian pavilion, he said tyrants want to crush free artistic expression because of its power to convey emotion, loss and moral wrongs.

Writers on the front line 

War brings new priorities and lives are inescapably transformed. Oleksandr Mykhed, 34, a prominent Ukrainian writer, admitted at a book festival in Lviv last October that he had lost his belief in the power of novels: ‘I don’t believe in the possibility of escaping into a fictional world when the only reality of your own life is ablaze.’  He joined the army instead.

Language is often a casualty of war. Words take on new meanings. Ostap Slyvynsky, a poet and translator, has compiled what he calls a ‘Dictionary of War’. While working as a volunteer helping displaced Ukrainians at Lviv station, he realized many needed to talk about their trauma. He began to document their experiences, presenting each vignette as a new definition.

'Adam and Eve' (1912), a painting by Wladimir Baranoff-Rossiné

‘Adam and Eve’ (1912), by Wladimir Baranoff-Rossiné – part of the Eye of the Storm exhibition of Ukrainian modernist art at the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum, Madrid, and then touring.

One of these, Kateryna Vyshhorod’s story, is filed under B for Beauty. ‘I read a story about the Second World War. There was this girl who wore her mum’s worst clothes to pass by the Nazis unnoticed, to avoid being raped. I pause by my wardrobe; is it time to wear the worst already? … In a time of war, beauty becomes dangerous.’

‘A remarkable testimony of hope’

On a cold day in Kharkiv last December, Victoria Amelina, an award-winning novelist, attended the funeral of her friend Volodymyr Vakulenko, a children’s author. He had gone missing after being taken away by Russian troops. When the area was retaken, Vakulenko’s body was found in a mass grave in Izyum forest.

Text of the poem titled No Poetry, written by Ukrainian author Victoria Amelina

‘No Poetry’, by Ukrainian writer Victoria Amelina. She has started writing poetry instead of fiction since the invasion in 2022 and has retrained as a war-crimes investigator. 

Amelina, who has retrained as a war crimes investigator since the invasion, found out about a diary Vakulenko had buried beneath a cherry tree in his garden. She told me she dug it up and discovered ‘a remarkable testimony of hope, resilience and dignity’. Its contents also helped her to identify the main Russian perpetrator of the abduction (there are plans to publish the journal this year). Amelina has started writing poetry but has given up fiction.

‘A writer who does not write has become a symbol of this war,’ says author Andriy Lyubka, whose acclaimed novel Carbide was published in 2015. But he too has renounced literature for now to work as a volunteer delivering cars to the army.

This came about when he heard that recruits from his hometown had been given an old school bus to drive 700 miles to the fighting in the Donbas. It broke down and the soldiers had to get a taxi to the front. Lyubka has raised money via his Facebook page to buy nearly 100 vehicles for the troops.

Fighting an enemy that disputes their country’s right to exist has reinforced Ukrainians’ rejection of Russian culture. No ballerinas will dance to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake; writers who once published in Russian have switched linguistic gears.

Plays, operas and concerts are sold out, while authors give talks in bomb shelters. Lyubka said that at one such event, ‘Everyone felt like the early Christians in Rome, meeting in the catacombs.’

YouTube video of dancer Svitlana Vechirka

Choreographer and dancer Svitlana Vechirka’s dance response to the invasion of Ukraine, ‘Let The Body Speak’: ‘I decided to make this video because I wanted to document myself in a state that cannot be described in words.’

After curfew, culture is available online. In one clip, air-raid sirens provide the background for a striking new piece by the celebrated Ukrainian dancer and choreographer Svitlana Vechirka. In the days after the Russian invasion, Vechirka says her body felt ‘like a stone’, so she created the video of herself dancing in an apartment to document her ‘fear, numbness, despair, confusion’.

In New York, the newly appointed director of the Ukrainian Museum, Peter Doroshenko, says he is in ‘a sprint’ to make Ukrainian culture better known around the world. In September, he is putting on a show of one of Ukraine’s most celebrated artists, folklorist Maria Prymachenko. The exhibition will include 14 pictures rescued from the flames after a Russian missile hit a museum in Ivankiv.

A ‘decolonization’ campaign is reclaiming the Ukrainian heritage of the painter Kazimir Malevich

There is also an increasing urgency to reclaim hundreds of Ukrainian artists who, arguably, have been misclassified as Russian. ‘It has reached a kind of boiling point in scholarly circles,’ Doroshenko says.

One of these ‘decolonization’ campaigns is for international museums to recognize the Ukrainian heritage of the painter Kazimir Malevich, whose abstract Black Square marked a turning point in modern art. Although Malevich worked mainly in Russia, he was born in Kyiv and identified as Ukrainian. Activists demand that he is no longer labelled ‘Russian, born in Ukraine’.

'Peasant woman with buckets and child' (1912), a painting by Kazimir Malevich

‘Peasant woman with buckets and child’ (1912), by Kazimir Malevich (Getty Images).

Artworks Putin came close to destroying are now on display in the Eye of the Storm, a modernist exhibition at the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum in Madrid.

All the Ukrainians I spoke to insist their country has more to offer than war. They feel the West has had a blind spot about Ukraine’s culture, lumping it with Russia, so why not showcase Ukrainian art treasures that have been moved abroad for safe keeping? As Amelina says: ‘We are much more than even our struggle for freedom.’