The Kyiv museum staff who stayed to protect cherished artefacts | Arts and Culture

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Kyiv, Ukraine – Bohdan Patryliak, deputy director of the Nationwide Museum of the Historical past of Ukraine, doesn’t suggest a food regimen of Snickers, Mars bars and white-bread sandwiches.

This had been his staple meal for greater than a month when the museum’s grandiose places of work, as soon as a centre of educational analysis, had been rapidly transformed right into a fortress defending a few of Ukraine’s most respected artefacts after Russian forces tried to storm Kyiv on February 24, 2022.

As Russian troops started to occupy the capital’s western suburbs the place Patryliak lived, his mom and sister fled to the relative security of western Ukraine. So, the softly spoken and erudite 50-year-old made what he believed was a “rational alternative” by staying to guard the museum he beloved and feared can be a goal of Russian aggression.

Patryliak hunkered down in his workplace and stuffed his days with the bodily arduous process of dismantling the museum’s exhibitions and packaging probably the most worthwhile artefacts, such because the Golden Pectoral from Tovsta Mohyla, a spherical breast ornament of a Scythian king unearthed by a Ukrainian archaeologist in 1971, in addition to in depth gold and silver numismatic collections for a possible evacuation.

As Russian troops edged nearer to Kyiv, he admits to questioning if an evacuation would ever come, particularly since saboteur teams, he says, working for Russia and tasked with finishing up assassinations and different rebel actions behind enemy strains, had been working within the surrounding space in the course of the early phases of the conflict.

Patryliak cuts a slight determine as he sits as we speak in his workplace, behind him two imposing stately home windows overlooking Kyiv’s historic Podil neighbourhood. He opens his desk drawer and shuffles round some papers earlier than pulling out a small bullet which had flown by one of many exhibition corridor’s home windows and he believes was a results of crossfire between Ukrainian navy forces and saboteurs.

He was not alone throughout this time. The museum’s director Fedir Androschuk and a handful of workers had additionally stayed behind. They quickly shaped a day by day routine that he says, “distracted us from our fears and was way more helpful than staying house and ready to be bombed”.

Safeguarding historic artefacts

Patryliak was significantly involved with defending the museum’s worthwhile Scythian gold artefacts, which he feared can be taken by Russian troops as “trophies” in the event that they reached the museum.

Scythian artwork was produced by historical Eurasian nomadic tribes out of gold and infrequently depicts animals and legendary creatures. In recent times, a group of greater than 300 Scythian gold objects had been the topic of bitter authorized wrangling between Ukraine and Russia. The artefacts had been loaned from Crimean museums to an Amsterdam museum earlier than Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula in 2014 and subsequently requested their switch again to occupied Crimea. Nevertheless, in October 2021, a Dutch appeals courtroom dominated in favour of Ukraine.

In late April, Ivan Fyodorov, the mayor of Melitopol, a metropolis in southeastern Ukraine occupied by Russian forces, introduced that Russia had seized one of many “largest and costliest collections” of Scythian gold within the nation.

Patryliak and Androschuk weren’t simply fearful about high-value artefacts but additionally people who symbolised “Ukrainian statehood”, one thing he says is “not recognised by the Russian regime”.

In July 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed a now-infamous 5,300-word essay claiming that Russians and Ukrainians had been “one individuals — a single complete”. Then, in a televised tackle to the nation on February 21, 2022, Putin dismissed that Ukraine had any “actual statehood”; as an alternative, the nation was a part of Russia’s “personal historical past, tradition, religious house”.

From the outset of the conflict, Russia had began to destroy websites of Ukrainian cultural heritage, together with the Ivankiv museum, situated 80km (50 miles) north of Kyiv. The museum, which burned down, contained 25 work by folks artists and an icon of Ukrainian identification, Maria Prymachenko.

“Russia invented the pretext that Russia was ‘de-Nazifying’ Ukraine, so we knew they’d try to destroy something associated to Ukrainian historical past,” Patryliak says.

Patryliak highlights “the artefacts that included the picture of Ivan Mazepa” as significantly in danger. The regional governor of modern-day Ukraine deserted his allegiance to the Russian Tsar Peter I in 1708 and sided with Sweden’s Charles XII within the Nice Northern Conflict. Throughout the next centuries, the legacy of Mazepa has bifurcated between an anti-Russian traitor and an emblem of Ukrainian nationwide resistance.

In mid-March, a top-secret evacuation course of started. Closely guarded vehicles arrived to take away the artefacts that Patryliak and his colleagues had rigorously packaged.

A photo of Oleksandr Nikoriak holding an umbrella over his head in the rain.
Oleksandr Nikoriak, the top of heritage safety for Kyiv metropolis council, stands on the glass bridge that overlooks the Dnieper river [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

‘There is no such thing as a extra friendship’

Simply over a kilometre southeast of the museum and overlooking the meandering Dnieper river stands an imposing, 50-metre (164-foot) excessive, rainbow-shaped arch unveiled in 1982 to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the USSR. Heavy rain falls on the arch’s shiny titanium, which sits atop a public house, flanked by the scenic Khreshchatyk park and Kyiv’s famed glass bridge.

Beforehand often known as the Peoples’ Friendship Arch, it had develop into a divisive image after Russia annexed Crimea and Russian-backed separatists captured elements of the Donbas in 2014. Following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the construction was renamed the Arch of Freedom of the Ukrainian Individuals by the Kyiv metropolis council.

Oleksandr Nikoriak, the dapper, plainspoken head of the Kyiv metropolis council’s heritage safety workplace, shows little sentimentality when commenting on the title change. “There is no such thing as a extra friendship, and we don’t want a construction that means that we do,” he says, standing beneath the arch.

An occasional ray of daylight breaks by the heavy cloud and highlights a black lightning-shaped line on the high of the arch. Nikoriak, wearing a black padded coat and holding a big umbrella, says that activists painted it in 2014 following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the conflict started within the Donbas. It’s one thing that he had authorised. “It didn’t spoil it, but it surely gave a brand new understanding.”

Below the arch sits a sequence of rectangular metal-cased blocks the place an eight-metre (26 foot) tall, giant bronze statue of a Ukrainian and a Russian standing collectively and holding a Soviet Order of Friendship as soon as stood.

Authorities eliminated the monument on April 26, unintentionally decapitating the statue of the Russian employee within the course of. The mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, who was current on the dismantling, said at the time, “You don’t kill your brother. You don’t rape your sister. You don’t destroy your good friend’s nation. That’s why, as we speak, we now have dismantled this monument, as soon as created as an indication of friendship between Ukraine and Russia”.

Nikoriak walks throughout the glass bridge accompanied by Olena Chernesa, a discovered and energetic challenge supervisor on the Ministry of Tradition and Tourism, in the direction of the luxurious greenery of Volodymyr Hill situated on the steep financial institution of the river. Suspended greater than 20 metres (66 ft) within the air and with a clear flooring, it provides giddy views of the Kyiv skyline. In the present day, in distinction to the same old crowds having fun with the sights, a lone jogger braving a torrential downpour plods previous Nikoriak.

A photo of Olena Chernesa.
Olena Chernesa, who works for the Ministry of Tradition and Tourism, believes Russia is ‘making an attempt to steal Ukraine’s historical past and rewrite it of their approach’ [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

Potential aerial assaults

Unperturbed by the rain and with soaking sneakers and go well with trousers, Nikoriak begins to recount how, after evacuating town in the course of the outbreak of conflict, he had spent 10 stressed days within the west earlier than the Kyiv Metropolis State Administration requested him to return and assist defend town’s cultural heritage from potential aerial assaults. Keen to assist defend his metropolis, he instantly travelled again to the capital.

Nevertheless, on his journey, he was pressured to examine into an affordable resort in Vinnytsia, situated in west-central Ukraine, because of the curfew restrictions launched to guard civilians in opposition to air strikes and assist police forces determine saboteur teams working at evening.

He remembers waking up and staring on the wall in entrance of him the place a portray of the bronze statue of Volodymyr the Nice, who had dominated Kyiv within the tenth century, hung. Kyiv’s oldest sculptural monument depicts Volodymyr with a cross atop a 16-metre (52-foot) excessive ornate Byzantine-style pedestal. “I knew, at that second, this statue is the place I would like to start out,” Nikoriak says.

Volodymyr is honored as a saint in Ukraine and Russia and is one other instance of divergent interpretations within the two nations’ histories. For a lot of Ukrainians, Volodymyr the Nice is an emblem of nationwide identification, having transformed the nation to Christianity, then often known as the Kyivan Rus earlier than Moscow existed. He additionally seems on the nation’s smallest banknote denomination (one hryvnia). Nevertheless, in Russia, he is called Vladimir the Nice and is widely known as having transformed Russia to Christianity and is the topic of a bigger statue erected close to the Kremlin six years in the past.

Princess Olga, St. Andrew the First-Called and the educators Cyril and Methodius: The statues of Princess Olga, St. Andrew the First-Called and the educators Cyril and Methodius are protected by 4,000 sandbags that weigh up to 170 tonnes according to Oleksandr Nikoriak, the Head of Heritage Protection in Kyiv.
The statues of Princess Olga (the biggest mound), Saint Andrew the Apostle and the educators Cyril and Methodius are protected by 4,000 sandbags that weigh as much as 170 tonnes [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

Chernesa sees this for example of Russia “making an attempt to steal Ukraine’s historical past and rewrite it of their approach”. She is at present engaged on a doctorate associated to Ukrainian artwork and describes Ukraine as not simply preventing to guard its land but additionally “to protect and take again its historical past from Russia”.

As they attain the top of the bridge, Nikoriak factors up on the statue of Volodymyr, now shrouded in protecting plastic and the pedestal surrounded by inexperienced metallic sheets and layers of scaffolding.

Nikoriak describes the problem of defending town’s monuments as unprecedented. “I didn’t have anybody to take expertise from so volunteers supplied their very own calculations and strategies, which they developed alongside the way in which,” he says.

These volunteers included engineers and specialists who helped to calculate how a lot weight every monument may bear and subsequently what materials can be greatest to make use of for its safety. He’s proud that “not a single cent was spent from the Kyiv price range”, with all funding supplied by “volunteers, companies and buddies who needed to assist”.

He says every monument with distinctive dimensions and made with totally different supplies introduced a brand new problem. For instance, Volodymyr the Nice’s statue had a base that would not take a heavy load, so a bespoke metallic casing construction was designed and constructed on the web site. Others, just like the monuments to Princess Olga, the primary recorded girl who dominated the Kyivan Rus, Saint Andrew the Apostle and the Byzantine educators Cyril and Methodius situated on the common Mikhaylovskaya sq., might be coated with greater than 4,000 sandbags.

‘Wars destroy tradition’

As professionals and civilians rush to protect the reminiscence of their cultural heritage, a number of 3D mapping initiatives have sprung up throughout Ukraine.

Backup Ukraine permits anybody to scan buildings and monuments that haven’t been destroyed as full 3D fashions utilizing an app referred to as Polycam on their telephone. Because it launched in April, the app has been downloaded greater than 6,000 occasions, with round 10 scans of culturally related heritage processed day by day.

In Kharkiv, within the northeast of the nation that has seen heavy preventing and devastating ariel bombardments, a group of consultants, together with international volunteers, are drawing up detailed 3D maps of town’s cultural sights. Consultants estimate greater than 100 of Kharkiv’s roughly 500 listed buildings have been hit by Russian strikes.

As of July 18, UNESCO has verified harm to 164 websites throughout the nation. The Donetsk area, within the southeast of Ukraine, has probably the most confirmed harm to cultural websites, together with the Mariupol drama theatre, which, in keeping with an Amnesty report, was struck by two 500kg Russian bombs in March, “killing a minimum of a dozen individuals and certain many extra”.

Oleg Polovynko, an easygoing 38-year-old IT supervisor for the Kyiv Metropolis Council, pulls out his laptop computer at his places of work on Khreshchatyk Avenue and opens town’s web site. He scrolls by VR excursions of buildings, monuments and several other of Kyiv’s opulent Stalinist-era metro stations. The slick, user-friendly function was launched in 2021 in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic as a approach for individuals to expertise the cultural heritage of Kyiv just about. After February 24, Polovynko says the VR excursions of cultural websites took on a brand new life. “Earlier than it was for tourism, however wars destroy tradition, so we would have liked to avoid wasting our historical past,” he says.

The VR tourism function, partly created with drone footage, now contains digital excursions of missile strikes, which Polovynko describes as “a part of Kyiv’s historical past” and which might present conflict crime and investigation groups with important proof.

A photo of the National Museum of the History of Ukraine employees recording and logging artifacts.
Workers on the Nationwide Museum of the Historical past of Ukraine meticulously document and log varied artefacts [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

Polovynko and his group even have been repurposing the prevailing digital platforms. “Our foremost objective earlier than was to extend the standard of life for residents, however there was a brand new objective after the conflict, and that was to outlive within the metropolis,” he says.

Kyiv Metropolis Council’s common Kyiv Digital smartphone app now has new navy performance. For instance, a function that used to show free parking areas now offers data concerning gas provides and the placement of bomb shelters round Kyiv.

The council’s IT group has additionally repurposed the e-democracy perform of the app often used for native elections and voting as a “de-Russification” programme.

Within the app, 6.5 million Ukrainian residents signed on utilizing a BankID, an digital identification system, and voted for various names for greater than 300 places named after Russians or related to a interval of Russian historical past. Locations earmarked to be renamed embody Pushkinska Avenue in central Kyiv, named after the Russian poet and author of the romantic period, Aleksandr Pushkin. The road will probably be renamed Yevhen Chykalenko after a writer and activist in the course of the early twentieth century who helped discovered Ukraine’s first parliament.

The options provided to the general public are sometimes Ukrainian cultural figures or nationwide heroes resembling Roman Ratushnyi, a Kyiv environmental activist and soldier just lately killed preventing in japanese Ukraine.

In latest weeks Ukraine’s parliament has handed legal guidelines each proscribing the printing and import of Russian books and banning music created after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union from being performed on media and public transport. The federal government additionally elevated quotas on Ukrainian-language speech and music content material in TV and radio broadcasts.

Exhibition Russian boot: the National Museum of the History of Ukraine is now exhibiting objects found in liberated areas around Kyiv, including the charred remains of a Russian soldier’s boot.
The Nationwide Museum of the Historical past of Ukraine is now exhibiting objects present in liberated areas round Kyiv, together with the charred stays of a Russian soldier’s boot [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

‘Ready for something’

Patryliak understands that Ukraine resides by a vital section in historical past, so his position as an historian and museum director isn’t just to guard its artefacts however to additionally spotlight the destruction it has been pressured to endure.

Due to this fact, Androschuk and himself have now curated an exhibit which shows objects left by Russian troopers throughout their occupation of the areas round Kyiv. They embody stretchers stained with coagulated blood, packing containers of meals rations emblazoned with the distinctive star brand utilized by the Russian navy, and private objects resembling passports and household photos.

An identical, extra in depth exhibition titled “Crucified Ukraine” is exhibiting at Kyiv’s Nationwide Museum of the Historical past of Ukraine within the Second World Conflict, situated by the 62-metre (203 foot) tall Motherland statue within the scenic Pechersk district. The exhibition features a meticulously created reproduction of a three-room bomb shelter in Hostomel, a city roughly 20km (12 miles) northwest of Kyiv, the place 120 individuals spent 37 days underground.

Patryliak says on the morning of February 24, “the Ukrainian individuals didn’t assume a full-scale conflict would occur”. This meant there was no plan throughout the cultural establishments of what to do, they usually needed to adapt shortly.

Nevertheless, his wartime expertise has given him function. As he walks across the museum’s spacious again rooms, members of his group, who he describes as “like household”, painstakingly document, {photograph} and log varied artefacts saved within the house. Now, he says, if Russians return, they are going to be “ready for something”.

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