Culture 7000 Years in the Making: Under Siege
Ukrainian cities have a long history. The area of modern-day Kyiv, as well as many other Ukrainian cities, has been settled by people for many centuries. Legend says that Kyiv, the capital of present-day Ukraine, was founded on the last weekend in Spring of the year 482 A.D., although it is clear that the earliest inhabitants of the area can be traced back at least to the ages of the Trypillian Civilization of the Neolithic period (5400-1800 B.C.) which flourished in Ukraine about 7,000 years ago. The Trypillians were advanced in technology and other material culture. The Cucuteni–Trypillia culture is known for its distinctive settlements, architecture, intricately decorated pottery, and anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurines, which are preserved in archaeological remains.
In present-day Ukraine, Russia has fully invaded many cities (on Feb. 24) with the largest mobilization of forces Europe has seen since 1945. Mr. Putin, the perilous and unpredictable Russian President, has ordered Russian forces to capture major cities across the country, including Kyiv, a historic home to many Ukranians. However, Moscow has been denied the victory it had anticipated. Instead Putin has faced staunch resistance from Ukrainian soldiers and armed civilians. Russia, meanwhile, still has a superior military might and has indicated that they will not back down from capturing Kyiv.
It may seem frivolous to write about art during such a grave humanitarian crisis, but art is an essential part of the humanity of a culture. Ukrainian culture has been exploited by the Russian army in order to strike at Ukrainian people’s identities. Art is a unique expression of creativity and an integral part of a person and group’s identity. Ukrainian art will allow the struggling people to cling to their national identity no matter the outcome of Putin’s war. So, amid bombs and fighting, art professionals and students work hard to make sure that Ukrainian works will not become photographs or memories.
No museum staff wants to speak publicly about what is happening in Ukraine, as they fear alerting Russian invaders or looters. However, in almost every museum there are workers who are sleeping and staying close to the art, in order to help move art if last minute decisions need to be made. Nevertheless, when it comes to Ukraine’s museums, there may be little that staff can do to protect their buildings from Russian assault. There is a lack of investment in museums in Ukraine, meaning that there is no system to contain, much less extinguish, a fire or potential remnants of a bombing.
Ukraine is home to seven UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) world heritage sites, including the St Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, Byzantine fresco of the Virgin Mary, as well as the historic architecture at the center of Lviv in the west. Bombing Lviv, Odesa, Kyiv or Chernihiv to the north, with its artistic treasures, churches, and palaces would signify an enormous cultural loss to Europe.
Ukrainian art professionals believe that Russia is targeting the country’s cultural assets because Ukrainian art shows that they have a different history, that they are not Russian. This refutes Putin’s claims that Ukrainian people, in fact, identify largely as Russian and want to be under his rule. All of this art is being moved underground in order for history and heritage to survive, for in the Russian Federation there will be no place for it, and it will vanish.
Museums just like schools, hospitals, and other residential areas are under shelling. Efforts are being made across Ukraine to create a digital inventory of the works, just in case they do fall into Russian's hands. Museum staff have attempted to move pieces to undisclosed locations or barricade themselves and artwork in cellars.
Most recently in a lab in southwest rural Virginia, a small team of archaeologists, historians, and tech mapping experts are using satellite imagery to help protect Ukraine’s cultural heritage. This network of computers is one of the newest tools that is being employed to protect national treasures threatened by natural disasters, or in this case, geopolitical events.
While museum staff, art professionals, and concerned volunteers are doing their best to preserve the art and beloved buildings, there is not much they can do to prevent the threat of bombs and other air attacks. Medieval churches, 11th-century monasteries, sprawling temples, and chiseled statues can be rebuilt, but no amount of detail will ever restore the original. Indeed, Ukrainians have rebuilt before; they reconstructed two medieval churches in Kyiv (St. Michals Monastery and the Dormition Cathedral) that were destroyed by the Soviets and Nazis. However, the people of Ukraine have proven their determination to protect their art, culture, and their resilience will preserve the identity of the nation.