Tabetha DeGroot — Staff writer
The Kuindzhi Museum of Mariupol, Ukraine stands tall despite its shattered windows. The sides are riddled with bullet holes and the roof is almost entirely gone. Inside, the floors are covered with broken glass and easels are strewn amongst pieces of drywall.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began last February, Russian forces have destroyed or severely damaged 250 museums and institutions in Ukraine according to The Guardian. Monuments, landmarks, and religious buildings have all been reduced to ash.
Art may not seem like a top priority in a time of war, but it is a common tactic of invading countries to destroy or confiscate it.
“In 1937, Hitler confiscated 17,000 works of art from more than 100 German museums in less than a month,” a Guardian article said. “Napoleon had cartloads of masterpieces shipped to Paris from all over Europe.”
Putin’s latest attempt to erase Ukraine’s cultural artifacts is in keeping with this pattern and his apparent plans to establish his own model of a New Russian empire.
“Preserving items of cultural significance has always been a high priority for countries at war,” history professor Mark McCarthy said. “It is through these items that people, in part, define themselves.”
McCarthy described Great Britain and France hiding their national treasures during WWII. The stained-glass windows in the Cathedral of Notre Dame were even taken apart and hidden all over the city.
“Other countries try and take or destroy these things because it is way of erasing their opponents,” McCarthy said.
In the early months of the war, a hoard of gold artifacts from the Museum of Local History in Melitopol, Ukraine, were hidden by the director. The museum curator was taken at gunpoint by Russian troops who demanded to know where the gold was. She refused and disappeared soon after. The Russians eventually found the artifacts, dating back to the fourth century BC, and they were sent to the Russian-Controlled Donbas region for “safety.”
Ukraine and Russia share the same source country, Kievan Rus, according to McCarthy.
“On Russian TV today you can find experts who will argue all day long that Ukraine is not separate from Russia and Ukrainian is simply a southern Russian dialect,” McCarthy said.
Russia simply sees their pillaging of Ukrainian art as taking back what is theirs.
Adel Kuchyk came to the US from Ukraine in April. She says the art of Ukraine is essential to its scattered people.
“Art unites Ukrainians,” Kuchyk said. “Right now, half of the population have left the country and they are all over places like Europe, America, or Canada. No matter where you are, you know that they have the same values and the same pain that is being passed through music and so many arts.”
Kuchyk lived in Kiev before coming to America, and she went to the many museums there with her friends. She described them as displaying both the contemporary and traditional art of Ukraine.
“The war… it doesn’t prevent artists from being inspired and still doing their works,” Kuchyk said. “They express what used to be and what they are worried about now— what they are experiencing.”
Eurovision is an international songwriting competition held yearly by the European Broadcasting Union. Ukrainian rap group Kalush Orchestra won this year with their song “Stefania.” It was a mix of an old Ukrainian folk song and a modern rap and spoke of family and hardship.
“It’s really tangible because of the situation in the country,” Kuchyk said. “He sings about the nature of Ukraine and his childhood memories. The folk song is way back in the past, but the values are still the same, and it’s so beautiful.”
“Stefania” has now become a wartime anthem on social media.
“Inside of the Ukrainian community, people are really hyped up,” Kuchyk said. “There’s so many people that believe Ukraine is going to win and I do too. The art and music really influence the mood of the whole Ukrainian community.”
Many musicians and artists continue to create amongst the rubble of their home. Gallery owner Lika Spivakovska created an NFT gallery of saved artwork, cementing it in the internet. Artists and musicians are protesting with their works like hip hop trio Fo Sho in their song “U Cry Now.”
“I think art is really important because it expresses things that history textbooks can’t,” Kuchyk said. “How people feel and what they value and fight for.”
Kuchyk enjoys the security of the U.S., but still yearns for home.
“It’s where I first fell in love and grew up as a kid,” Kuchyk said. “It’s hard to think of letting go, but I know that right now, God wants us to be here. We’ve gotten used to not knowing our plans now.”
In early November 2022, Russian soldiers withdrew from the city of Kherson after a major blow to Moscow. Before they left, however, they stole the most valuable pieces held in the Kherson Art Museum and removed a statue from the main street in the dead of night. It’s a war of culture, and it doesn’t paint a pretty picture.