Ukrainian cultural monuments suffer further blows as another museum is hit

Tim Lister, CNN | Olga Voitovych and Kostan Nechyporenko

Last Friday, the historic home of treasured Ukrainian poet and philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda was destroyed by a Russian artillery strike, along with a museum of his work.

Skovoroda’s house was in a small village not far from Kharkiv, far from any obvious military targets such as a railroad or an ammunition depot. The attack appears to have been a deliberate act of cultural vandalism, and not the first since the Russian invasion began in February.

Skovoroda was a leading figure in Ukraine’s cultural renaissance in the 18th century. this year is the 300th anniversary of his birth.

In a video address on Saturday, President Volodymyr Zelensky condemned the attack on the home of a man “who taught people what a true Christian attitude towards life is and how a person can know himself”. .

“It seems to be a terrible danger for modern Russia: museums, Christian attitude towards life and people’s self-knowledge,” Zelensky said.

Zelensky echoed the theme during the Victory Day celebration, quoting Skovoroda’s words in another public message on Monday: “There is nothing more dangerous than an insidious enemy but there is nothing more toxic than a fake friend.”

Skovoroda’s legacy has become a symbol of what Zelensky and other Ukrainians call the struggle between two worldviews – those of individual freedoms and democracy against a new authoritarianism guided by prejudice.

Kharkiv Governor Oleh Synyehubov said in a post on Telegram: “The occupiers can destroy the museum where Hryhoriy Skovoroda worked the last years of his life and where he was buried. But they will not destroy our memory and our values!

While many volunteers and cultural sector workers in Ukraine rushed to protect institutions and monuments across the country at the start of the war, churches, museums, statues and art collections suffered damage.

Zelensky said in his Saturday speech that Russian forces had destroyed nearly 200 heritage sites since the invasion began.

Whether most of them were deliberately targeted is debatable, but given Vladimir Putin’s dismissive view of Ukrainian culture, that would hardly be surprising.

There were certainly acts of cultural hooliganism in the Russian-occupied areas. A statue of another prominent Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko, in the town of Borodianka outside Kyiv has been repeatedly pulled down and badly damaged. The city was occupied by Russian and Chechen troops for weeks.

Shevchenko’s poem “The Dream”, which satirized Russia’s oppression of Ukraine, was considered subversive and led to his banishment from Ukraine by Tsar Nicholas I in 1847, “under the most strict supervision, with no freedom to write or paint”, as Nicholas demanded.

Shevchenko is widely regarded as the founder of the modern written Ukrainian language. His view would have been at odds with Vladimir Putin’s view – as he said in February – that “modern Ukraine was created entirely by Russia or, to be more precise, by Russia bolshevik and communist”.

Not far from Borodianka, a museum containing two dozen works by the late Ukrainian folk artist Maria Prymachenko was hit and set on fire in March. The extent of damage to his works remains unclear, with a representative of the Maria Prymachenko Family Foundation alleging that the works were saved. Prymachenko’s vivid paintings were admired by Pablo Picasso who once called her an “artistic miracle”, after visiting an exhibition of his work in Paris in 1936.

A number of Ukrainian churches were also destroyed, many of them far from a military target. Just outside Kyiv, an 18th century wooden church in Lukyanivka was destroyed – one of many properties in the area razed when Russian forces withdrew from around Kyiv in April.

Authorities in Luhansk said at least seven Orthodox churches were destroyed by the Russians, with the Cathedral of Christ the Nativity in the eastern city of Severodonetsk withstanding four direct hits.

Ukrainian officials also alleged the looting of art collections as Russian forces arrived in southern towns. Ivan Fedorov, mayor of Melitopol, claimed last month that the Russians had taken items from the city museum.

And the Mariupol city council said the Russian occupiers stole hundreds of items, including valuable Torah scrolls and 200 medals, from the city’s museums.

In kyiv, a statue of Skovoroda still stands, and on the plinth are the words he chose for his tombstone to emphasize his belief in independence and purity of soul.

“The world tried to capture me but failed.”

Top image: Museum workers carry the sculpture of Ukrainian philosopher Hryhorri Skovoroda from the destroyed building of the Hryhoriy Skovoroda National Literary Memorial Museum on May 7.

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