Preserving the Canvas of Culture

Writer — about the work of memory and creating the chronicle of the losses of Ukrainian culture

22 Листопада

On 27 June 2022, Russian strategic bombers fired anti-ship missiles at a shopping mall in Kremenchuk, central Ukraine, wounding sixty-five and killing nineteen people. Among those killed was an artist, food writer, historian of traditional Ukrainian cuisine Olha Pavlenko known under her pseudonym Koliorovo.

A year to the day later, on 27 June 2023, Russian armed forces fired a high-precision missile at a pizza restaurant in the centre of Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine, injuring sixty-one and killing thirteen people. Among those injured was a writer and public intellectual Victoria Amelina who died of her wounds five days later.

The last year of Victoria’s life was dedicated to documenting Russian war crimes. This work led her to recover the occupation diary of the children’s author Volodymyr Vakulenko, shot by the Russian occupying forces in Izium, Kharkiv region, in spring 2022. 

Artists and writers, photographers and archaeologists, translators and conductors, editors and theatre makers: the inconclusive list of Ukrainian cultural practitioners killed by Russia since the full-scale invasion encompasses dozens of names.

[Read more here: People of Culture Taken Away by the War]

These people and their work constitute the very fabric of Ukrainian culture, the canvas which shows us who we are. 

By pulling out threads one by one, Russia expects the whole canvas to dissolve into shreds. 

By chronicling our cultural losses, we amass the evidence of Russia’s genocidal intent—but not only. We keep the memory of those whom we have lost. This shared memory turns into shared responsibility to preserve the canvas, to last. The project People of Culture Taken Away by the War run by PEN Ukraine and The Ukrainians is one of the steps on this path.

For me, this project started from an in memoriam for Victoria Amelina, whom I was privileged to know personally. While mourning her death, I tried to capture a fraction of her extraordinary life: her compassionate novels and documentary poetry, her pursuit of justice, her gift of empathy, the light she brought to the places of impenetrable darkness, the way her memory kept shaping the lives of those who knew her, bringing them together to develop her ideas. It was in the aftermath of her death that the executive director of PEN Ukraine and Vika’s close friend Tetyana Teren conceptualised the need for this commemorative project and invited me to curate it. We have assembled a dedicated team of authors and artists to create a gallery of literary portraits which would remember people of Ukrainian culture killed since the full-scale invasion. 

While mapping the body of Vika’s work, recollecting her witty remarks, and grieving with her closest ones whose pain I could never understand, I struggled with the powerlessness of words to deal with loss. In April, this woman’s head rested on my shoulder as we were driving in a volunteer’s car on the very bad roads of the Donetsk region. In June, Russia cut her life short. Her presence used to illuminate everything, and no words are a substitution for her light.

In her autobiographical book The Death of a Soldier Told by His Sister, Olesya Khromeychuk reflects: ‘I sit down and think what really remains now that he’s gone: Is it the hatred I feel towards those who profit where lives are lost? Is it the kindness that people express when they hear my brother’s story? Or is it just a huge gap that could only ever be filled by my strange, talented, and absolutely infuriating brother?’

What the portraits in our gallery can achieve is to trace, unevenly, the contours of an irreplaceable loss. But these contours have to be traced. By doing this, we throw a bridge over the gap of the present into the future.

How can we memorialise our cultural losses while their count keeps rising, while some losses cannot even be counted as they occur on the occupied territories of Ukraine?

Our gallery cannot be anything but fragmentary and incomplete. And yet, the collective remembering must begin now. This shared work of memory can become not only documentary but restorative. 

Although we are mourning, this project is far from a mere lamentation. Fighting for survival, Ukrainians face the task of unleashing the generative potential of their collective trauma. This can be done. This has been done before by groups fighting for justice, from the Black Power movement in the US in the 1960s-70s to the Revolution of Dignity in recent Ukrainian history, and many others. The need to turn pain into fuel is a recurring motif in the iconic Ukrainian film Pamfir (2022), whose set designer Volodymyr Chornyi volunteered to defend Ukraine and was killed in action in May 2023.

Turning pain into fuel is, perhaps, one of the few ways to move forward for a society as deeply wounded as ours, despite the bleeding wound and the war’s uncertain end.

In her preface for Volodymyr Vakulenko’s diary of occupation, Vika seems to have left us if not clear instructions than a direction of travel: ‘Volodymyr Vakulenko wrote the diary hoping that you would read it. Therefore, if you are holding this book in your hands, the writer Volodymyr Vakulenko has won’. By remembering those taken away from us and continuing their work, we fight against the erasure promised to us by Russia. ‘I am transforming into a chapter, into a space, into a shot’, wrote Volodymyr in one of his poems.

The memory of those we have lost is our best shot against the ongoing culturecide.

‘I want to celebrate his life’, Halyna Volgina, the wife of the killed landscape photographer and soldier Denys Kryvyi, has told me. Halyna exhibits and auctions Denys’s works raising money for his military unit. Raisa Pavlenko, the mother of Olha Koliorovo, continues assembling the pages of Olha’s hand-crafted culinary artbook. The family and friends of Victoria Amelina work to make sure that her unfinished documentary book about Ukrainian women in pursuit of justice reaches the readers. All of us are driven by love and memory. All of us are driven.

I have never thought about the future as much as when Russia started systematically destroying it on the scale of the whole country; when Russians started killing people with whom the country’s future was linked in my mind; when I started writing up their stories to preserve their visions of the future. Then the wave of these visions hit me in the chest with an unforgiving force. Because, as Hannah Arendt writes in Between Past and Future, our past—our memory—is not a ‘burden’, whose dead weight we must shake off in our ‘march into the future’; it is a force pushing us forward. Delving into the stories of the People of Culture Taken Away by the War, one starts living in the presence of this galvanising force.

Sasha Dovzhyk, Ukrainian writer, literary scholar and curator of culture projects.

Місія The Ukrainians — уможливлення позитивних соціальних змін в Україні
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