Ukrainians are sleeping next to art and stashing it in underground bunkers to protect their culture

March 16, 2022, 8:46 PM UTC

As Putin’s invasion of Ukraine rages on, artists, curators, and gallerists are scrambling to protect the country’s most valuable artworks.

Stained-glass windows, statues, and monuments are being covered with shrapnel-proof material. According to the BBC, bunkers are crammed with paintings, and some museum workers are sleeping next to pieces worth millions to safeguard them. 

The director of the grand gallery explained to The Washington Post that if the heritage and history are to survive, all must go underground.

Civilian efforts to save art and history

While the eastern part of the country has taken the more brutal beating, cities like Lviv and Odesa have had more time. In Lviv, museums house bare walls.

Everyone who works at the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum in Lviv has pitched in to help empty the museum. Ironically, Russian artists like Ilya Repin and Ivan Aivazovsky created some of the most valuable pieces the museum housed.

In Odesa, a 19th-century city with cobbled streets, volunteers stacked sandbags around the monument of the Duke of Richelieu, one of the city’s founders, according to Reuters. The Fine Arts Museum has been fenced with razor wire.

Kharkiv and Kyiv, two of the biggest cities, have already suffered devastating losses. The windows at the leading art museum at Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, have already been blown out. This has subjected 25,000 art pieces to freezing temperatures and snow, making it impossible to control the humidity and temperature.

According to Newsweek, the museum houses more than 250 Ukrainian and Russian artworks. The ballet theaters and opera houses have also been shelled.

In a town outside Kyiv, 25 art pieces by Maria Prymachenko, one of Ukraine’s most famous artists, burned as the museum that housed them was bombed.

Some pieces were saved as a man ran into the building to save as many as he could, according to The Times.

Other museums in the capital are boarded up, but artwork remains inside, as those who would’ve been in charge of evacuating the pieces have fled. 

In Ivano-Frankivsk, a town in the west of Ukraine, an artists’ collective has transformed a subterranean cafe into a bunker to store their pieces, ranging from paintings to sculptures. However, this bunker is not bomb-proof. 

Some of the endangered sites and monuments date back to the 11th century. While deliberately destroying a country’s heritage or culture is considered a war crime by UNESCO, the entity still hasn’t canceled its next summit, which will take place in Russia.

This is not the first time Ukraine has been stripped of its art

In 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, works of art were transferred from the peninsula to Russian museums. Nazi soldiers also moved artwork from Ukraine to Germany during World War II. 

Saving art, however, has always come second to saving lives because Ukrainian culture serves as inspiration for resistance to invasions.

Putin’s plans

Putin considers Ukraine a part of Russia and therefore denies its heritage. He knows that without art, Ukraine will have a weaker identity. Consequently, it will be easier to make Ukrainians assimilate to Putin’s population, Taras Voznyak, the Lviv National Art Gallery director, tells The Washington Post

The future of Ukrainian art

Unlike museums with their bunkers and secure networks, artists and independent galleries rely on one another.

Artists who have fled their homes have been offered residences to keep producing art through war. According to curator Anna Potyomkina, creating art while bombings are happening is part of the resistance.

Some artists have been actively selling pieces and using proceeds to support defenses in Lviv. Other artists like Vladimir Manzhos have sold NFT versions of their artwork and given part of the proceeds to the Ukrainian army.

Whether the art survives or not will depend on where the bombs fall, however, in Odesa, the Fine Arts Museum is so delicate it would burn to the ground if a shell hit it. 

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