Rilke wrote in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge that we depend on our family heirlooms – house, furniture, books – to give us our roots. Those old walls, dark wardrobes, paintings in worm-eaten frames, yellow photographs passed down from generation to generation, create a sense of continuity that we can fall back on in times of crisis.
I am writing this in Kyiv, cut off from my library, unable to look up quotations; I have to rely on my memory. Yet I can watch in real time – thanks to modern technology – as the Russians bombard my suburban neighbourhood, blowing up places I know, their rockets destroying buildings that survived even the Second World War.
Last summer, at the tenth International Book Arsenal Festival in Kyiv, I took part in a panel discussion on charity and culture. (The festival is organised by Art Arsenal, Ukraine’s largest cultural centre, of which I’m the director.) As we were talking it occurred to me that people my age, in our forties, are the first generation of Ukrainians to have inherited material assets of any kind. Our grandmothers experienced two world wars, the Holodomor and the Holocaust, dispossession and expulsion to Siberia. They had nothing to pass down.
My peasant grandparents inherited morgens of agricultural land from their parents, but this zemlya was later expropriated from them. ‘I can’t give you anything,’ my mother recalls her father telling her, ‘so you must study and provide for yourself.’ After the Second World War the cities of Ukraine lay in ruins. Everything that might have been passed down from one generation to the next – houses, furniture, china, paintings, photographs – had been lost in the terrible destruction. But my generation inherited something, or at least we were supposed to: an old Soviet apartment, a small dacha plot, a collection of books, a set of dusty cut-glass tableware. Whatever it was, we were the first to inherit in a long, long time.
In the early 20th century, the most valuable items were removed from Ukrainian museums and archives to Moscow and St Petersburg. Even the archives of the Ukrainian National Republic, I think, are still there. Many works of art, including frescoes by the brilliant modernist Mykhailo Boychuk, were destroyed for contradicting Soviet ideology. The artists were shot. During the Second World War, many Ukrainian museum collections left the country with the Germans; others were lost in the bombing.
An exhibition at the Art Arsenal, Futuromarennia, closed a few days before the Russian invasion. On display in this broad panorama of Ukrainian Futurism were paintings, graphic art, embroidery, film, literary works, theatrical costumes, reconstructed theatrical props etc. Curating it took enormous effort, with scarce surviving material gleaned from various sources and painstakingly put together into a representative whole. Now all those works are in danger again. Everything that had been tracked down, preserved and presented to the public, our heritage for future generations, is being destroyed by the Russians. They are destroying everything we inherited: not only beautiful architecture and works of art, but also our parents’ flats in Soviet-era nine-storey buildings.
Translated by Ksenia Maryniak