A small but important element of Russia’s attempt to rob Ukraine of its sovereignty is the theft of Ukrainian art. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported on the coordinated Russian looting of thousands of art works from Ukrainian museums, a plundering that “may be the single biggest collective art heist since the Nazis pillaged Europe in World War II.”
But like every other element of Putin’s disastrous invasion, this attempted erasure of Ukrainian culture—which takes its most literal form in the looting of Kherson’s museums, but also involves tactics like the imposition of a Russian school curriculum in occupied regions of Ukraine—has been met with resistance, resiliency, and force.
In Lutsk, a city of about 200,000 in northwestern Ukraine, since the beginning of the invasion, the Angar Theater has transformed from its prewar state as an arts space in the postindustrial part of town to a bustling hub for grassroots fundraising run by artists. The women-led ANGAR collective, founded by Olya Valianik, 32, is composed of 30-40 full-time volunteers—mostly actors, photographers, festival organizers, journalists, writers, and musicians—who gather donations and drive supplies across the country to military units and civilians under siege. During the first three months of the war, ANGAR collected $885,445 in donations, almost exclusively through person-to-person bank transfers or cash delivered by hand to the theater.
Ella Yatsuta, 29, coordinates foreign outreach at ANGAR. Before the war, Yatsuta founded and ran the Frontera Festival, which, since 2017, has brought the biggest names in Ukrainian literature to Lutsk. For a young person like Yatsuta to start an ambitious cultural festival was emblematic of life in Ukraine after the Maidan Revolution of 2014, when a modern Ukrainian consciousness, free from Russian and Soviet influence, was blossoming across the country.
I interviewed Yatsuta over Skype last year about how a group of artists could provide such effective support for the military—to the extent that some military units had started putting in requests to ANGAR before they asked the government.
“Artists and cultural managers are used to working without much guidance or financial support,” Yatsuta explained. “Before the war, we organized tours for authors and theater groups around Europe. Now we use these skills to organize logistics for humanitarian aid from around Europe.”
At ANGAR, volunteer photographers and videographers chronicle the group’s activities and post regular updates to Facebook, while journalists and writers handle the social media texts, posting requests and summaries. Cultural managers, experienced in working with grants, meticulously record every expense and post on Facebook how money is being spent. DJs and musicians hold regular fundraising concerts to buy pickup trucks for the military and artists auction off paintings to purchase drones. It’s fitting, for a country led by a former actor turned president, that artists are showing the way forward.
A portion of ANGAR’s donations come from abroad, and with this foreign support come varying levels of understanding of the current situation. While Yatsuta is quick to note how grateful they are for any and all foreign support, it can also be a little frustrating when cultural partners across Europe want to bring Ukrainian and Russian authors together to have a dialogue to increase understanding.
“They often can’t understand that Ukrainians can’t sit at the same table with Russians right now, at the same moment that Russian soldiers are killing Ukrainian civilians,” Yatsuta says. “But unfortunately we have to explain this all the time.”
As Mariam Naiem, a Ukrainian artist who has gained notoriety on Twitter for her English-language posts about the cultural context of the invasion, wrote, “The Russian empire erases the culture of its colonies. The captured lands are renamed Russia, ethnically cleansed, and/or forcibly assimilated. For Ukraine, this manifested in several genocidal famines, and a centuries-long policy of elimination of the language and culture.”
Putin’s colonial mindset and his obsession with the lie that Ukraine is not a country has been especially rampant since 2014, when Ukrainians rose up to reject their colonial abuser and break free from what the author and poet Oksana Zabuzhko called the “eternal Ukrainian curse of nonexistence.”
“As we see in the ruins of Ukrainian cities,” Timothy Snyder wrote for the New Yorker, “and in the Russian practice of mass killing, rape, and deportation, the claim that a nation does not exist is the rhetorical preparation for destroying it.”
It’s one of the reasons why supporting Ukrainian art is so important to Yatsuta.
“For several days after the invasion, everything I had been doing previously felt insignificant,” she says. But soon she realized that, “Art is what makes us different from Russians, from the rest of the world. It’s what makes us us.”
When I spoke with Yatsuta last May, she didn’t know when she’d be able to restart Frontera’s literary events. She hadn’t had much time to think about it, as she was occupied with things like trying to get a shipment of bullet proof vests that ANGAR had purchased over a month ago to Ukraine from the UK.
But already in September, she relaunched Frontera with weekly events in Lutsk to raise funds for the military. The locales vary—pubs, museums, bomb shelters—and the guests include Ukrainian poets, novelists, critics, translators, journalists, and psychologists. On January 23, in the midst of ongoing blackouts, Yatsuta brought the unofficial poet laureate of modern Ukraine and perhaps the most famous writer in the country—certainly the most popular with Ukrainian young people—Serhiy Zhadan, to Lutsk for a meet-and-greet with his fans. Videos from the event show a long line of smiling teenagers and twenty-somethings dressed in heavy winter coats, happily waiting to have their books of poetry signed.
Ukraine has not yet been able to retrieve the countless art works that the Russian military plundered from the museums of Kherson before retreating in defeat. But Ukrainians continue to make Ukrainian art, to use their art in the fight for freedom, and to wait out in the cold for hours for the chance to meet a great Ukrainian artist. Russia can never steal that.
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Johannes Lichtman’s most recent novel, Calling Ukraine, was published in April. His debut novel, Such Good Work, was chosen as a 5 Under 35 honoree by the National Book Foundation. He is currently the Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington at the George Washington University and lives in Washington, DC.
Photo Caption: Inside the ANGAR Theater. Photo courtesy of ANGAR.