In Ukraine’s Cultural Capital, “Giselle” Goes to War

In Ukraine’s Cultural Capital, “Giselle” Goes to War

In Ukraine’s Cultural Capital, Giselle Goes to War

Until the Russian invasion is over, art and culture in Ukraine remain on a combat footing.


Lviv, Ukraine—Here in the cultural capital of Ukraine, the statues have been wrapped in plastic. The windows and facades of the neoclassical buildings that have led many a writer to describe this city as a “jewel box” have also been covered. This may be enough to protect them from the shrapnel from Russian bombs and shells, but it won’t be enough to shield them from a direct hit. Taken as a metaphor, these veiled figures convey a message: Art and culture are under wraps, at least until the invasion of Ukraine is over.

In early May, Lviv’s opera house, a Beaux-Arts wedding-cake building that inhabits both the physical and cultural heart of the town, hosted a ballet, the first public performance there since the war began. The ballet—Giselle, a work of 19th-century French Romanticism—had nothing to do with the war, but the fact of the hostilities was never far off. The mother and grandmother of the principal dancer, Daryna Kirik, had survived the horrors of the Russian occupation in Bucha, where residents were shot on the street and war crimes are alleged to have taken place. An announcement preceded the curtain raising: The performance would be halted in the event of an air raid.

On the opening night at the opera house, there was no alarm, but as Lviv has settled into an uneasy normalcy, punctuated by sirens and the occasional Russian strike, culture has had to adapt, to go underground and huddle in bomb shelters with the city’s residents. That night, ballerinas in white tulle costumes glided onto and off the stage without a hitch, and the director of the opera, Vasyl Vovkun, hailed the event as a triumph of light over darkness.

Despite the occasional performance or recital, however, institutions like the theater, the opera, and the ballet have shifted onto a war footing. Their buildings have been repurposed as supply hubs and homes for internally displaced people. At the opera, volunteers have made hand-sewn protective garments to be sent to the troops, and the company is raising funds for a front-line medical clinic through paid online concerts. Across town at the Philharmonic, medical supplies are stockpiled for transport to the worst-hit areas of the country. Volunteers in a shuttered library piece together camouflage netting out of strips of cloth.

What does war do to a culture? I was in Ukraine in March, during a fearful period when every empty concert hall portended doom. Kyiv was under attack, and, so the logic ran, it was only a matter of time before Lviv, too, would have to resist the invaders from the East. The Russians generally bombed in the very early hours, and each day, as the sky darkened, rumors and dire warnings would begin to fly. “Trust me, a friend of a friend at the British Ministry of Defense insists the Russians will target foreign cell phones with missiles.” “My father has heard from military sources that tonight they will strike.” And so on.

During wartime, the unusual is transmogrified into normality. Sheltering in a disused casino for six hours as air raid sirens echo in the streets is a regular occurrence. Some days in Lviv, I would become emotional when I heard street musicians. I grew worried that people, surrounded by so much war, would lose sight of their culture and therefore themselves. What does art matter when people are dying, starving, and being raped?

Yuliya Komska, who grew up in Lviv and is now a professor of German studies at Dartmouth, recently wrestled with the same contradictions when thinking about her homeland. In “A Stained Glass in Lviv,” an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books about the destruction of culture in Ukraine, Komska writes of a nightmare she had, about the destruction of a stained glass window her father made after the fall of the Soviet Union. In the essay, she eloquently explains why worrying about culture is important:

In war, mourning the loss of art, be it actual or anticipated, is not separate from mourning for the senseless disruption and destruction of human life. To live is to build, to repair, to illuminate, to leave traces in the fabric of time and space. Until an empire’s fist hits it all and smashes it to smithereens. In the face of its onslaught, human life is as fragile as the glass that bears humanity’s loving traces.

One day in Lviv, I attended a rehearsal at the Philharmonic. At the time, the Philharmonic wasn’t open to the public. In the hallway, boxes marked “tensoplast” and “dermoplast”—bandages and medicine destined for the front—were piled high, threatening to swamp the bust of the Soviet-era composer Stanyslav Lyudkevych.

In a liver-colored recital room, an orchestra made up mainly of female string musicians played a piece by the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski, “Musique Funèbre pour Orchestre à Cordes.” Most of the men in the orchestra had been conscripted into the Ukrainian military, though two double bassists remained. “They are a problem,” Vitaliy Protasov, the conductor of the International Symphony Orchestra, announced to laughter from the musicians. They did not know when they would be called up to fight.

Anastasia Pryshlyak, the young manager of the orchestra, told me that art was a way for the musicians to play their part away from the front. “We want to come back to our normal life and play concerts here,” Pryshlyak told me. “For us now, we feel empty inside. But we know that to be able to perform here safely, we need to help there. That is the most important thing.”

As with any war, here and there had taken on totemic significance. Here was the relative safety of Lviv; there was the front, the war, the place of death. Culture bridges the gap between the here and the there, making both in some way more manageable. After the performance, I spoke with Mariana Stasinchuk, a 29-year-old violinist. “My husband is in the military right now,” she told me. “As long as he’s there, I will be here and do anything I can to support him. There’s no other way I can do it.”

The INSO opera was rehearsing for a solidarity concert that had been organized across the border in Warsaw. Lutosławski’s haunting rhythm swelled in the hall. Afterward, Protasov said to me, “It’s important that we try to find something in our souls—” before trailing off. “Now, with weapons, it’s impossible, and it’s impossible to make plans… It’s difficult to say what will come out of music.” He paused, then alighted on a simpler answer: “It’s a good possibility to not read the news and to think [about] what we have. It’s, it’s like a help.”

One night I visited the shuttered opera. A friend of Vovkun’s had come to say goodbye. Goodbyes in Lviv these days often mean that people are leaving the country, heading across the border, joining the great human stream seeking asylum in Europe. Oleh Orishchenko was traveling in the opposite direction; he was going there, back to the war.

Outside, people were quick-trotting to their homes. It would soon be 10 pmcurfew—after which soldiers would scour the streets for Russian diversanty: saboteurs, real and imagined. Vovkun greeted Orishchenko in his office with a bear hug, his eyes brimming with tears.

A powerfully built man in his 60s with a silvery beard, Vovkun once served as Ukraine’s minister of culture. He and I had been discussing culture in Ukraine for just over an hour. His office at the opera house connects via a small passageway to a private box overlooking the stage, which at that point was dark. He spoke of his longing to have a performance and his worries about the audience’s safety.

Vovkun wanted to convey to me that Ukraine was under siege not simply by Russia’s military but culturally, in line with a tradition that for 300 years has negated Ukraine, its art and its history. That night, we spoke about Tchaikovsky’s Ukrainian roots, Pushkin’s calumnies against Mazeppa, and Peter the Great—don’t even mention him. “He was a chauvinist, and he was the first person against the independence of Ukraine,” Orishchenko said, chiming in. It might seem odd that Ukrainians continue to spend time litigating the legacy of an 18th-century Russian monarch while Grad rockets pulverize their cities. But they do, passionately. For this war is also one about history and culture.

Ukrainians like Vovkun will emphasize the Europeanness of Ukrainian culture. A small European Union flag stands at the edge of his desk, and a certificate from the pope (Vovkun is a Greek Orthodox Catholic by religion) adorns a wall in his office. The Russian position, on the other hand, denies that Ukraine or its culture even exists. A friend in Moscow told me the other day that even people he spoke to who were against the war didn’t believe Ukraine was a real country.

As the journalist Anna Reid recently wrote in an essay for Foreign Affairs about the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine’s history, “according to Putin’s logic, all divisions between Russia and Ukraine are the work of Western powers.” The logic, she says, holds that “Ukrainians and Ukraine, in other words, aren’t just naturally part of Russian; they don’t even really exist.”

What did my time at Lviv’s cultural institutions teach me about the necessity of art? During other wars—in Yemen, in Congo, in the Sahel—I have seen how art can heal shattered communities, how it has the power to transport people with no hope into a world of imaginative possibilities. I saw in Ukraine how art might preserve human connection in a time of intense isolation; how it can bridge the divide between the mundane and the terrifying in war. Or maybe the function of art was less grandiose, as Protasov, the conductor, suggested: that it merely offers a distraction from the moment.

Certainly in Ukraine it seems difficult for culture to find its own space. The war is all-consuming; many Ukrainians I spoke with said they felt suffocated, petrified by the sheer impending doom of the invasion. Reminders of normal life are hard to come by: a package from abroad, a beer and a note smuggled across the border from a friend on the other side. People yearn for the return of art in their lives: An internally displaced teacher misses giving piano recitals to her friends; a photographer longs to shoot scenes without soldiers and tank traps.

Perhaps the best answer to this conundrum has to do with art’s role as a vector for collective memory. Petro Antyp, an artist and sculptor who is originally from Donetsk, believes that this is one of art’s most important functions. With about a half-dozen volunteers, he said, he is gathering “all the possible information on art pieces that have been damaged.” He is informing lawyers in Paris and the United States, drafting notes to submit to UNESCO like a crisis investigator preparing a brief on the destruction of life for the International Criminal Court. He hopes this work will let the destroyed collections of today say something both about the past and the world that is to come.

When we met in Lviv, Antyp’s mourning was tempered by hope. In the midst of the current destruction, he hopes something will be restored, a way of looking at Ukraine’s art not “through the eyes of Moscow” but on its own terms. He hopes to restore the Ukrainian-ness to the memory of artists like Kazimir Malevich, who was born to a Polish family in Kyiv but is often thought of as Russian.

With what remains from the war, he believes he can create something that can be a repository for the memory of this time. “After the war, I plan to make an art project by leaving destroyed buildings as they are, under glass,” Antyp said. The project has allowed him to think of a world without the invasion, one in which the lessons of the terror inflicted upon Ukraine are remembered. “We will write on the glass the quantity of people that have died and the heritage that has been damaged. People would be able to remember what Russian occupants did to us.”

After he arrived at the opera house that night with Vovkun, Orishchenko announced that he had decided to return to Kharkhiv. He would bring with him humanitarian supplies. He had been in Lviv for only three days. Turning to me and my translator, overwhelmed by this news, Vovkun said, “We are in a peaceful place, but Oleh is going back to the war, bringing humanitarian help.”

Orishchenko solemnly took from his pocket a yellow armband, a symbol of the Ukrainian resistance worn by volunteers, and wrapped it around his sleeve: “The occupants have used prohibited bombs”—thermobaric bombs, which though not specifically proscribed by international law can cause mass civilian casualties—”that exploded near the theater. There were four or five places they hit very near to the theater. Thanks to the people who stayed in the theater all the time, they were able to stop the fire.” Now he wanted to relieve them. It had taken Orishchenko three days to get to Lviv on jam-packed roads, he told me. He wondered how long it would take to get back.

Armenian brandy, left over from before the war, appeared. The Ukrainian government had prohibited the sale of alcohol during wartime—too many fresh volunteers manning checkpoints—but the occasion called for a toast. “I pray that you survive tomorrow in this difficult situation, because tomorrow you are leaving, tomorrow you won’t be able to sit here with us. I really love you. I really respect you,” Vovkun said, raising a glass. (Vovkun, who has remained in touch with Orishchenko, reports that he managed to reach Kharkhiv safely.)

After the glasses had been drained, a troupe of young singers entered to ask Vovkun’s permission for something. The director asked them to perform for us, but they politely declined. They didn’t feel like singing, they said, when people were dying in the East.

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