“Ukraine, Crucified”: Exhibitions in Europe's Beseiged Capital

A walk around a newly opened display in Kyiv's Museum of the Second World War that beckons us to think about the past, the present and on to the future

cover A Russian rocket, downed in 2022 and later inscribed by Ukrainians with a derogatory comment about Putin, outside the Museum of the Second World War in Kyiv, Ukraine. Credit: Julia Lasica

When we think of museums in wartime, we often imagine deserted, darkened rooms. Perhaps there are gaping holes in the ceiling and smashed glass litters the floor. Marks of flames stretch up the walls and cabinets flung open signal the grasping hands of an occupying army. In our imagination, these buildings are silent and empty of all the visitors they are meant to host. Even before the bombs fall and soldiers enter the city, they are among the first to bolt their doors closed.

But in Kyiv, a city assailed by an aggressor that has set the total destruction of Ukrainian culture firmly in its sight, it is no small miracle that most museums and galleries are proudly open. Even as Russian soldiers continuously loot and destroy (the most recent UNESCO count found that 259 Ukrainian cultural sites have been ruined since February 2022), exhibitions stubbornly open in the capital.

In the leafy heart of the city, the Ivan Honchar Museum has unveiled a riotously colourful display of Ukrainian folk clothing, traditionally worn for celebrations such as weddings or feast days. Across the street, the cavernous halls of the Mysteyskyi Arsenal Gallery showcase the creative responses of prominent young Ukrainian artists to Russia’s full-scale invasion. And on the city’s steep banks above the Dnipro River, Kyiv’s Museum of the Second World War has gone beyond offering just cultural resistance to Russia: its rooms now serve to publicly document war crimes and debunk Russian propaganda.

The exhibition, titled “Ukraine, Crucified”, first greets visitors in semi-darkness. Laid out across the room under spotlights are several open containers. Russian uniforms, boots, documents, credit cards and number plates are arranged beneath protective glass. At first glance, it may seem unremarkable, just the dirty laundry of the invading army.

But to a museum that has been documenting the presence of the Russian military in Ukraine since 2014, the aggressor state’s insignia is vital. When Russian troops first marched onto Ukrainian soil during the annexation of Crimea in 2014, they were nicknamed “little green men” due to the lack of identification on their clothing.

Similarly, the subsequent invasion of eastern Ukraine that spring was also obfuscated because of the lack of markings on the uniforms of Russian soldiers. International media enabled the continuation of the myth that “local rebels” were responsible for the escalating violence, whilst the weak international response had much to do with the fact that these were Russian state actors but in disguise. With one simple trick, Russia was able to muddy the waters and evade damning accusations that they had shattered peace in Europe.

The vessels inside which all these artefacts are now shown are equally damning and revealing in their associations. The long cylinder structures have been opened up, as if carved in half, resembling troughs. But rather than being ordinary props for an exhibition, they are the containers for Buk surface-to-air missiles, left by retreating Russian forces to the north of Kyiv.

The Buk missile became infamous when it was used to shoot down Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014. All 298 people on board were killed. In the weeks afterwards, headlines ran in which Ukrainian and Russian governments blamed one another for the deadliest airliner shoot-down incident in history. But in late 2022, a court in the Netherlands finally passed its ruling, pinning the blame firmly on one actor only: russia.

Through a narrow doorway, one of these Buk missiles itself lies, now harmless, on the ground of the second exhibition room. Nearby is another rocket from the Russian artillery system named “Uragan” (translating from Russian as “hurricane”) and one from “Smerch” (“tornado”). These weapons of mass destruction lurk throughout the exhibition space, including in the open-air section, where visitors wander around Tochka-U missiles (used to attack a railway station full of Ukrainian refugees) and the fuel tank of a Su-34 bomber plane. Although neutered, the carcasses of the missiles are a brutal presence. Their sheer size is a visceral of the real physical threat to Ukrainians all over the country, including those visiting this very exhibition.

Down some steps, however, visitors are confronted with the most chilling exhibit of all.

Three days after the Kyiv region was liberated by the Ukrainian army in spring 2022, the museum’s director Yurii Savchuk travelled through the de-occupied territories, speaking to locals about their experiences. In Hostomel, a small town on the outskirts of the capital, Savchuk came across some who told him that they had survived the occupation with 150 others in a basement. The difference with the other stories that Savchuk heard was that the residents of Hostomel had been forced into their supposed “shelter” by Russian soldiers. For 37 days, without electricity or heating, they were held as hostages by the occupiers.

With even the smallest of the original items transported from Hostomel to central Kyiv, the basement to which the Ukrainians were herded has been recreated in the museum’s own cellar. The temperature drops and the smell of damp circles slowly through the air. Smashed up bits of phones lie scattered at the entrance to the “shelter”, confiscated from each Ukrainian hostage and destroyed by the occupiers. Once inside, the only light is emitted from tiny feeble bulbs, barely enough to cast a shadow on the walls.

In each room, mattresses take up the most space, strewn with blankets and bits of clothing. Chairs are pushed up against one another, and books and bottles and jars are stuffed beneath them. It feels crowded and claustrophobic, a far cry from the privacy of the homes the Ukrainians had been stolen from. In the darkness, it is possible to imagine the presence of the hostages, still lying in their usual spots, two or three to a bed. A wooden grave marker is propped up in one of the corners, bearing the name of Liubov Hrytsenko, who died in the Hostomel basement. Her husband buried her in the courtyard upstairs; later, he was deported to Belarus.

Visitors quickly realise that it would have been impossible to keep track of time once down there. Most of the hostages only saw sunlight once in those 37 days, when they were pushed back up by the stairs by the soldiers to be used as a human shield against loitering Ukrainian military drones. Even the toilets were kept inside, a line of buckets in the corridor that were cleaned once a day.

The sense of indignity is striking. It is broken only for a moment in the “children’s room” of the basement. Here, the youngest of the prisoners were kept, as evidenced by the tiny baby grow on the bed at the entrance. Like in the other rooms, it is almost entirely dark. But on the walls, the drawings of the older children are still pinned up. Bright yellow suns and the green buds of spring adorn the white paper. In their imaginations, the children knew there was still some warmth somewhere above their heads, whatever their leering guards told them.

Unlike the hostages, visitors can exit at ease and step back into the glowing afternoon light outside the museum. It is possible to forget for a moment that the basement remains, lurking beneath the earth’s surface. Or that others like it, and worse, are being used right now by Russian occupying forces.

Across the streets of the capital, other exhibitions have opened their doors, displaying colourful canvases and textiles, warding away gloom. Cafés and restaurants, untroubled by air raid sirens and explosions for a short while, are decked with chairs and visitors, delicacies in constant supply.

But turning back to the Museum of the Second World War, visitors will see the cross on the poster of the exhibition “Ukraine’s Crucifixion”. The gnawing memory of the basement will linger, along with the containers stuffed with the occupiers’ uniforms, their weapons of mass murder on display. The culpability of an entire country is on display on the museum and still they besiege Kyiv every night, returning again and again to the scene of their crimes.

History is in action, looping and repeating itself by the minute. But the cross on the exhibition poster holds a promise: at some point soon, in the not-too-distant future, the cycle will end. Justice will be served and daily death overcome. Until then though, new exhibits will arrive, and evidence put on display.

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