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The first days of war: The curators and the culture war

A destroyed Ukrainian Antonov An-225 Mriya cargo aircraft, which was the largest plane in the world, at Hostomel Airport, 3rd March

A Russian soldier climbs stairs at the Mariupol drama theatre, previously hit by an airstrike, 12th April. Photo: Alexander Nemenov / AFP via Getty Images

We spoke to several people in Ukraine and Russia whose lives were thrown into disarray by the outbreak of war. This article is one of several pieces on the first days of the Ukraine conflict we published in issue 46 of Delayed Gratification, which can be purchased at our online shop.

The curators and the culture war
Yuriy Savchuk and Fedir Androshchuk’s mission to protect Ukrainian heritage and document atrocities

On the day the invasion began, Yuriy Savchuk, director of the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War, scrambled to get dressed in the pre-dawn darkness. Awoken by explosions across Kyiv, his mind immediately turned to the priceless artefacts under his charge. “You can’t replace such things, if they are destroyed then they are gone forever,” he tells me. Within an hour he was already at the museum.

Perched on the banks of the Dnipro river which splits Kyiv in two, the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War is among the country’s largest. Centred around the Motherland statue, a 62-metre bronze model of a woman with a sword and shield held above her head, the museum contains some 300,000 artefacts.

We just took what was possible in my car and the cars of the staff to museums in safer areas”

When he arrived at work, Savchuk was pleased to see he was not alone. Despite the dangers, most of the staff had showed up. Together, as the sun rose, they formulated a plan. “At the time the situation was changing very fast, it was very uncertain,” explains Savchuk. The best course of action, they decided, was to try to move the valuable smaller items to a safer location. By that time, however, the roads were clogged by tens of thousands of people fleeing Kyiv to the relative safety of Ukraine’s western regions. The gridlock meant that a wholescale evacuation of the museum’s contents simply wasn’t an option. Over the course of the next few days, they packed up as much as they could. “We just took what was possible in my car and the cars of the staff to museums in safer areas of the country,” Savchuk says.

After they had removed the items that were easily transportable, Savchuk decided, for the staff’s safety, that only he would stay on at the museum to keep guard. During the day he carried out vital maintenance work on the remaining exhibits. At night, he wandered the vast museum’s hallways, vigilant for looters or fires started by shelling. Between patrols he slept on one of the oversized sofas or armchairs normally used as a resting spot by visitors. When we speak, in late May, Savchuk is visibly tired. Dark grey circles ring his eyes. “In the nearly 100 days since the war started, I have spent only two nights at home,” he says.

Evacuees approach a collapsed electrical pylon, along a humanitarian corridor from the city of Mariupol, 26th March

Evacuees approach a collapsed electrical pylon, along a humanitarian corridor from the city of Mariupol, 26th March 2022. Photo: Anadolu Agency / AFP via Getty Images

Savchuk was not alone in his mission to protect Ukraine’s rich cultural history from the bombs. At the National Museum of the History of Ukraine, located near the golden-domed Saint Sophia Cathedral – one of Ukraine’s seven Unesco-listed World Heritage sites – museum director Fedir Androshchuk and his staff had also set about quickly packing up exhibits. “It was decided to dismantle the entire museum’s exposition to save them from possible damage. This work took about a month,” he tells me. Androshchuk, like Savchuk, decided to remain at the museum, sheltering in the basement at night. Keeping him company for the first few days was a researcher, Oleksander, a PhD in history and a collector of old books. But after a few nights Oleksander left to serve with Ukraine’s National Guard in the east of the country. With him, Oleksander took a first edition book by 19th century poet, Taras Shevchenko – a Ukrainian icon who championed independence in his writing.

Across Ukraine, a host of people scrambled to try and protect the country’s rich cultural history from Russian missiles and airstrikes. In Lviv, the spectacular stained-glass windows of the Cathedral of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary were boarded up. Meanwhile in Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, municipal workers created a protective shield of sandbags around a statue of the beloved bard Shevchenko in the city’s central park.

The ferocity of the fighting in some areas made it impossible to protect everything, however. As of 23rd May, Unesco has verified damage to 60 religious sites, 26 historic buildings, 15 monuments and 12 museums. Among them is the Drobitsky Yar Holocaust Memorial in Kharkiv, built to commemorate the 15,000 Jews murdered there during World War Two. Images of the site after it was struck by missiles show its most prominent feature, a large black menorah, crumpled into an unrecognisable hunk of metal. In territories occupied by Russia antiquities have been looted. Ukrainian officials say that 2,000 items have been seized by Russians since the start of the war, including a trove of Scythian gold from a museum in Melitopol.

It’s not just ancient artefacts that require preservation in times of war, though. On 6th April, Russian forces abruptly withdrew from the regions around Kyiv after being pushed back by Ukrainian forces. In their wake they left a trail of devastation.

A destroyed Ukrainian Antonov An-225 Mriya cargo aircraft, which was the largest plane in the world, at Hostomel Airport, 3rd March

A destroyed Ukrainian Antonov An-225 Mriya cargo aircraft, which was the largest cargo aircraft in the world, at Hostomel Airport, 3rd March. Photo: Serhii Mykhalchuk / AFP via Getty Images

Just three days after the retreat, on 9th April, Savchuk visited the recently de-occupied territories. “What I saw affected me deeply,” he tells me. It was also, he realised, history in the making. “I knew we had to document these stories, to ensure that there was a record of what happened, and that the world could not ignore or forget.” Along with a small team of museum workers Savchuk spent three weeks visiting villages that had been under the control of Russian soldiers, travelling with the Ukrainian military. “We saw a lot of terrible things, it was dangerous work,” says Savchuk. As it retreated, the Russian military mined the roads around the villages and even hid explosive devices, rigged to go off if moved or touched, among personal belongings in houses. Among the items that were found to be booby trapped were children’s toys, washing machines and even corpses. “In some cases, we heard after we had visited a house that mines had been discovered there, so we were very lucky not to touch the wrong thing,” Savchuk tells me.

The results of that trip are now on a display in an exhibition entitled ‘Crucifixion – Ukraine’. “I think it’s the first time that a war has been displayed in a museum in almost real time,” says Savchuk. Among the items on display are dozens of Russian soldiers’ boots arranged in the frame of a red star and artefacts retrieved from destroyed churches, including an Orthodox icon with the glass smashed out and shrapnel-pitted royal doors. In the museum’s basement, staff have created a chilling replica of a below-ground shelter in which civilians in the town of Hostomel lived for over a month. “All the items in it are real, the blankets, the cutlery, even the salami,” says Savchuk. So too is the makeshift memorial plaque dedicated to a woman who died in the Hostomel basement during the occupation. “I’m very proud of the museum staff – even in peaceful times it would not be possible to put together an exhibition so quickly,” says Savchuk. “This is my way of fighting in this war – to show the world what has happened in Ukraine.”

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