Maverick Life


Ukraine cultural burning — trying to avoid Fahrenheit 451

Ukraine cultural burning — trying to avoid Fahrenheit 451
Wall of the Dead: A memorial to 116 people found in a mass grave St Andrews Church in Buccha. (Photo: Anastasiia Mantach, PEN Ukraine)

A trip to Ukraine with a group of writers revealed the cultural burning and destruction taking place, all part of a campaign to extinguish the country’s national identity.

‘For them, it is a pleasure to burn,” says Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a video he recorded on 24 May this year. He is standing in the smoking ruins of one of Ukraine’s largest publishing houses, Factor Druk, in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, in the east. It had been hit by Russian missiles the day before, killing seven employees and injuring many. “Russia is run by men who want to make it a norm – burning lives, destroying cities and villages, dividing people and erasing national borders through war,” he said.

“Behind me are the books burnt down by Russian missiles,” said Zelensky. “The temperature of burning here hasn’t managed to totally reach 451 degrees Fahrenheit. But that’s what the leaders of Russia need and want…”

Zelensky was echoing Ray Bradbury. His 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451  imagines a future America where books have been outlawed and “firemen” burn any that are found. The central character is Guy Montag, a fireman who starts the book by saying: “It was a pleasure to burn.” 

451 degrees Fahrenheit (about 233°C) is the temperature at which book paper ignites.

Zelensky chose an apt metaphor. For apart from killing tens of thousands of Zelensky’s people and destroying many thousands of buildings (so far four times as many as stand on Manhattan, the New York Times recently calculated), Russian President Vladimir Putin is evidently trying to destroy Ukraine’s art and its culture, as part of a campaign to extinguish its national identity.

As of 22 May 2024, Unesco said it had verified war damage to 375 cultural sites since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on 24 February 2022. This comprised 137 religious sites, 172 buildings of historical and/or artistic interest, 31 museums, 20 monuments, 14 libraries and one archive.


PEN Ukraine executive director Tetyana Teren. (Photo: Artem Galkin, PEN Ukraine)

It noted that the 1954 Hague Convention (which both Russia and Ukraine have signed) commits states to protect cultural property during war.

The writers’ organisation PEN Ukraine naturally feels a particular concern for libraries. So its executive director, Tetyana Teren, says her organisation established the Unbreakable Ukrainian Libraries project in 2022 which has so far given more than 15,000 books in the Ukrainian and English languages to libraries on the frontline or in liberated zones,  to replace those destroyed or systematically removed and destroyed by Russian occupation forces. 

Through its Solidarity with Ukraine project PEN Ukraine has brought 35 foreign guests to Ukraine since November 2022. “These have included trips to the frontline and liberated cities like Kharkiv,” focusing on visiting destroyed libraries and other cultural buildings. “We thought it important to tell the story about our threatened culture so the world can see but also feel what is happening here.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: War in Ukraine

We are part of that project, the others in our group being South Africans Damon Galgut, novelist and winner of the 2021 Booker Prize, and novelist, advocate and reserve police officer Andrew Brown, as well as Indian author and journalist Anjan Sundaram.

Teren said PEN Ukraine’s mission had completely changed since the war began and was now mainly aimed at supporting the Ukrainian cultural community caught up in the war and telling the world about what Russia is doing to Ukraine. 

This includes financial and other support for their members who have joined the army. They also arrange public readings of the works of their colleagues killed, captured or missing. 

PEN Ukraine has counted 80 local and foreign journalists killed in the war. It created the platform Requiem to honour them by continuing to tell the stories they told. It has also counted 109 people of culture killed in the war so far. It created the People of Culture Taken Away by the War website to honour their memory.  

At least 30 prose or poetry writers are among those, Teren said.

Iryna Bilan of the Mystetskyi Arsenal in Kyiv. (Photo: Anatasiia Mantach, PEN Ukraine)

One was the poet and children’s story author Volodymyr Vakulenko who was executed by the Russians with two shots from a 9mm Makarov semi-automatic pistol on 24 March 2022, soon after the war started, in the village of Kapytolivka, near Izium. This lies southeast of Kharkiv, which, as Zelensky testified, is again under massive and relentless bombardment from Russia. Vakulenko knew he was in danger because of his Ukrainian nationalist views. But he refused to flee.

After Ukraine liberated the Kharkiv area in November 2022, Vakulenko’s body was found in a mass grave in the Izium woods.

PEN helped his family organise his funeral. And one of its members, Victoria Amelina, an investigative reporter with Truth Hounds, who was documenting war crimes, unearthed Vakulenko’s diary of the first days of the war, which he had buried in his garden before the “rashists”, as he called them (Russian fascists), came to take him away forever. 

The diaries were published with a foreword by Amelina. On 27 July 2023, Amelina was dining in the Ria Lounge restaurant in the eastern city of Kramatorsk with a group of Colombian writers and journalists when it was hit by a high-explosive Russian Iskander missile. She was mortally injured and died on 1 July. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky talks from the bombed-out Factor Druk printing works in Kharkiv. (Photo: YouTube)

PEN’s Maksym Sytnikov and Anna Vovchenko took us to see the destruction inflicted by the Russians elsewhere, in the towns – one could also call them suburbs – just north of Kyiv which they occupied in the first weeks of the war before they were stopped 25km from the capital’s centre and thrown back.

We saw the memorial on the site of a mass grave on the grounds of St Andrews Church, Buccha, where 116 citizens of the town killed by the Russians had been buried during the occupation because the Russians wouldn’t allow their families to bury them decently in cemeteries. Many were found in basements or on streets, with hands tied behind their backs, executed. 

They also showed us cultural damage such as the House of Culture in Irpin which Russians shelled and destroyed on 17 March 2022. Symbolically, perhaps more significant, was what Sytnikov described as the “deliberate, not incidental, shooting” of a large bust of Ukraine’s most beloved poet, Taras Shevchenko, which stands on the public square in nearby Borodyanka. 

“They were deliberately trying to destroy a symbol of our culture,” he said. So Shevchenko’s bust will be preserved, with the bullet holes, to symbolise Ukraine’s cultural resilience. 

The Russian army has also looted much Ukrainian art including about 100 paintings stolen from the main art museum in the southern city of Kherson.

Maksym Sytnikov (left) of PEN Ukraine and Anastasiia Kapranova of the Ukrainian Institute. (Photo: Anastasiia Mantach, PEN Ukraine)

To guard against war damage or looting, says Iryna Bilan, an executive of the Mystetskyi Arsenal, the vast national cultural arts and museum complex in Kyiv, all its artefacts have been taken down and hidden, or sent abroad to friendly foreign museums. “Which was very unsettling. We had to seek advice from around the world.”

So the galleries of the museums, including the Khanenko National Museum of Art with its large collection of classical works from Europe, Iran, Tibet, China, Japan and ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt, are mostly empty. 

But Bilan says they try to fill the emptiness with “Shadows and walls” guided tours on the history of the Khanenko, as well as temporary exhibitions of contemporary art. They also stage musical concerts and operas which all have been immensely popular.

They are fighting back against what she calls “a genocidal war. Russia is trying to exterminate our cultural identity.” 

Anastasiia Kapranova, head of the new Africa section at the Ukrainian Institute, which promotes Ukrainian culture abroad, adds: “Our main challenge is to show Ukraine is a separate state by presenting our culture… to decolonise the thinking about Ukraine.” DM

Peter Fabricius’s trip to Ukraine was hosted by PEN Ukraine.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jan Vos says:

    Spartacus 13:9 “Yay, I say unto thee: No man shalt layeth a hand in anger upon his fellow man. Whoever does not heed this Commandment shalt be smitten with a terrible smite, and shalt not inherit the Earth. A pox shall be upon him, yay, even unto the third and fourth generation.”

    So speaketh the Prophet. So let it be written – so let it be done. Jumping Jehoshaphat. Ha lay loo yah. Hey man.

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