Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, thousands of buildings across the country have been destroyed by cruise missiles, aerial bombs and shells. Entire cities – Mariupol, Izium and Volnovakha – are almost demolished. In Kharkiv, some of the most important architectural monuments of the Soviet era and the pre-revolutionary period suffered severe damage. A number of UNESCO World Heritage sites and architectural treasures are under threat.
While in the early days of the invasion the Russians said they were only targeting military infrastructure, it soon became apparent that they were hitting buildings steeped in the memory and history of the people who inhabited them: residential buildings, kindergartens, office centers, theaters. There are thousands of open wounds across the country. The worst part is that you never know where the next Russian bomb will land.
After Russia launched its attack on Ukraine, many Ukrainians I know who were involved in the protection of cultural heritage stepped up to defend the country as soldiers and volunteers because they had learned in times of peace how to protect what belonged to them – not only the territory but also millions of small memories of walks under a peaceful sky, good neighborliness and mutual aid.
Before 2014, we rarely saw public expressions of interest in cultural heritage in Ukraine. The Maidan Revolution that year, in which mass protests led to the ousting of a pro-Russian president, reignited the development of a civil society based on Western values, such as freedom of expression and self-determination. By upholding these values, Ukrainians have learned to be responsible for public spaces.
Young Ukrainian intellectuals – artists, researchers, filmmakers, cultural managers – have become involved in documenting art and culture throughout the country. After Russia annexed Crimea and helped occupy part of the Donbass after the Maidan revolution, citing fictitious “fascism” and the need to protect the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine, the processes of decolonizing the country’s culture are intensified.
Preservation activists saw this as their new goal: to reclaim Ukrainian history and its legacy, to destroy the colonial patterns of the Soviet Union.
A striking example of this new mission can be found on a busy street in one of kyiv’s most popular neighborhoods: a beautiful building covered in dead vines. Pieces of the facade trail around it, and parts of iron ceilings protrude from the columns. This building was damaged not by a Russian bomb but by property developers months before the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The modernist building, with the luminous name Flowers of Ukraine, was built in kyiv in the 1980s for an institution studying flowers. Vines were planted on its facade and grew through the building for three decades. In the summer of 2021, a construction company from Kyiv received permission to remodel a large part of the building and replace it with a shopping center and offices; the company started by cutting the vines and destroying the facade with shovel buckets. This came as a shock to the citizens of Kyiv.
Dozens of Kyivans took to the streets to protect the building, and in no time protesters managed to stop its complete destruction. But the broken facade of the building, which stands in the middle of the city center, continued to serve as a grim reminder that Ukraine’s cultural heritage is fragile.
The Flowers of Ukraine episode left a depressing impression. By the way, I often thought that it reminded me of a house destroyed by war, which I saw more than once in the Donbass and in Iraq.
Every room in the Kyiv space is filled with memories that form a living history, passed down from hand to hand through the generations, which is important to preserve and protect. Before the war, as soon as it became known that a Ukrainian building of historical significance was threatened with destruction, citizens immediately rushed to it and rose up in its defense. And the fight for every building has taught us to fight for our homes, our cities and our country.
Watching the news about the destruction of Mariupol, Kharkiv and kyiv, we hear many voices and the same mantra: After the war, we will rebuild everything; we will take back our cities and restore what cannot be destroyed: our culture.
Katerina Sergatskova is editor-in-chief of Zaborona Media and co-founder of Foundation 2402, which helps journalists in Ukraine. She has reported from the occupied territories of Ukraine and Iraq. She is the author of “Goodbye, ISIS: What Remains Is Future”.