On February 24, Russia officially launched its invasion of Ukraine. Exact figures are difficult to come by, but observers say the fighting has killed hundreds of Ukrainians and injured thousands more. At least half a million refugees have fled the country, seeking shelter in neighboring European countries. As the conflict stretches into its sixth day, here’s what you need to know about its impact on the cultural sphere, from canceled exhibitions to artistic protests to boycotts of Russian museums.
A Clash of Cultures
Eurovision, an annual international songwriting competition, has emerged as a key battleground for debates over Ukraine’s cultural identity. Ukrainian contestants must swear off performing in Russia—a stipulation that led both the 2019 and 2022 representatives to drop out. Last year, Ukrainian band Go_A took fifth place with “Shum,” the first Eurovision performance sung entirely in Ukrainian. Based on a traditional springtime folk song and reminiscent of the wailing sirens of the Chernobyl disaster, the song became a Ukrainian favorite and a popular sound bite on TikTok. In light of the invasion, Eurovision’s organizers have banned Russia from competing in this year’s contest.
For more than a century, Russia has battled with Ukraine over religion, language and political control, report Jon Greenberg and Louis Jacobson for Poynter. The two share Slavic roots going back more than 1,000 years, with Russia annexing the territory in 1793. But a bitter dispute arose in 1917, during the Russian Revolution, when Marxist leader Vladimir Lenin and his followers seized power from the Tsarist government and established a communist dictatorship. Following the collapse of the Soviet Russian empire, Ukraine established itself as an independent republic.
Since then, Russian President Vladimir Putin—a long-time proponent of Soviet rule—has sought to quash Ukraine’s cultural independence, reinforcing the Soviet-era stereotype that Ukrainian is the “language of peasants” and continuously claiming that “modern Ukraine was completely created by Russia.”
The leader has made numerous efforts to bring the Ukraine back into Russia’s fold, including sending troops to annex Crimea in 2014; backing Ukrainian separatists to drive territorial disputes; and issuing cyberattacks on Ukrainian banks and ministries, reports David Remnick for the New Yorker. These disputes have ultimately failed to succeed, driving Putin’s aggression as Russia now heads towards a full-scale war with Ukraine.
To combat Putin’s attempts at forced cultural homogeneity, the Ukrainian government has, in recent years, passed laws “prioritiz[ing] Ukrainian in public life,” write Daniel Estrin and Olena Lysenko for NPR. All print media outlets are required to publish a Ukrainian-language version, and 35 percent of music on the radio must be performed in Ukrainian. (Though Ukrainians often speak Ukrainian and Russian interchangeably, the two languages are as distinct as English and Dutch.)
Ukrainian electronic musician Anton Slepakov used to write his songs exclusively in Russian. Compared with Ukraine, the Russian market offered a larger fanbase and more lucrative gigs. After Putin invaded Crimea in 2014, however, Slepakov and many other Ukrainian artists stopped performing in Russia. Slepakov, who has since become an outspoken critic of the Russian occupation, now exclusively writes his songs in Ukrainian.
“You can’t measure everything in money,” the musician tells NPR.
How Ukrainian Artists and Museums Are Responding
On February 23, as Russian forces readied for the impending attack, Ukrainian artist Volo Bevza made preparations for the opening of his solo exhibition, “Soft Image,” at the WT Foundation in Kyiv the following day. Despite the looming threat of invasion, Bevza was determined to go through with the show.
“I saw it as a kind of protest against Russian aggression,” he tells Hakim Bishara of Hyperallergic. “Spreading panic, misinformation, disorientation and fear is at the core of the Russian hybrid war against Ukraine. So we thought we’ll just continue doing our job, as small and unimportant it may seem to be.”
The next morning, however, the artist was forced to cancel the exhibition and seek shelter. “Everyone was ordered by the government to stay home and remain calm,” Bevza says. “We heard explosions and helicopters in the air.”
As Kate Brown reports for Artnet News, the invasion also halted work on Ukraine’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale, an international art exhibition scheduled for April 23 to November 27.
“We are not in immediate danger, but the situation is critical and changes every minute,” wrote artist Pavlo Makov and curators Lizaveta German, Maira Lanko, and Borys Filonenko on Twitter on Thursday. “Presently, we are not able to continue working on the project of the pavilion due to the danger to our lives.”
Makov, a conceptual artist who is ethnically Russian but holds Ukrainian citizenship, tells Artnet News that he “lost all connections with Russia when the war started in 2014.”
He adds, “From my point of view, it is impossible to work with another country that is openly and aggressively attacking your country, and that is taking your territory.”
Ukrainian museums, meanwhile, are taking steps to protect their collections. The country is home to thousands of museums, from small, private institutions to large, state-owned collections in Kyiv and Odessa, a port city on the Black Sea. According to the New York Times‘ Valerie Hopkins and Alex Marshall, these state collections house significant Ukrainian and Russian artworks; classical and Byzantine artifacts; and paintings by artists such as Giovanni Bellini, Francisco Goya and Peter Paul Rubens.
On Thursday, Aleksandra Kovalchuk, director of the Odessa Fine Arts Museum, told the Times that employees were hiding art in the basement, arranging security and putting up barbed wire. The director of the Kyiv-based National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War said staff had spent 12 hours moving the institution’s most significant holdings to a safe location.
In an Artnet News op-ed, Olesia Ostrovska, director general of the Mystetskyi Arsenal National Art and Culture Museum Complex in Kyiv, writes, “[W]e should now be preparing for the 11th annual Book Arsenal Festival to be held this May, as well as important exhibitions and interdisciplinary projects—but instead our team must focus our efforts to ensure the safety of our staff and our families, as well as guard our collection and our museum objects: paintings, graphics and fine art.”
How Artists Outside of Ukraine Are Reacting
“Most people in the Russian contemporary art scene do not support the reactionary turn in Russian cultural politics and certainly do not support any military [action] and colonialism in Ukraine,” he adds, “but because of strict control of the public sphere, it is difficult to articulate your disagreement publicly, apart from posts on social media.”
Despite these restrictions, Russian artists have done what they can to express their disdain for Putin’s military actions. Per Insider’s Natalie Musumeci, Elena Kovalskaya, director of Moscow’s state-run Meyerhold Center theater, stepped down from her position, writing on Facebook that “You can’t work for a killer and get paid by him.” The curator and artists representing Russia at the Venice Biennale also resigned—a move that the exhibition’s organizers lauded as a “noble act of courage.”
Nadya Tolokonnikova, a founding member of Russian rock band Pussy Riot, has long been an outspoken critic of Putin. As Jason Nelson reports for Decrypt, she has now launched a decentralized autonomous organization (abbreviated as DAO, the term refers to a member-owned crypto community) to raise money for organizations aiding Ukrainians who have been displaced or are in danger. Ukraine DAO released 10,000 non-fungible tokens (NFTs) featuring the Ukrainian flag, which sold for $6.7 million.
Two days before the invasion, on February 22, Ukrainian-Russian conceptual artist Aljoscha staged an anti-war protest in front of the Motherland Monument in Kyiv. According to the Art Newspaper’s Kabir Jhala, Alojscha stood naked in front of the 200-foot-tall statue, holding two pink forms made of acrylic, plastic and fiberglass. The objects were meant to represent the artist’s practice of “biosim,” or “extending life to non-living beings” and thereby “constructing new forms of life.”
Erected in 1981, the monument depicts a woman with a sword in one hand and a shield embossed with a hammer and sickle in the other. A commemoration of Russia’s role in World War II, it’s one of the few remaining symbols of Soviet communism in Ukraine, which banned such commemorations in 2015.
Some artists outside of Russia and Ukraine have responded to the crisis by staging cultural boycotts of Russian museums. Dutch artist Constant Dullaart had Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery remove a work of his featuring the Ukrainian flag, for example, while Icelander Ragnar Kjartansson closed a show at Moscow’s GES-2 early, reports Anna Sansom for Artnet News. Other artists, like Belgian David Claerbout, criticized the boycotts as “dramatic gestures.”
Speaking with Artnet News, New York–based Ukrainian artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov say they “don’t believe in cultural sanctions.”
The duo adds, “Cultural connections are things that may bring people together when politicians fail and dialogue is important as long as we are able to create it, especially through cultural exchange.”