Last Friday, the historic home of Ukraine’s treasured poet and philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda was destroyed by a Russian artillery strike, along with a museum of his work.
Skovoroda’s home was in a tiny village not far from Kharkiv – nowhere near any obvious military targets such as a railway or ammunition depot. The attack appears to have been a deliberate act of cultural vandalism, and not the first since the Russian invasion began in February.
Skovoroda was a leading figure in Ukraine’s cultural renaissance in the 18th century; this year is the 300th anniversary of his birth.
In a video address on Saturday, President Volodymyr Zelensky condemned the attack against the home of a man “who taught people what a true Christian attitude to life is and how a person can know himself.”
“It seems this is a terrible danger for modern Russia: museums, the Christian attitude to life and people’s self-knowledge,” Zelensky said.
Zelensky reprised the theme when marking Victory Day, quoting Skovoroda’s words in another public message on Monday: “There is nothing more dangerous than an insidious enemy but there is nothing more poisonous than a feigned friend.”
Skovoroda’s legacy has become symbolic of what Zelensky and other Ukrainians call the struggle between two world views – those of individual freedoms and democracy against a new authoritarianism driven by prejudice.
The governor of Kharkiv, Oleh Synyehubov, said in a post on Telegram: “The occupiers can destroy the museum where Hryhoriy Skovoroda worked for the last years of his life and where he was buried. But they will not destroy our memory and our values!”
While many volunteers and workers within Ukraine’s cultural sector rushed to protect institutions and monuments throughout the country during the onset of the war, churches, museums, statues and art collection have suffered damage.
Zelensky said in his Saturday address that Russian forces have destroyed nearly 200 heritage sites since the beginning of the invasion.
Whether most of these have been deliberately targeted is open to debate but given Vladimir Putin’s dismissive view of Ukrainian culture it would hardly be surprising.
There have certainly been acts of cultural hooliganism in areas occupied by the Russians. A statue of another prominent Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko, in the town of Borodianka outside Kyiv, was shot at several times and badly damaged. The town was occupied by Russian and Chechen troops for weeks.
Shevchenko’s poem “The Dream, ” which satirized Russia’s oppression of Ukraine, was regarded as subversive and led him to be banished from Ukraine by Tsar Nicholas I in 1847, “under the strictest surveillance, without the liberty to write or paint,” as Nicholas demanded.
Shevchenko is widely regarded as the founder of the modern written Ukrainian language. His outlook would have been at odds with Vladimir Putin’s view – as he put it in February – that “modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, communist Russia.”
Not far from Borodianka, a museum containing two-dozen works of the late Ukrainian folk artist Maria Prymachenko was struck and burned down in March. The extent of damage to her artworks remains unclear with a representative from the Maria Prymachenko Family Foundation alleging that the works were rescued. Prymachenko’s vivid paintings were admired by Pablo Picasso who once called her an “artistic miracle,” after visiting a show of her work in Paris in 1936.
A number of Ukrainian churches have been destroyed, too – many of them nowhere near any military target. Just outside Kyiv an 18th century wooden church in Lukyanivka was destroyed – one of many properties in the area razed to the ground as Russian forces withdrew from around Kyiv in April.
The authorities in Luhansk said at least seven Orthodox churches have been destroyed by the Russians, with the Christ the Nativity Cathedral in the eastern city of Severodonetsk withstanding four direct hits.
Ukrainian officials have also alleged looting of art collections as Russian forces have arrived in towns in the south. Ivan Fedorov, mayor of Melitopol, claimed last month that the Russians had taken items from the city’s museum.
And Mariupol city council said Russian occupiers had stolen hundreds of items, including precious handwritten Torah scrolls and 200 medals, from the city’s museums.
In Kyiv, a statue of Skovoroda still stands, and on the plinth are the words he chose for his gravestone to stress his belief in the independence and purity of the soul.
“The world tried to capture me but didn’t succeed.”
Top image: Museum workers carry the sculpture of Ukrainian philosopher Hryhorri Skovoroda from the destroyed building of the Hryhoriy Skovoroda National Literary Memorial Museum on May 7.