The exhibition, called “Crucified Ukraine,” is one of several ways that the country’s government is highlighting the devastation that its people have endured.
By Valerie Hopkins
June 2, 2022
The New York Times
KYIV, Ukraine — Just days after Russian troops retreated from the suburbs surrounding Kyiv, Yuriy Savchuk, director of a World War II museum in the city, joined the police and prosecutors who were investigating the full extent of the suffering inflicted there by enemy soldiers. Over the next month, Mr. Savchuk and his colleagues meticulously documented what they saw, taking more than 3,000 photographs. And they came away with some of the abandoned traces of the Russian invasion: the diary of a commander; a book that Russian troops had carried, called “No One Judges the Winners”; a parachute soldier’s map showing targets on Kyiv’s left bank; and the A.T.M. cards and passports of dead Russian fighters.
Those discoveries and many others have become items in an exhibition called “Crucified Ukraine” that opened on May 8 at Mr. Savchuk’s museum, an unusual effort to chronicle the war even as battles continue to rage in Ukraine’s east and south. A new museum dedicated solely to the Russian invasion is foreseen once the conflict ends, Mr. Savchuk added.
The exhibition is one of several ways that Ukraine’s government is highlighting the devastation its people have endured even as new suffering is inflicted every day. Prominent in those efforts are the vivid presentations that the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has made to other nations’ leaders, and his nightly addresses to his compatriots.
Ukrainian government officials, soldiers and thousands of civilians have also flooded social media — Facebook, Telegram, Twitter and other sites — with photographs, videos and written accounts of the hardships wrought by Russia’s invasion.
And Ukraine has taken the rare step of prosecuting Russian soldiers for war crimes just months after they were allegedly committed, greatly accelerating the normal judicial timetable. War crimes trials often take place years after the event.
Outside the museum hall recently, the children of Sasha Spodinskiy, an electrical engineer who recently returned to Kyiv with his family after fleeing to western Ukraine, played among the charred remains of a Russian helicopter propeller. “It is necessary to explain to our children what is happening in Ukraine now,” Mr. Spodinskiy said, as other visitors took photographs of the debris. “We cannot speak with our children as if nothing is happening,” he added, “because they clearly understand everything, and they see what happens in our country.”
Mr. Savchuk, the museum director, had extensive cooperation from the government. As he traveled to the recently liberated territories, he carried an order from Ukraine’s top military general granting him and his team access to areas that were still behind police cordons. He tiptoed behind bomb squad personnel, who cleared any unexploded mines in their path. “We were often the first people to visit a building or a house,” Mr. Savchuk said.
Conducting a tour of the exhibits recently, Mr. Savchuk led a reporter and photographer through an area he called the “food court,” which displays the rations that Russian soldiers were given: MREs, or premade meals, labeled with “No One But Us” and “Friendship of Nations”; along with old jars of borscht and shchi, a Russian cabbage soup. Nearby, boots left behind by Russian soldiers are shaped inside a red star evoking the Soviet past.
Above the food court, a TV screen plays images of Russian propaganda released in the prelude to the war, including a clip from the speech in which President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said that Ukraine had been “entirely and fully created by Russia.”
As Mr. Savchuk climbed the stairs to the second floor, he pointed to a metal gate that had been sprayed with bullets. It belonged to a wooden church from a town on the outskirts of Kyiv called Peremoha, which means “victory” in Ukrainian.
In the center of the room hangs a cross salvaged from another church that had been destroyed. Under it is displayed an icon of Jesus being taken off the cross. The glass covering of the painting has been pierced by shrapnel over the face of Joseph. “The history of our country is being created, and now this is an opportunity to get in touch with it,” said another visitor, Serhiy Pashchukov, a 31-year-old from Luhansk, which was occupied by Russia in 2014.
Mr. Pashchukov, who moved to Kyiv in 2014 when Russian-backed separatists took his hometown, said that seeing the objects in person was “completely different from seeing it on a TV screen or on the internet.”
In each room of the exhibition, a sign points to the “ukrittya,” or “bomb shelter,” a ubiquitous sign in wartime Ukraine. Though the shelter, in the basement of the museum, could probably protect visitors if necessary — the wails of air raid sirens are still common in Kyiv — it is also among the most poignant exhibits in the museum.
A handwritten sign on paper torn from a school pupil’s exercise book is taped to the door. In Ukrainian, Russian and English, it advises that only civilians are inside. The sign, and everything else in the basement, was taken from a bomb shelter in a Kyiv suburb, Hostomel, the site of an airport that Russian soldiers tried to take in the first days of the war.
Mr. Savchuk and his team have painstakingly reproduced the three rooms and adjacent corridors, including the graffiti on the walls, in which 120 people spent 37 days underground. The rooms are dank and cold, but the most striking thing, many visitors said, was that it smells as if the people who sheltered with their belongings there — including onions, blankets, and toys — had just left. For some, it was powerful to see their experiences in a museum. “We had a similar basement in Bucha in a newly built apartment building,” said Evgeniya Skrypnyk, a 32-year-old
from a suburb of Kyiv where Russian soldiers killed and terrorized civilians. “This spirit of the way people survived is preserved,” she added.
The one historical inaccuracy in the shelter was the absence of the five buckets that stood in the hallway where the people who lived underground for more than a month relieved themselves.
The exhibition, housed in a building in the sprawling World War II museum complex, thrummed with visitors on a recent weekend. “I wanted to plunge into this atmosphere, to understand how people lived,” said a woman with rainbow-colored hair named Olena, who said she was only comfortable providing her first name. “It is a very interesting exhibition, because it is not happening after the war; this is still taking place in other cities of our country.”
Since the first day of the war, Mr. Savchuk has been sleeping in the World War II history museum, to protect its collection from vandals.
Remembrance of World War II has become more complex since the war started. In Russia, the Kremlin has sought to glorify the Soviet victory — to which millions of Ukrainians contributed — as a source of national pride. But it has also called upon memories of that war to justify and build support for the invasion of Ukraine, with Mr. Putin seeking to falsely portray Ukrainian leaders as “Nazis.”
Mr. Savchuk said that in light of the current war, people were talking about a “complete reconstruction” of the museum complex, whose architecture is intended to awe visitors with the memory of the Soviet victory in World War II, to de-emphasize the fight against Nazi Germany. “This war changed everything,” he said. “A museum is not only an exhibition, it is a territory, it is its monuments, it is a place of memory. We are thinking about changing not only the ideology, but also the architecture, the emphasis.” Mr. Savchuk is continuing to collect artifacts. It will eventually become a “big war museum,” he said — a museum of victory.
Valerie Hopkins is a correspondent based in Moscow. She previously covered Central and Southeastern Europe for a decade, most recently for the Financial Times. @VALERIEinNYT