Mikhail Reva has used shrapnel and missile parts to recreate the nightmare world of the conflict
15 April 2023
He is Ukraine’s most famous sculptor. Mikhail Reva’s playful and humorous creations have been seen by millions of people and can be found in squares and beaches in his native Odesa, in Kyiv and abroad. His sculptures sum up Odesa’s insouciant view of life. “Odesa has a unique language and spirit. I realised that this city should possess its own plastic art – slightly ironic, a little naive, careless and jocular,” he said.
But Vladimir Putin’s invasion has transformed Reva’s work, as well as that of other Ukrainian artists, prompting him to embrace new and darker forms. The horrors of Bucha and Mariupol – where Russian soldiers executed civilians – inspired him to create a series of extraordinary new sculptures. They might have sprung from a Hoffmann fairytale crossed with a nightmare.
The centrepiece is a four-metre-tall sculpture of Moloch, an ancient god, in the form of a Russian bear. Reva made it from shrapnel and other bomb remains, recovered from the battlefield and welded together. “It’s like a gigantic scary children’s toy. It will be on wheels,” Reva said. “The bear has biblical associations and refers to Moscow. You look at it and it hypnotises you. There is fragility and brutality.”
Another haunting sculpture is titled Blossom. Its flowering metal form is constructed from the twisted parts of an X-31 Russian missile that landed next to Reva’s studio in the Black Sea resort of Zatoka, in southern Ukraine. It blew the doors off his summer dacha. Miraculously, Reva’s sculptures were undamaged. A neighbour collected the fragments and gave them to him.
The 10-piece collection has the sardonic title Russky Mir, or Russian world. Putin has justified his all-out attack as an attempt to return Ukraine to a common cultural and civilisational space with Russia, encompassing language and Orthodox religion. For Ukrainians, the phrase has come to mean death, terror and extermination: a brute attempt by one country to devour another.
Reva has his own intimate connection with Putin. In 2002, the government in Kyiv asked him to create a unique piece of jewellery for Russia’s president, then new in the job. Reva designed a silver sundial. Written on it was a message about the importance of law. “Putin kept it on his table. Back then, we thought he was a reformer. Everybody did, including George W Bush,” the sculptor said. “This is my personal vendetta,” Reva added, speaking to the Observer from his spacious workshop in downtown Odesa. “I needed to find a shape with Russky Mir that everybody could understand. We’ve seen photos of the war in Ukraine but it’s not enough. You need images that speak to everybody: to art snobs and to the ordinary man and woman on the street. It has to be the language of truth.”
Reva said that his sculptures “look like chaos” but are carefully fashioned. “You can’t take one element out without changing the composition,” he observed. He has used the roof of a Russian Kamaz truck to make a terrifying dragon, a work in progress soon to be painted red. A two-metre-tall owl is made from the twirling fins of mortars; its giant eyes recall the grill of a confession booth.
Over the past year, the sculptor has become an expert at distinguishing different types of enemy weapon. Some of the debris brought to his studio includes phosphorus bombs. “It’s dangerous to breathe them in,” he said. “I know the character and texture of each piece of metal. It flew with such force. My work isn’t an installation or performance. It’s a message that comes from pain.”
He hopes to exhibit Russky Mir in London, Berlin, New York and other major cities. It could be permanently displayed in a new museum of war in Kyiv – but that for now is little more than an idea as the conflict rages on.
Reva said he considered his beloved 88-year-old mother, Valentina, to be a victim of Russian aggression. She died last summer soon after he evacuated her from her ninth-floor Odesa home.
Aged 64, and the son of a sea captain, Reva studied sculpture in the late 1980s and spent five happy years at the higher school of art and design, in what was then Leningrad. An outstanding student, he won a scholarship to Rome, then returned to Odesa. Times were hard in the newly independent Ukraine. One of his first patrons was a local mafia boss, who was later shot dead.
His career took off, and Ukraine’s then president, Leonid Kuchma, became a fan. It was Kuchma who commissioned the Putin sundial. Now Reva says he feels ashamed for Russia and St Petersburg where he spent his student days. “This is a war of Cain versus Abel, David against Goliath. My small country has resisted a great monster,” he said. His “deep feelings” about the conflict changed his art, he added. He wanted to avoid “aesthetics”, preferring instead to deliver “a precise, finite image”.
Meanwhile, Odesans still seek out his pre-invasion public sculptures – created, he says, from a place of “light and kindness”. On Lanzheron beach, not far from Odesa’s harbour, groups pose in front of a striking door, called Domus Solis (House of the Sun), based on the entrance of a grand 19th-century mansion, now destroyed. Behind it is the Black Sea, thronged by Russian warships.
Another landmark Reva monument is located in Odesa’s main pedestrian avenue, Derybasivska. The Twelfth Chair – you can sit on it – is an affectionate tribute to the Soviet writers Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, whose story of diamonds hidden in the seat has been turned into comedy films. “The chair invites viewers to an endless game with the sculpture,” Reva explained, “a sort of performance of relations.”
This week, Lena Sumska and her friend Anatolii joined a queue waiting to pose by the sculpture. Anatolii waved cash around: a scene from the film. He sang two songs, one a 1955 hit by the Odesa crooner Leonid Utesov and the other, Oh Odesa! Pearl by the Sea. Sumska said she had fled to Germany when the war started and had returned for a week-long trip, taking photos to show her family back in Magdeburg. “I’d like to thank the sculptor. He’s made a wondrous thing,” she said. She then delivered an impromptu message for Putin, referring to him by his
unflattering diminutive nickname, Vova. “Vova, you’ve got nothing to say to us! We don’t need you! Go home!” she declared. She added cheerfully: “We are known for our aphorisms here. That’s the spirit of Odesa.”
Luke Harding is a British journalist who is a foreign correspondent for The Guardian. He was based in Russia for The Guardian from 2007 until, returning from a stay in the UK on 5 February 2011, he was refused re-entry to Russia and deported the same day. His 2011 book Mafia State discusses his experience in Russia and the political system under Vladimir Putin, which he describes as a mafia state. In 2020, Luke Harding published the book Shadow State, covering Russian covert operations, from the poisoning of Sergei Skripal by the GRU, to digital influence operations. In 2022, Luke Harding published the book Invasion.