In Europe and around the world, the landmark drama theater in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol will long be associated with crimes against humanity, whether or not a formal trial of the Russians who bombed it is ever held.
At least 300 people, including many children — the final toll is not known — died there on March 16 during Russia’s savage war on Ukraine. The theater may have been harboring as many as 1,300 people when it was hit.
The story is far from over, Karolina Lindholm Billing, the representative in Ukraine of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said in an update on March 25, noting that while more than 3.7 million people have fled the country, “some 13 million people are estimated to be stranded in affected areas or unable to leave due to heightened security risks.” (On March 30, the number of refugees hit four million.)
Among them, in this culturally rich country, are musicians, opera singers, painters and other artists who have taken up arms to defend Ukraine. Security risks are more pronounced when artists perform in public and are highly visible.
Symphony orchestras and other musical ensembles in Kviv, Lviv and smaller Ukrainian cities and towns have experienced interruptions when air-raid sirens sounded during concerts. Shelling has damaged the Kharkiv National Opera house, and concert halls around the country have been attacked. Museums dedicated to Ukrainian art have been raided and paintings stolen, residents have told reporters.
Assertions from President Vladimir Putin that Russia and Ukraine share a culture and languages, based on a common Slavonic or Slavic alphabet and vocabulary, bear ever less meaning as political gaps widen. Ukraine has been an independent and free, if sometimes troubled, democracy for more than three decades while Putin’s Russia has warped into a totalitarian dictatorship.
Many members of Ukraine’s large middle class appear to be learning English, to judge from their ability to converse with English-speaking reporters. They were preparing for the possibility of European Union membership, a red line for the Russian dictator.
Putin’s war has brought cultural tensions closer to the surface in Ukraine and in the region. While some artists in various fields suggest that it is important to maintain ties with their Russian counterparts, others are offended by that argument. An open letter from the Opera Ukraine to the Opera Europa association, signed by directors of orchestral and opera organizations across Eastern Europe, said:
“Our museums, theaters, philarmonies [sic] and concert halls are being shelled and bombed daily –specifically, Kharkiv National Opera, a member of Opera Europa been already damaged by Russian artillery fire. It is very hard for us to understand why all of this is less of a concern now than the necessity to keep open the doors to the cooperation with Russian theaters in the longer term.”
Another, more boldly proscriptive petition from Ukrainian cultural leaders demanded international cultural sanctions to isolate Russia. Published by the Ukrainian Culture Ministry, it said:
“The Russian Federation has willfully and maliciously violated existing international standards and agreements. Together with current political and economic sanctions, as well as a ban to compete in sporting and other international events, we call for sanctions that would limit Russia’s presence within the international cultural arena. Russia is effectively a totalitarian state, and too often it uses cultural tool[s] picked from its state propaganda toolbox.”
The petition’s six demands include exclusion of Russians from all international art exhibitions, film and theater festivals and book fairs. It demands a withdrawal from “partnerships with all artists and entertainers who openly support the Russian President Vladimir Putin and his actions” — moves that have been taken by the Munich Philharmonic, Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the Royal Opera House in London and other theater companies.
International support for Ukraine is demonstrated in the ubiquitous flying of Ukrainian flags and banners as tall as the buildings from which they hang. The Ukrainian national anthem is sung in numerous concert halls far from Ukraine. Blue and yellow are the colors of the moment. President Volodymyr Zelensky, an actor turned politician who grew up speaking Russian, has become a hero in the eyes of many people by refusing to leave Kyiv, the capital, knowing that Putin wants to replace or possibly assassinate him.
PassBlue recently spoke with Maria Shust, director of the Ukrainian Museum in New York City. Housed in a handsome brick building in the East Village, the 56-year-old museum is a storehouse of Ukrainian treasures and documentary archives.
Shust has no illusions about Putin’s intention to destroy an independent Ukraine. She says that Russia has been an oppressor for centuries, back to the Tsarist empire, lately with Putin’s campaign to appropriate Ukrainian achievements.
In a phone interview with PassBlue on March 23, Shust talked about the importance of ancient Ukrainian culture, how it evolved and how it remains the touchstone for a country being destroyed piecemeal because it refuses to accept Putin’s plans for integration into a Russia that has already borrowed so much from Ukraine’s cultural leadership in Eastern Europe. The interview has been edited and condensed. — BARBARA CROSSETTE
PassBlue: Archeologists and historians have judged what is now Ukraine to be one of the oldest civilizations in Europe. How is this measured?
Maria Shust: Ukraine has a very ancient culture and history, one that stems from the Neolithic period, from 5000 B.C. There are many excavations on Ukrainian lands that have discovered quite an unusual civilization. Many ceramic pieces that have been excavated are still in museums in Ukraine.
PassBlue: Over the centuries how did this cultural history develop?
Shust: Ukraine had a really strong influence on the folk arts and also fine arts [of the region]. The symbolism we find in the folk arts really stems from that period. Many cultures later on had similar symbols in their work. Within Ukraine, each region, and even each village, has its own specific way of creating their works. Their embroideries, their costumes — the Easter eggs that Ukraine is famous for –are distinguished from region to region. That’s one of the things that Ukrainians are really well known for. Another very important civilization in the history of Ukraine were the Scythians. We still have this beautiful jewelry and other Scythian artifacts that have been found in Ukraine. The Metropolitan Museum a number of years back had a large exhibition of Scythian gold.
PassBlue: The lives of Ukrainians have almost always been made easier by no shortage of food, except for a famine in the 1930s, known as the Holodomor, when Stalin tried to impose a disastrous collectivization on the country’s small farms, leaving almost four million people dead.
Shust: Ukraine has very rich soil. It has been known as the bread basket of Europe. It has such a rich harvest, and that is reflected on Ukrainian folk art [and] art on the Ukrainian character. They tend to be gentle people; they’re not aggressive. They are very, very devoted, very family oriented. Even in the United States. Ukrainians who have immigrated here, all the communities know each other, whether they live in Philadelphia, New York, Detroit or Chicago. We are a very close community.
PassBlue: Tell us how you came to America with your family in another time of war and Russian aggression.
Shust: I was born in Germany. I was a displaced person at that time. My family had escaped to Ukraine during the Second World War. Displaced persons camps were formed during the war and after the war for people who were in a somewhat similar [situation] to what is happening now. Before they were able to be relocated in various other places, they lived in camps in Germany and Austria for several years. In each of these camps, they developed little cities. They had dance groups, they had schools. When people emigrated, they tended to settle in areas where previous immigrants had settled. In New York, areas of the city used to be known as Little Ukraines.
PassBlue: When your family left Germany, were you escaping the war, the Nazis or both?
Shust: Both. And also escaping the Russians. Ukraine was sort of caught in the Second World War between Germany and Russia. My parents originally came from Western Ukraine, and the Bolsheviks were moving into Russian Ukraine, and so they escaped. That’s been the history of Ukraine, it’s always been. First there was the Tsarist rule and then there was the Bolshevik rule. When Ukraine was able to finally throw off Russian occupation [in 1991] and the continuous fear of oppression, Ukrainians were able to develop their own kind of country, their own state that’s democratic, that’s free. They were finally able to develop into a really strong country. And now they are occupied again and there are these horrible conditions. One city after another is being demolished. And so many children are dying.
PassBlue: As the director of a cultural institution, do you agree with Ukrainians still in the country that Putin appears to be targeting the work of artistic people with a special malice?
Shust: Yes, because culture is the soul of a nation. It’s all the best that endures from one generation to another. Attacking culture, that’s the way the Russians try to erase that identity.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.