The museum was damaged by shelling, but most of its exhibits survived. It also now houses items rescued from devastated cultural sites, such as a wooden icon, still speckled with shrapnel, from a church destroyed by fire last year. As we walk around Irpin’s main square, Antonyuk points out the library’s scarred facade. “We replaced the windows, but we can’t fix that,” she says. “It is difficult and expensive. There are 10,000 people here without homes, it’s not the right time to do things like that.”
Irpin’s cultural institutions not only rescue and restore artifacts from the city’s early years, they also try to commemorate the past year and a half. It’s hard to compile history in real time. There are too many physical remnants of war. But they have huge amounts of digital material. They want to create a VR experience based on footage shot in the immediate aftermath of the Russian withdrawal from Irpin, to capture that moment even after the city has fully recovered. It would be one of many attempts to digitize Ukraine’s heritage and culture, as volunteers take 3D scans of key buildings, make high-resolution copies of art, and even catalog war memes for future generations. They are necessary because cultural heritage has not only been collateral damage in the war. The invasion was prompted by the Russian idea that Ukraine does not exist.
“This war is not only about territory, but also about culture,” says Antonyuk. “The first thing Russians do when they occupy territory is they destroy the cultural institutions, they destroy everything that is Ukrainian and they destroy everything that can identify us as Ukrainians.” Rebuilding stronger is an act of resistance and a way to reiterate Ukrainian identity. “Cultural institutions are there to show us who we are.”
It is also important to remember and record the present. The war in Ukraine is the first conflict of its size and scope in the era of massive digitization, with an almost unlimited ability to store and record information.
I met café owner Yefimenko and Councilor Antonyuk through the Museum of Civilian Voices, a project of the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation, a philanthropic organization that started in 2014 and provided video testimonies of people living near the front lines of the proxy war between Ukrainian armed forces and Russian-backed militias in the eastern Donbas region. In the first four years, they collected thousands of hours of videos about how ordinary citizens had experienced the conflict. When the larger invasion began, they expanded the project to cover the entire country. It’s an effort to ensure that the stories of individual citizens — small business owners, housewives, educators — are visible in massive conflict meta-stories, an eye-level war story told across 75,000 individual accounts. The idea is “to store as many stories as we could find to make this [360-degree] understanding of what happened, of the magnitude of the tragedy,” says Natalya Yemchenko, one of the board members of the foundation, who has been involved in the project from the beginning. And there is a healing aspect to it. The country must learn to remember, says Yemchenko. “Otherwise we will keep these traumas with us in our future and it will traumatize us again and again.”
Yefimenko, outside his coffee stand in Irpin, in a park that was cratered and strewn with bodies a year earlier — where children now play on a bouncy castle — says the rebuilding has given him a sense of mission and is his own act of solidarity and resistance. It is something I heard over and over in Ukraine: that reconstruction and reform, even the smallest acts, are ways of honoring the sacrifices that are made, and that reconstruction is not just a result of victory, but a way to reaches.
“The only reason we can sit here over coffee is because other people died on the front lines,” he says. “I think everyone should do their thing in their place. Some people make coffee, some people fight, some people make bread, and that’s what makes up Ukraine’s economy. We fight for our independence. Our financial independence is also important.”
This article appears in the September/October 2023 edition of WIRED UK