At the thousand-year-old Cathedral of Saint Sophia here, standing on an easel in front of a towering Baroque golden altar, is a new, freshly painted icon that’s just a foot square.
It depicts a 17th-century Cossack military commander with a long gray beard. His eyebrows are arched. His halo is a plain red circle. He looks humble beneath the immense mosaics that have glinted since the 11th century — through Kyiv’s sacking by the Mongols, its absorption into Poland, its domination by the Soviet Union.
No gold. No gemstones. This icon has been painted on three planks of knotty wood: the planks, I learn, of an ammunition box recovered from the devastated Kyiv suburb of Bucha. Out of Bucha’s mass graves, in the wake of terrifying Russian atrocities against civilians, something new has come to Saint Sophia: an image of mourning and resolve, of horror and courage, of a culture that will not give up.
Why would a critic go into a war zone? Why should anyone care about a painting when cruise missiles are overhead? Because “this is a war about cultural identity,” said the curator Leonid Maruschak — one of so many writers, musicians and scholars I’ve met here who make no distinction between the survival of Ukraine’s people and land and the survival of its history and ideas. With Russia actively trying to erase Ukraine’s national identity, this country’s music, literature, movies and monuments are not recreations. They are battlefields. The true culture war of our age is the war for democracy, and Ukrainian culture, past and present, has become a vital line of defense for the whole liberal order. [Continue reading…]