Culture as Witness in Ukraine

When a friend finally took me to a cinema half a year after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I looked for a belt to buckle up: by that point, I was more used to crossing the country in the back seat of press and volunteer cars. It was by watching a Ukrainian film from 1971, with its artistic brilliance spread over Soviet ideological clichés, that I felt rooted in the historical dimension of this struggle. Our culture bears witness to our resistance beyond the present moment. It testifies that we prevail over those who want to silence us.

Back in the third week of Russia’s all-out war, I was typing up my dispatch in the bathroom of a rented flat in Lviv while an air raid siren was wailing outside. Occasionally credited as a literary scholar, I noted that I didn’t refer to literature in the third text in a row. The only voices I wanted to include were those of people I talked to in the city. Their message was uniform: “Glory to Ukraine, death to the enemies.” The energy of real-time resistance, unanticipated from the outside, unanimous on the inside, fierce from wherever one looked, was more than any book could offer.

It was not only literature or art I withdrew from. Alcohol could not be bought in Lviv: Ukrainian authorities were keen on keeping us sober and ready to fight or flee. A coffee addict, I abstained voluntarily, reckoning that an espresso would stop my racing heart. There was power in austerity, in allowing oneself to run on the purest of feelings: love and fury. Everything else seemed decadent, gratuitous, a vestige of that long-gone epoch of three weeks ago. We didn’t need any props in the country whose people discovered they had spines of steel.

The purpose that brought me to the first cultural event in the capital in May, 50 days after the Ukrainian army cleansed the Kyiv region of the invaders, was fundraising. Sasha Koltsova, a singer and comedian, was collecting money for an ambulance in the Pink Freud bar in the Podil neighbourhood, which used to be the heartland of Ukrainian youth culture. Thanks to an excellent bomb shelter, the bar turned out to be well suited to house a few staff members and a group of local journalists who hadn’t fled the capital during the battle for Kyiv. In March and April, the space functioned as a hybrid of a newsroom and a field kitchen, where all the dwellers worked in shifts to cook 300 meals per day for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. In May, I felt honored to attend their consecrated hub.

The performance turned out to be a musical stand-up. What else? The mass graves the occupiers left throughout the Kyiv region gaped at us as if asking: “Will this break you?” The answer resounded in the bursts of laughter under the arcs of the Pink Freud bar. “If we laugh or if we cry,” writes Georges Bataille, “it is because […] death momentarily appears light to us. That does not mean that it has lost its horror: it simply means that for an instant we have risen above it.” With each day of continuing Russian atrocities, the accumulated death we have to rise above is bringing us closer to the sky that our western allies are reluctant to close. Instead, the Ukrainian Air Forces are performing the task.

Although Russia was expected to reach immediate superiority in the sky, it failed to conduct a thought-out campaign, to destroy or blind Ukrainian air defence at the start of the full-scale invasion. Ukrainians used their limited airpower creatively, from conducting defensive operations to inflicting huge aircraft losses on the enemy. During the mass bombings of critical infrastructure on October 10, half of the rockets Russia launched at Ukrainian cities were intercepted.

On the Day of the Ukrainian Air Forces back in August, I found myself in the 11th-century Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, at the so-