The museum was damaged by shelling, but most of its exhibits survived. It also now houses items salvaged from destroyed cultural sites, such as a wooden icon, still riddled with shrapnel, from a church destroyed by fire last year. As we walk across the central square of Irpin, Antonyuk points out the scarred facade of the library. “We replaced the windows, but we can’t restore that,” she says. “It’s difficult and expensive. There are 10,000 homeless people here, it’s not the right time to do things like that.”
Irpin’s cultural institutions not only salvage and restore artifacts from the city’s early years, they also attempt to commemorate the past year and a half. It’s difficult to curate history in real time. There are too many physical remnants of the war. But they have vast amounts of digital material. They want to create a VR experience based on footage captured immediately after the Russian withdrawal from Irpin, to capture that moment even after the city has been fully restored. It would be one of many attempts to digitize Ukraine’s heritage and culture as volunteers are doing 3D scans of significant buildingsmake high-resolution copies of artworksand even Catalog of war memes for future generations. These are needed because the cultural heritage was not just collateral damage from the war. The invasion was motivated 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 Ukrainian and they destroy everything that can identify us as Ukrainians.” Rebuilding stronger is an act of defiance and an opportunity to reaffirm 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 this magnitude and scope in the age of mass digitization with almost unlimited possibilities for storing and recording information.
I met cafe owner Yefimenko and council member Antonyuk through the Museum of Civilian Voices, a project of the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation, a philanthropic organization established in 2014 that made video testimonies of people living near the front lines of the proxy war between Ukrainian armed forces and Russian-backed militias in the eastern Donbass region. In the first four years, they accumulated thousands of hours of videos showing how ordinary citizens experienced the conflict. As the larger invasion began, they expanded the project across the country. It is about ensuring that the stories of individual civilians – small business owners, housewives, school teachers – are visible in massive meta-narratives of the conflict, a story of the war at eye level told in 75,000 individual accounts. The idea is to “save as many stories as possible to create this.” [360-degree] We understand what happened and how big the tragedy is,” says Natalya Yemchenko, one of the board members of the foundation, who has been involved in the project from the beginning. And it has a healing aspect. The country must learn to remember, says Jemchenko. “Otherwise we will keep this trauma with us in the future and it will traumatize us again and again.”
Yefimenko says outside his coffee stand in Irpin, in a park that a year earlier was cratered and strewn with corpses – where children now play on a bouncy castle – that the rebuilding has given him a sense of mission and has become his own act be of solidarity and defiance. That’s what I’ve heard again and again in Ukraine: that reconstruction and reform, even the smallest acts, are ways to honor the sacrifices made, and that reconstruction is not just a consequence of victory, but a way to achieve it.
“The only reason we can sit here over coffee is because other people died at the front,” he says. “I believe that everyone should do their thing in their place. Some people make coffee, some argue, some bake bread, and that is what makes Ukraine’s economy. We fight for our independence. Our financial independence is also important.”
This article will appear in WIRED UK’s September/October 2023 issue