On Friday, the historic home of the precious Ukrainian poet and philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda was destroyed by a Russian artillery attack, along with a museum of his works.
Skovoroda’s home was located in a tiny village not far from Kharkiv, nowhere near obvious military targets such as a railway or an ammunition depot. The attack appears to have been a deliberate act of cultural vandalism, and not the first since the Russian invasion began in February.
Skovoroda was a leading figure in the cultural revival of Ukraine in the 18th century; this year marks the 300th anniversary of his birth.
In a video speech Saturday, President Volodymyr Zelensky condemned the attack on the home of a man “who taught people what a true Christian attitude to life is and how a person can know himself.”
“It seems that this is a terrible danger for modern Russia: museums, the Christian attitude towards life and people’s self-knowledge,” Zelensky said.
A museum employee collects surviving artifacts in the destroyed building of the National Literary Memorial Museum of Hryhoriy Skovoroda in the village of Skovorodynivka, Kharkiv region on May 7, 2022. Credit: Sergey Bobok / AFP / Getty
Zelensky took up the theme when he celebrated Victory Day, citing Skovoroda’s words in another public message on Monday: “There is nothing more dangerous than an insidious enemy, but there is nothing more poisonous than a fake friend “.
Skovoroda’s legacy has become the symbol of what Zelensky and other Ukrainians call the struggle between two worldviews: those of individual freedoms and democracy against a new prejudice-driven authoritarianism.
The governor of Kharkiv, Oleh Synyehubov, said in a post on Telegram: “The occupants can destroy the museum where Hryhoriy Skovoroda worked in the last years of his life and where he was buried. But they will not destroy our memory and our values. ! ”
While many volunteers and workers within the Ukrainian cultural sector rushed to protect institutions and monuments across the country during the start of the war, churches, museums, statues and art collections suffered damage.
Zelensky said in his Saturday speech that Russian forces have destroyed nearly 200 historic sites since the invasion began.
Whether most of these were deliberately targeted is open to debate, but given Vladimir Putin’s dismissive view of Ukrainian culture it would not be surprising.
There have certainly been acts of cultural hooliganism in the areas occupied by the Russians. A statue of another prominent Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko, in the town of Borodianka outside Kiev, was hit several times and badly damaged. The city was occupied for weeks by Russian and Chechen troops.
Work of the Ukrainian painter Maria Prymachenko on display at the Mystetsky Arsenal art gallery in 2016. Credit: Efrem Lukatsky / AP
Shevchenko’s poem “The Dream”, which satirized the Russian oppression of Ukraine, was considered subversive and led to him being banned from Ukraine by Tsar Nicholas I in 1847, “under the strictest surveillance, without the freedom to write or paint “, as Nicholas requested.
Shevchenko is widely regarded as the founder of the modern written Ukrainian language. His point of view would have been at odds with Vladimir Putin’s point of view – as he stated in February – that “modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by the Bolsheviks, by Russia. Communist”.
A number of Ukrainian churches were also destroyed, many of which were nowhere near a military target. Just outside Kiev an 18th-century wooden church in Lukyanivka was destroyed, one of many properties in the area burned to the ground when Russian forces withdrew from Kiev in April.
A wooden church destroyed on April 10, 2022 in the village of Lukashivka, Ukraine. Credit: Anastasia Vlasova / Getty Images
Luhansk authorities said at least seven Orthodox churches were destroyed by the Russians, with the Cathedral of Christ the Nativity in the eastern city of Severodonetsk resisting four direct hits.
Ukrainian officials also denounced the looting of art collections as Russian forces arrived in southern cities. Ivan Fedorov, mayor of Melitopol, said last month that the Russians had taken items from the town’s museum.
And the Mariupol city council said the Russian occupiers stole hundreds of items, including precious handwritten Torah scrolls and 200 medals, from the city’s museums.
A statue of Skovoroda still stands in Kiev and on the pedestal are the words he chose for his tombstone to underline his belief in independence and purity of soul.
“The world tried to capture me but couldn’t.”
Top image: Museum workers carry the sculpture of the Ukrainian philosopher Hryhorri Skovoroda from the destroyed building of the National Literary Memorial Museum of Hryhoriy Skovoroda on May 7.