Blog: #ARTvsWAR: the past, the present and the future of Ukrainian culture
November 1, 2022

Blog: #ARTvsWAR: the past, the present and the future of Ukrainian culture

Ever since ancient times, exceptionally developed cultures have existed on the territory of modern Ukraine. Neither history nor the efforts to destroy Ukrainian cultural heritage during the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union have been able to eliminate its unique identity. Since 24 February 2022, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainians have once again been fighting for the right to exist and to keep their culture and identity. Widespread Russian propaganda has called into question the very existence of Ukrainian culture, and Russian aggression has targeted all things Ukrainian: people, language, and culture, just as in the time of the Russian Empire and the USSR. In this blog, I aim to debunk the myths about the non-existent Ukrainian culture and to prove that on the contrary, it is unique and original.


First and foremost, Ukraine is famous for its outstanding architecture. The architectural tradition in the territory of Ukraine has gone through a long historical development. The oldest monuments are on the Black Sea coast, dating back to the VIII-VII centuries BC (Thira, Olbia, Chersonesos, Feodosia, Panticapei, Phanagoria, etc).  As in other parts of Europe, Ukrainian architecture was imbued with the characteristic features of each historical period, from Gothic (the Latin Cathedral in Lviv, St. Bartholomew church in Drohobych), to the  Renaissance (the Black House and Kornyakta tower in Lviv), Classicism (Mykolaiv Observatory, Nativity of Christ Church in Kyiv, the Potocki Palace in Tulchyn, the Holy Ascension Cathedral of the city of Izyum that suffered during the battles for Izyum during the Russian invasion in 2022), Romanticism (Witt’s Palace in Odesa, Church of the Transfiguration in Moshny), etc.

Ukrainian (or Cossack) Baroque deserves special attention. Ukrainian baroque is an incredibly refined mixture of ethnic elements with imported European ones. Why is it called ‘Cossack’? Because Cossacks were actively involved in both church and civil construction and contributed to the emergence of many civil buildings: collegiums, magistratures, residential buildings, and military offices. The first example of the Ukrainian Baroque style was the Church of Saint Ilya in Subotiv, built at the request of Hetman of the Zaporozhian Host Bohdan Khmelnytskyi. More features of this style can be traced in the exterior of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery (Kyiv), St. Catherine’s Cathedral (Chernihiv), Trinity Monastery (Chernihiv), Transfiguration Cathedral (Izium) and others.

St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery in Kyiv
© Shutterstock

Altogether, seven Ukrainian sites are included  in the UNESCO World Heritage List:

– St Sophia’s Cathedral and the adjacent monastery complex Kyiv Pechersk Lavra (Kyiv)

– the historic centre of Lviv

– the Struve Geodetic Arc (Khmelnytskyi and Odesa Oblast)

– the primaeval beech and old-growth forests of the Carpathians and other regions of Europe (Zakarpattia, Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Khmelnytskyi Oblast)

– the Residence of Bukovyna and Dalmatia Metropolitans (Chernivtsi)

– the Wooden Churches of the Carpathian Region (Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Zakarpattia Oblast)

– the Ancient City of Tauric Chersonese and its Chora (Sevastopol)

As of 10 October 2022, UNESCO has verified war damage to 201 sites, among them 86 religious sites, 13 museums, 37 historic buildings, 37 buildings dedicated to cultural activities, 18 monuments, and 10 libraries, most of which located are in the Donetsk and Kharkiv regions. In one of the latest massive attacks on Ukraine on 10 October, the historical centre of Kyiv was struck. Among the damaged buildings were the Khanenko Museum, the Taras Shevchenko National Museum, the Kyiv City Teacher’s House, Taras Shevchenko National University and Kyiv Art Gallery. When propaganda fails to convince that Ukrainian culture does not exist, Russians try to destroy it with missiles. Sadly, we have to admit that by reason of the constant destruction of our cultural sites, we are losing our cultural heritage, identity and history. That is why Ukrainian people are doing everything to preserve it. They are covering monuments with sandbags, collectively cleaning up the bomb damage, and making plans for the restoration of damaged buildings.

A view shows a building, which city officials and locals said was damaged by recent shelling, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, in Kharkiv, Ukraine March 4, 2022. © Reuters
A monument of the city founder Duke de Richelieu is seen covered with sandbags for protection, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in central Odesa, Ukraine March 9, 2022. © Reuters


Music has always played a vital role in encouraging and boosting morale among Ukrainian people. It also holds the power to bring people together in different ways. Today, we see the growing popularity of Ukrainian folklore songs. Many people will have heard the Ukrainian folk song “Oy u luzi chervona kalyna” (“In the meadow, a red viburnum”). Now, it has gained a new wave of popularity after the performance by Andriy Hlyvnyuk in the first days of the Russian invasion and a cover version performed in support of Ukraine by the cult band Pink Floyd, “Hey, Hey, Rise Up!” (you can listen to this song sung by Ukrainian pop-stars here: Just like centuries ago, Ukrainian people are forced to fight for their freedom and this folk song gives hope and encouragement exactly as it did to their ancestors. The first musical version of the composition, close to the modern text, was created by the famous poet and director Stepan Charnetskyi in 1914 for the play The Sun of Ruin, which was related to the construction of Ukrainian statehood. Some say the first verse is similar to one of the verses of the ancient Cossack song “Razlylysia kruti berezhechki” (“Steep rivers spilt over”). The poetics of the text is simple, yet symbolic. The red viburnum in folklore is usually compared to a girl, as is the state of Ukraine itself. So in singing, “we will raise the viburnum”, the song pledges to raise the state, and rebuild Ukraine from the ashes.

Folk elements also appear in many contemporary Ukrainian songs. All the participants from Ukraine who won or took top spots at the Eurovision Song Contest drew on an ethnic style unique to Ukrainian musical culture, and the whole of Europe was impressed. Ruslana, the winner in 2004, used the legendary Halych instrument trembita; the song of the electro-folk group Go-A, which came fifth in 2021, contains Ukrainian folk music elements like “white voice”, which is an authentic vocal technique. This year’s winning song “Stefania” by the Kalush Orchestra, in which hip-hop combined with Ukrainian folk instruments, in particular, the pipe and the tylinka, became the first rap and the first Ukrainian-language track to win the competition. This again proves that Ukrainian culture is of interest to the whole world and should be preserved and actively developed.

FILE PHOTO: Kalush Orchestra from Ukraine pose for photographers after winning the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest, in Turin, Italy, May 15, 2022. © Reuters


When talking of Ukrainian culture, it is impossible not to mention its fine art, which reflects the vision and aesthetic aspirations of its people. Renowned Ukrainian painters have managed to combine both Ukrainian identity and European styles. One of the most distinguished painters is Mariia Prymachenko, a folk art painter who worked in the naïve style. Her paintings depict folk tales, mystical creatures, marvellous plants and the fight between good and evil. Active across the whole 20th century, her art was heavily influenced by the hardships of two world wars, the Cold War and the Chornobyl disaster. However, in her paintings, there is always a sense of the inseparable unity of nature. Her work “A Dove Has Spread Her Wings and Asks for Peace” became a symbol of Ukrainian protest in Europe. No less remarkable is another Ukrainian painter Ivan Marchuk. The International Academy of Contemporary Art in Rome accepted Ivan Marchuk to the ranks of the “Golden Guild” and elected him an honorary member of the scientific council of the academy. He is also included in the British rating “One Hundred Geniuses of Modernity”, in 72nd place. He is well-known as the creator of the technique of “plyontanism”, which is characterised by high levels of detailed strokes that appear to weave into one another.

Nevertheless, during the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russians have repeatedly hit museums and galleries and stolen rare collections. Russian occupiers took exhibits from almost 40 Ukrainian museums. Damages due to looting and destruction of cultural objects are estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars. In an interview with the Associated Press, Ukrainian Minister of Culture Oleksandr Tkachenko reported that the Russians had taken the priceless Hun diadem from the Melitopol City Local History Museum. More than 2,000 exhibits were stolen by the Russian military from Mariupol museums. Ancient icons, a unique handwritten scroll of the Torah, and a 200-year-old Bible are among the stolen items. In addition, the invaders took away the works of artists Arkhip Kuindzhi and Ivan Aivazovsky. A collection of 25 of Maria Prymachenko`s works almost burned down when the Russian military shelled a museum in the village of Ivankovo, Kyiv region.

LVIV, UKRAINE – JULY 27, 2022 – Visitors attend the opening of the Maria Prymachenko: I am Giving to Ukraine exhibition at the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum in Lviv, western Ukraine. The art pieces that belong to the private collection of Ukrainian art historian, and academician Eduard Dymshyts highlight the last decade of the creative life of outstanding Ukrainian naive artist Maria Prymachenko (1908 /1909-1997). © Lyseiko Markiian/Ukrinform/ABACA via Reuters Connect


Traditional clothes deserve special attention as well. Usually, these are decorated with embroidery. In certain regions, the embroidery differs through its particular techniques and palette. Recently, clothes with traditional Ukrainian symbols have broken beyond the country’s borders to achieve popularity across the world. Vita Kin, a Ukrainian fashion designer and creator of embroidered dresses, presented a capsule collection in collaboration with the Gucci Vault this year. The capsule included dresses supplemented with national ornaments and patterns. Another talented Ukrainian designer is Lilia Poustovit. Her masterpieces are always in demand, and she was the one who changed the stereotypes about ethnicity in fashion, with her collections reflecting the folk style and themes of Ukrainian sacred symbols.  This May, Young European Ambassadors organised the EU-Ukraine Dialogue Initiative dedicated to Ukrainian fine arts. Jasmin Darwich, Young European Ambassador in Moldova, describes the picture ‘I am Ukrainian’.

‘The girl in the picture wears traditional embroidered Ukrainian clothing. We all know that embroidery is not something that anyone can do. You need skill and patience. As we can see, Ukrainians today are a symbol of patience in times of war and assertion of its independence.’

Jasmin Darwich, Young European Ambassador in Moldova
Dialogue Initiative EU-Ukraine meeting, May 31st, 2022

The European Union has demonstrated its commitment to preserving Ukrainian culture. Mariya Gabriel, the EU Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, expressing solidarity with the Ukrainian artists and all culture professionals, stated: “They are the beating heart of Ukraine, and their work epitomises the Ukrainian history, identity, language, and hopes for the future. They are also part of our common European identity, made of a mosaic of cultures, in full respect of cultural diversity.” The EU institutions implement various projects to help Ukrainians protect and develop their cultural identity. The European Competence Centre for Cultural Heritage (4CH) has launched “Save the Ukraine Monuments” to support the digital documentation of Ukrainian cultural heritage, preserve its memory and support the future restoration of assets from the damage caused by the war. The European Commission also supports its Member States in delivering emergency equipment for the protection of Ukrainian cultural heritage under the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. EU4Culture is a project that aspires to help culture be a movement for growth and social development through the support for the creation and implementation of local cultural development strategies and the provision of grants. The “Creatives Unite” platform collects and publishes initiatives in favour of Ukrainian artists and creatives by European networks and other beneficiaries supported through the Creative Europe programme.

To sum up, Ukrainians have contributed to the development and enrichment not only of European but also world culture. As in the past, cultural specificities help Ukrainians in the struggle for freedom and independence, expressing Ukrainian identity, never-ceasing patience and faith.

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