We Will Fight for Every Brick of Ukraine

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, thousands of buildings across the country have been destroyed by cruise missiles, aerial bombs and shells. Entire cities — Mariupol, Izium and Volnovakha — are almost demolished. In Kharkiv, some of the most important architectural monuments of the Soviet era and the prerevolutionary period have suffered extensive damage. A number of UNESCO World Heritage sites and architectural treasures are under threat.

If, in the first days of the invasion, the Russians declared that they were targeting only military infrastructure, it quickly became clear that they were hitting buildings suffused with the memory and history of the people who lived in them: residential buildings, kindergartens, office centers, theaters. There are thousands of open wounds across the country. The worst thing is that you never know where the next Russian bomb will land.

After Russia launched its attack on Ukraine, many Ukrainians I know who were involved in protecting cultural heritage stepped up to defend the country as soldiers and volunteers because they had learned in peacetime how to protect what belonged to them — not just territory but also millions of small memories of walks home under a peaceful sky, good neighborliness and mutual support.

Before 2014, we rarely saw public displays of interest in cultural heritage in Ukraine. The Maidan revolution that year, in which mass protests led to the ouster of a pro-Russian president, kick-started the development of civil society based on Western values, like freedom of expression and self-determination. In defending these values, Ukrainians learned to be responsible for public spaces.

Young Ukrainian intellectuals — artists, researchers, filmmakers, cultural managers — became involved in documenting art and culture throughout the country. After Russia annexed Crimea and helped occupy part of the Donbas after the Maidan revolution, citing fictitious “fascism” and the need to protect the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine, the processes of decolonization of the country’s culture intensified.

Preservation activists felt that this was their new purpose: to reclaim the history of Ukraine and its legacy, to destroy the colonial patterns of the Soviet Union.

One striking example of this newfound mission sits on a busy street in one of Kyiv’s most popular neighborhoods: a beautiful building covered with dead vines. Pieces of the facade are lying around it, and parts of iron ceilings are sticking out of the columns. This building was damaged not by a Russian bomb but by real estate developers months before the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The modernist building, with the bright name Flowers of Ukraine, was built in Kyiv in the 1980s for an institution studying flowers. Grapevines were planted on its facade and grew across the building over three decades. In the summer of 2021, a Kyiv construction company received permission to remodel much of the building and replace it with a shopping center and offices; the company started by cutting off the grapevines and destroying the facade with excavator buckets. This came as a shock to the citizens of Kyiv.

Dozens of Kyivans took to the streets to protect the building, and in a short time, the protesters managed to halt its complete destruction. But the broken facade of the building, which sits in the middle of the city center, continued to grimly remind us that Ukrainian cultural heritage is fragile.

The Flowers of Ukraine episode left a depressing impression. Passing by, I often thought that it reminded me of a house destroyed by war, which I saw more than once in the Donbas and Iraq.

A nurse outside her destroyed apartment building in Mariupol, Ukraine.Credit…Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

Every piece of Kyiv’s space is filled with memories that form a living history, passed from hand to hand through generations, that is important to preserve and protect. Before the war, as soon as it became known that a Ukrainian building of historical significance was threatened with destruction, citizens immediately ran to it and stood up for its defense. And the fight for every single building taught us to fight for our homes, cities and country.

Looking at the news about the destruction of Mariupol, Kharkiv and Kyiv, we hear many voices and the same mantra: After the war, we will rebuild it all; we will take back our cities and restore what cannot be destroyed — our culture.

Katerina Sergatskova is the editor in chief of Zaborona Media and a co-founder of the 2402 Foundation, which helps journalists in Ukraine. She has reported from occupied territories in Ukraine and Iraq. She is the author of “Goodbye, ISIS: What Remains Is Future.”

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