Kyiv’s shrouded and absent statues tell a story of war and defiance

As Russian troops rolled toward Kyiv in February 2022, millions of Ukrainians fled, but many of those who stayed rushed to protect the country’s cultural heritage. Statues were encased in sandbags, monuments boarded up, sculptures wrapped, and framed paintings taped over.

Nearly 2½ years later, away from the front lines but still under constant threat of bombardment, many statues remain covered, some have been removed and others have been freed from their sandbags. This incongruous mix has taken on new meaning for some Kyiv residents as the country grapples with a changing sense of identity, a gasping economy and an unrelenting foe.

In Kyiv’s Sophia Square, vines curl around a statue of revered Cossack leader Bohdan Khmelnytsky, as his head rises defiantly above the protective boards around him. They don’t look as if they would withstand a strong wind, let alone a Russian missile.

“This reminds us once again of the war,” said Polina Chebotareva, 19, a law student, walking past Khmelnytsky. She said she feels “pain” when she looks at the city’s covered monuments.

Across the Dnieper River, Prince Volodymyr, celebrated for bringing Christianity to Kyiv, stands completely exposed on his plinth. Mykola Lysenko, a Ukrainian composer, is better-protected — only his scalp emerges above rotting sandbags.

Volunteers and public workers were the ones who initially protected Ukraine’s monuments and artworks, often at their own expense and as a temporary measure, explained Maryna Solovyova, head of heritage protection at Kyiv’s City Council.

For some statues, the authorities have since installed protective screens adorned with line drawings and a text describing the figures within. The City Council is also looking for “long-term protection” for the heritage pieces, said Solovyova. “At first, we thought it would be, well, not that long.”

Princess Olha, a Kyivan ruler, and Dante Alighieri, the famed medieval Italian writer, were freed from their sandbags last year after their porous white marble bodies started gathering mold and turning green.

The invasion also galvanized a state program of “decolonization” and “de-Russification” that began in 2015. Communist stars have been removed and hammer-and-sickles replaced.

For 10 years, Zhenya Molyar, a Ukrainian artist and activist, insisted that Soviet monuments, some of them Ukrainian-made, be protected and given context. “But now I understand how triggering they could be,” he said, suggesting that they could be put in a museum.

A rectangle of uneven ground marks where the statue of Russian nationalist poet Alexander Pushkin once sat on a plinth in central Kyiv’s Ivan Bahrianyi Park. Severed hoofs are all that’s left of Red Army commander Mykola Shchors and his bronze horse.

The empty spaces “can indicate the weakness of the state and society,” said Anton Drobovych, head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory. “[They] should be used in the interests of the community after extensive expert and public hearings.”

But Olha Balashova, an art historian who runs a wartime contemporary-art archive, disagrees, arguing that the spaces should be left empty. “We really need the space, the time, and discussion in the new society to just think about the future,” she said.

On a highway into Kyiv, black spray paint still covers location names on signs, originally obscured to confuse Russian troops as they advanced toward the city. For Balashova, the signs are not just a mark of protection from the invasion but an indication of being on Ukrainian homeland.

“We don’t need signs to navigate through our native space, native city, but invaders, they need this,” she said.

Serhiy Morgunov contributed reporting.

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