“Only since regaining our independence in 1991, we started to rediscover our history, regaining our cultural identity. We just started to feel ourselves as Ukrainians,” Ihor Poshyvailo explained to Matt Galloway in March on CBC’s The Current. Thanks to cultural defenders like Ihor Poshyvailo, the Russian invasion of Ukraine will not spell the end of Ukraine’s current historical reclamation.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, 2022, Ihor Poshyvailo and his museum compatriots immediately saw that an organization was needed to save cultural heritage. So, together, they formed the Heritage Emergency Response Initiative (HERI). “….we created this initiative because we understood that this war is not only for the territory,” Ihor explained to CBC. “This war is for heritage.”
HERI is a grassroots organization that responds to crises, protects museum collections, documents cultural heritage losses, coordinates with humanitarian aid relief organizations, and distributes specialized materials for the protection of cultural heritage across Ukraine. According to Linda Norris, Senior Specialist in Methodology and Practice for the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, Ihor’s greatest strength is his ability to connect with people—he stays in touch and knows what people need. Ihor has undertaken programming all over Ukraine and has united many people in the cultural heritage field and beyond. Since its founding, several European NGOs such as ICOM France, Blue Shield, ICOM Germany, and the Network of European Organisations have partnered with HERI to distribute materials to Ukrainian museums. CCCHU is pleased to be partnering with HERI to send two hundred fire protection blankets to four museums in Ukraine this month.
Ihor further explained to The Current’s Matt Galloway, “Because the Kremlin regime, the Putin regime justifying the so-called military operation, declared some targets, and amongst them was our history, our historical memory, our cultural identity, the revolution of dignity in particular. He clearly stated that[‘s his] mission. The mission of [the] Russian army is to stop the processes initiated by the revolution of dignity. And that means that all those democratisation movements for Ukrainians, independence for rediscovering our history, [and] rediscovering our identity now they are under threat. And that is why we tried to reunite and to respond.”
The Euromaidan or Maidan Uprising was a wave of demonstrations and civil unrest in Ukraine beginning November 21st, 2013, with large protests in Maidan or Independence Square in Kyiv. The protests were sparked by the Ukrainian government’s sudden decision not to sign the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement, instead choosing closer ties to Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union. Ukraine’s parliament had overwhelmingly approved finalizing the agreement with the EU, while Russia pressured Ukraine to reject it. In addition, the protesters opposed what they saw as widespread government corruption, the influence of oligarchs, abuse of power, and violation of human rights in Ukraine. The violent dispersal of protesters by riot police caused further anger. Another series of riots occurred across downtown Kyiv on December 1st, 2013, in response to a police crackdown on Euromaidan protesters and journalists.
Ihor was the Deputy Director of the National Centre of Folk Culture in Kyiv during the Euromaidan. The Centre’s staff agreed unanimously to support the protests. On December 11th, after riot police attacked protestors in Independence Square, the museum published an official statement on their Facebook page and website supporting the protesters. That statement said that the museum officially supported the civic choice of the Ukrainian people—Euro integration. As a cultural and educational institution, they chose to recognize the importance of human rights for civil society and an independent state. As a center of folk culture, they supported the traditional values of their ancestors—freedom, faith, honor, democracy, and humanism.
The Euromaidan led to the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. The government unsuccessfully suppressed dissent, and in February 2014, Ukrainian security forces opened fire on protesters in Independence Square, killing scores and wounding hundreds. With his political base disintegrating, President Yanukovych released former President Tymoshenko, scheduled snap presidential elections for May 2014, and ultimately fled the country ahead of an impeachment vote and a raft of criminal charges.
In January 2014, Ihor Poshyvailo, Vasyl Rozhko, Mykola Skyba, Andriy Kotlyarchuk, Tymur Bobrovsky, and Kateryna Chuyeva, with the support of the Self-Defense of the Maidan, the Ukrainian National Committee of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), and the Ukrainian National Committee of Blue Shield, founded the Maidan Museum in Kyiv. They wanted to preserve evidence of the Maidan Uprising for future generations and began collecting the material and intangible culture of the civil resistance. Among the more than 4,000 objects collected, now held in a secret location, are homemade flags, protest banners, hand-decorated tents, weapons like Molotov cocktails, baseball bats, and purloined police shields. The museum’s mission is to “preserve, present and spread, in Ukraine and abroad, the history of Ukrainians’ struggle for national and personal freedom, dignity, human and civil rights, as well as revitalization of the public initiatives for establishing democratic society in Ukraine.” Ihor is currently the Director of the Maidan Museum.
Since February, Ihor has collected objects symbolic of Ukrainians’ current fight for independence. One such item is a rooster-shaped ceramic jug liberated from the remains of a shelled apartment block in Borodyanka, a town once inhabited by over 13,000 Ukrainian, now under attack. Using a hydraulic crane, Poshyvailo’s team rescued the jug from atop an undamaged kitchen cabinet, and it has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. Other artifacts collected by the Maidan Museum’s staff include children’s textbooks, clothing, and homemade white flags of surrender used by civilians escaping by car. In March, Ihor explained to The Guardian newspaper, “These objects can become small exhibitions that tell the story of those ordinary people’s lives, of their deaths. They can demonstrate the cruelty but also explain why Ukrainians are fighting so fiercely for their freedom.”
When speaking to Matt Galloway for CBC’s The Current, Ihor praised Canada, particularly Ukrainian Canadians, for keeping Ukrainian culture alive. Now, Ihor is focusing on protecting cultural heritage in Ukraine. “Yeah, the real goal is how to save our cultural heritage as much as possible. We are speaking about millions of items of collections of museum....We are speaking about thousands of cultural monuments and cultural sites, historical sites, ecological sites.”
You can support Ihor Poshyvailo and HERI’s work by donating <hyperlink> to the Canadian Coalition for Cultural Heritage in Ukraine.
Read the Letter of Appeal from the Maidan Museum (Ukraine) to the Global Cultural Community
Learn more about Ihor Poshyvailo and his team: