On Loss, and What Can and Cannot Be Saved   

Ukraine in Focus

The kinds of losses in this war are overwhelming: people, limbs, homes, environment, art, culture––the list is endless. How do people process these losses and learn to live with them? Will there be anything left to restore in the end?

In his recent, most heartbreaking article in The Guardian writer Oleksandr Mykhed, who serves in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, reflects on the inestimable cost of this war––the endless tragedy of losing people:

“Blow after blow, shock after shock batters our consciousness. Tragedies that take your breath away––and each subsequent one instantly relegates the previous horror further back into the annals of time. It is like every week you are being plunged into yet unknown depths of the ageing process.”

Writing about his friends, whom “Russia is taking one by one” amidst seeming indifference from the outside world, Mykhed confesses to not being able to write requiems for his fallen friends any longer: “I understand how important it is to preserve their memory. But it is becoming difficult for me to put pain into letters […] Because Russia is taking away my friends and loved ones from me personally. Tearing out my heart piece by piece.”

The poetess Iya Kiva, who lost her home during Russia’s occupation of her hometown Donets’k, describes her long-suppressed trauma of home loss in her recent article in Posestry. Together with the loss of her home, she lost the idea of home, and with it, any possibility of living without nightmares, panic attacks, and other physical symptoms of loss.

“The house where I lived for twenty-five years stands with its windows smashed out, like a confused blind man at an unfamiliar crossroad. It is freezing and snowing in Donets’k. And I can't even go there. I can't help it in any way. I don't have children, but for some reason it seems to me that it feels so impossible to help your own child, to save him or her, to protect them. Perhaps, when people told us that our homes are fortresses, they were not being sincere. Our homes are children whom we cannot protect from war and forced and compulsory resettlement in almost every generation.” (original in Ukrainian)

Sometimes a destroyed home invokes mourning even where there are no owners left. The art historian Yuliia Manukian, in her article in Dwutygodnik (available in Ukrainian and Polish), brings to light the story of Polina Raiko’s house, which was flooded and utterly destroyed after Russian forces blew up the Kakhovka dam in July 2023. Raiko was an understated yet brilliant representative of Ukrainian naїve art, whose painted house-museum was a testament to the vivid talent and cultural heritage of Ukraine’s southern cultural history. Raiko’s life was punctuated by one tragedy after another, and ornamental painting on the walls of her village house was the only thing that could soothe the pain. Over a decade after her death, the house was finally registered as a Ukrainian “cultural landmark” in 2021, but already by July 2023 it was ruined by the flood. As Manukian eloquently put it, “We were long afraid that the house would be blown up to the sky by a missile. But it was a different element that killed it.”

The loss of architectural landmarks from flooding, shelling, and bombing is both an individual and a collective loss. They are treasured by people who have emotional connection to them through personal memories. At the same time, it is a great blow to the cultural heritage of people, their art scene, and collective memory. In her article in e-flux, the art historian Ievgeniia Gubkina writes about the destruction of the Club of Culture of Railway Workers in Kharkiv, a “prime example of constructivist architecture.” The building was targeted twice: once in late March 2022, when it was damaged and lost its windows as a result of a Russian missile, and again in August 2022, when the interior and structural elements were destroyed after a second missile. For Gubkina, architecture is the most vulnerable of all types of cultural heritage as it is impossible to evacuate, hide, or wrap it in a protective cloth. It is also vulnerable because it cannot be stolen, and thus will most surely be destroyed.

Some of our losses are hard to grasp as they are forever immortalized in routine objects that we carry with us every day for no good reason. In Reporters, Olena Stiazhkina reflects on this projection of loss onto such daily object as house keys that she has carried for years, ever since she had to leave her home in occupied Donets’k. The keys to entire universes, universes that will never be inhabited again; such acts are fleeting windows on to the invisible yet  horrendous losses Ukrainians experience daily. Stiazhkina contemplates how many keys were taken away by Russia over the past centuries:

“These are not the first keys taken away by Muscovy. These are not the first keys that will never open anything again, because there is nothing to open and often no-one to open. It's just that those old ones were waiting for us in attics, in mass graves, and sometimes somewhere in Siberia. We did not know that they could be spoken to. Or rather, only now do we know how difficult it is to deal with them, how difficult it is to forget, and how difficult it is to speak. How hard it is to just look at them and how impossible it is to get rid of them. It is not a fact that time heals people. But it is a fact that it definitely does not heal keys.” (original in Ukrainian)

As we gather, categorize, enumerate, and classify our losses, we also pay attention to what can and cannot be redeemed. While philosopher Vasyl Cherepanyn rightly points out in a piece for the Körber Stiftung the privileged position of those who have the possibility, “granted by Ukrainian lives holding the frontline,” of delving into “post-war” recovery fantasies, it is also true that for many Ukrainians, talks of reconstruction are sources of hope. Lost lives, to our greatest regret, cannot be brought back to life. But together with loss, we witness an unprecedented recovery of layers of Ukrainian culture that seemed long erased. Such are the efforts of the writer Sasha Dovzhyk, who brings the voice of Ukraine’s legend Lesia Ukraiinka to the Western audience, as demonstrated by her article “Lesia Ukrainka – Restoring a Ukrainian Icon” (Byline Supplement, republished by the IWM). Such are the efforts of numerous people who contacted Manukian and offered help in salvaging what remained from Polina Raiko’s house. Such are the efforts of Kateryna Iakovlenko, writing for e-flux, who learns from Ukraine’s social memory, and particularly from Crimean Tatars’ reconstruction efforts, on how to reconstruct not only cities and buildings but “knowledge, transformed and salvaged visual cultural traditions, and the materiality of archives and art that are affected by violence.”