Dublin Book Fair’s panel on Ukrainian culture: A vital discussion on preserving heritage and identity under siege


You see an error in the text - select the fragment and press Ctrl + Enter

During the Dublin Book Fair in November, a panel titled ‘Culture in a Time of War’ at The Royal Irish Academy delved into pressing questions: Why does Russia destroy Ukrainian cultural heritage? What roles can authors and intellectuals play, and what is the role of culture during wartime? How did the landscape of Ukrainian writing change because of the invasion?


The panel for the discussion included Tetyana Teren, a journalist, cultural manager, Executive Director of PEN Ukraine, and curator; Iryna Starovoyt, a poet, essayist, and Professor of Cultural Studies; and Olha Mukha, curator of the Wounded Culture project at Territory of Terror Museum and cultural analyst at PEN International.



Cultural agency under threat


Opening the discussion with a poignant and comprehensive report entitled “Wounded Culture: Museum in a time of war,” Mukha shed light on the dire situation faced by Ukrainian museums as they try to preserve their cultural heritage amid the ongoing conflict, from the occupied territories to areas well behind the front lines. “There is no place in Ukraine where you can use the word ‘It’s safe here,” she reflected.


Setting the tone, she highlighted a tragic incident that happened only three days before the event at the Odesa National Art Museum. Originally planning to celebrate its 124th anniversary with free entry, the museum was struck with Russian rockets and mortars the night before. The Nov. 5 attack resulted in significant damage to the building and six exhibitions.


She went on to provide a start overview, emphasizing that the attack wasn’t an isolated case but rather representative of the challenges faced by Ukrainian museums on a daily basis. From Feb. 24, 2022, to Aug 25, 2023, a staggering 823 cultural heritage objects, including over 70 museums and galleries, were reported damaged or destroyed. Meanwhile, UNESCO has verified damage to 295 sites since Feb. 24 2022, including 124 religious sites, 110 buildings of historical and/or artistic interest, 28 museums, 19 monuments, 13 libraries, and one archive. “Despite gaining political recognition, Ukraine’s cultural agency remains under threat even in such a context, and there is a long journey ahead’,” she told the crowd.


As a museum curator specializing in oral history, Olha Mukha explained that Ukrainian culture suffers not only from physical attacks on cultural heritage but also from the targeting of individuals engaged in cultural pursuits. She noted that many cultural professionals halted their work to join the Armed Forces or had lost their lives defending their institutions.


She also highlighted the resilience of Ukrainian cultural institutions, particularly the Museum Crisis Centre with the Museum of Terror in the core, established a week after the invasion. The center, a collaborative effort involving NGOs and state institutions, unites over 190 museums from 18 regions, and exemplifies trust as a crucial currency in war times, facilitating mutual aid, protection and support among cultural entities.


Olha Mukha emphasized that their project represents a non-violent act of cultural resistance against colonial practices, with a focus on decolonizing memory. She pointed out the importance of challenging toxic Russian narratives that diminish or exoticize Ukrainian culture, portraying it as naïve or primitive, often relegated to the realm of “cute rednecks.” This effort, she explained, is a critical part of the decolonization process.





Sharing a personal anecdote, Mukha revealed, “I only learned a few years ago that my grandmother was kept in this transition prison our museum is based in. Digging deeper I discovered the whole family had to flee because they were performing the Jewish plays in a private theater they possessed. Meanwhile, my whole life I was reassured that this side of the family belonged to the very ordinary peasants. I heard about my opera singer’s grand-aunt only after her death. They were four siblings who couldn’t see each other for long 25 years and never talked about the events they had to survive. This is how deep this trauma of memory lies. This war had started not in 2022, and not even in 2014, but centuries ago…’



RELATED: Victoria Amelina: No words are needed after a tragedy, all words slide into a whirlpool


During a discussion about the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Tetyana Teren recalled the initial reports of Ukrainian cultural sites — including museums, churches, and libraries — being damaged or destroyed by Russian missiles. She cited examples such as Uspensky Cathedral in Kharkiv, Ivankiv Museum in the Kyiv Region, and the Skovoroda Museum in the Kharkiv Region. As per information from the Ukrainian Minister of Culture and Information Policy, over 1,700 cultural objects in Ukraine have been ruined or damaged since Feb. 24, 2022.


Teren expressed her personal sense of dread: “I remember my feeling of fear – not just because all these places are part of my life and my memories, but also because I know very well what the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union did for Ukrainian culture. For many centuries Russia has been trying to erase our culture and language, to destroy our identity, to rewrite our history. This war is just a part of the policy of colonialism towards Ukraine. If you understand these reasons, you can understand that this war is not just against Ukraine, not just against Ukrainian culture and identity, this is the war against our common values,’ – she said.


The role of cultural initiatives during wartime


Tetyana thinks that the main role of writers in the war is to be Ukrainians first and strive to be as helpful and useful as possible under the circumstances. That’s why 13 members of PEN Ukraine enlisted in the Armed Forces of Ukraine and many others became volunteers, aiding both the military and civilians. An important aspect of their work is also documenting war crimes, especially Russia’s war crimes against culture and media. In their quest to capture the essence of the war experience, these authors are gathering diaries, poems, and stories from these turbulent times.


RELATED: Words and Bullets project – interviews with authors and journalists who joined the army


Since June 2022, PEN Ukraine has been actively organizing volunteer trips to the frontline and recently liberated areas of Ukraine. They prepare extensive materials, newsletters, and reports for international audiences and endeavor to deliver humanitarian aid and essential supplies to the army in these regions. Additionally, they have initiated support for Ukrainian libraries that suffered damage due to Russian aggression. To date, they have distributed over 12,000 new Ukrainian-language books and have partnered with Book Aid International in the United Kingdom, which has committed to sending 25,000 new English-language books.


PEN Ukraine also arranges book-related events in these libraries and shelters for the local communities. Tetyana emphasized the importance of such initiatives. “And all the time I feel that it’s so important for us to continue speaking, exchanging our experiences and stories about the war. And sometimes just to hug each other. Culture and literature give us a space for that,’ – Tetyana reflected.




Cultural initiatives during wartime play a crucial role in forging connections between Ukraine and the rest of the world. PEN Ukraine has begun inviting foreign intellectuals to Kyiv, with some even joining trips to frontline and liberated areas. So far, they have hosted authors and journalists from Italy, the UK, Latvia, and France, and are anticipating visits from authors from Spain and the Netherlands.


How Ukrainian writing has transformed during the war


Iryna Starovoyt, discussing the transformation in Ukrainian writing during the war, posed a critical question: “What can poets transform the pain syndrome into? How can it be converted into transformative, creative, transcending energy?”


She is convinced that Ukrainians have managed to transition from a narrative of tragedy to that of an epic. ‘Tragedy is about: I’m sorry, but it’s too late, your fate is predestined, we could do nothing and nobody can do anything about your very tragic fate: it’s all over. The epic is: Everything is very bad, yes, it’s tragic, but we can still try to make a difference, each of us can make a little bit of difference, and maybe all together it will be extremely big and we’ll see this difference,’ she explained. In her view, this shift in narrative is significant both within and beyond Ukrainian society.


RELATED: Women at war: Acclaimed Ukrainian novel bridges fragility, mysticism and resilience


Iryna observed that over the past two to three decades, memory studies and work in Europe and the Western world have largely focused on victimhood, competitive victimization, and various historical tragedies that cannot be denied, corrected, or prevented from recurring. With current events indicating a tragic repetition of history, she posed a critical question: “What are we doing in these circumstances? Are we merely standing by, saying ‘I can do nothing,’ or are we trying to become active subjects of history?”


Iryna referred to Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of ‘ahimsa,’ which was often translated as “nonviolence” but originally meant “fight with the evil.” She believes that culture, as a sensory system, should help distinguish good from evil. “If culture fails to identify evil, it’s not fulfilling its purpose and isn’t mature. In this situation, culture has proven itself by being inclusive of all human impulses and resisting inhumanity,” she explained. Iryna observed how, amidst the cruelty of the war, Ukrainians maintained their humanity, a significant feat in today’s world marred by immense tragedy.



She also noted how 20th-century dictators like Hitler and Stalin sought total control over narratives and silenced victims, creating a post-generational trauma. “Dictators like Putin may think they control the narrative, but they don’t,” Iryna asserted, praising the role of social media and the internet in spreading diverse voices and discerning truth from falsehood. “For writers in hotspots like Ukraine, our role is to amplify our people’s self-narration during catastrophe. There’s an epic unfolding in Ukraine, and as writers, we see its scale and aim to convey the yet untold. Poetry becomes a forensic tool, aiding in the recovery and preservation of evidence. Despite dehumanization attempts in the 20th century and now, we have safeguarded our souls. Being targeted doesn’t render us helpless; we can defend ourselves and repel total destruction with thoughtful care. This truth, both ancient and new, acts as a vaccine, offering immunity to be passed to other places and future generations,” Iryna concluded.


The event was hosted by Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann and the Ukrainian-Irish Cultural Platform, and was dedicated to the memory of Victoria Amelina, Ukrainian writer and human rights activist, who was killed by a Russian missile in Kramatorsk, Donetsk Region, Ukraine in July, 2023. Earlier in spring Victoria was also invited to take part in this event, before her life was prematurely ended by the Russian attack.