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The longest night at the museum: how determined Ukraine locals saved their heritage

In war, the loss of history and culture is often overlooked, eclipsed by so many other tragedies. Valuable in its own right, it is also a powerful symbol of identity. Jenny Cai reports on the impact of Russian bombardment of the Ukraine city of Chernihiv earlier this year, and on the committed locals who took refuge in — and worked tirelessly to save — their museum and its treasures.

The longest night at the museum: how determined Ukraine locals saved their heritage

Image supplied: Serhiy Layevsky

Words by Jenny Cai
 

On May 7, 2022, Russian forces attacked Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, and a missile struck the museum dedicated to the 18th century Ukrainian philosopher Hryhoriy Skovoroda. In the raging fire, this century-old building was almost completely destroyed.

Russia’s invasion has put museums across Ukraine at risk from attacks that are swift and sudden. The question of how to protect tens of thousands of collections carrying the country’s historical and cultural memory has needed urgent answers.

For many museum workers, it has presented them with a terrible choice between their own safety  — even their  lives — and the preservation of the country’s precious heritage.

First day and night. For Serhiy Layevsky, the director of Chernihiv Historical Museum, war started at 5am on February 24. The city of Chernihiv is in the north, near the capital Kyiv, and only about 70 kilometres from Russian troops stationed in Belarus.

It was winter and the sky was still dark. Rockets and shells hit the city while people were still sleeping.

Woken by the sound of distant explosions, Layevsky urged his wife Lili to get up. “War has started, we are being bombed! Let’s get ready really fast and go to the museum.”

It wasn’t so much shocking as surreal, he recalls. Russian troops had already crossed the border to besiege the city of around 300,000 people.

Ukrainian officials were instructing citizens to stay home or head for bomb shelters unless they worked in critical infrastructure. But Layevsky’s first reaction was to go to the museum: for him, it is home.

Serhiy Layevsky, the director of Chernihiv Historical Museum, regards it as home. Image supplied: Serhiy Layevsky

Serhiy Layevsky, the director of Chernihiv Historical Museum, regards it as home. Image supplied: Serhiy Layevsky

Born and raised in Chernihiv, he joined its archaeological excavations as a primary school student, worked as an archaeologist for the museum from 1985 and, by 1999, had become its director.

“The museum has been my home for the past 40 years. I am responsible for protecting the museum. I could not leave this task for anyone else,” he says.

To his surprise, almost the entire staff turned up that morning. There were around 80 people; most are elderly women. Confused and panicked, they were also worried about the museum’s irreplaceable collection.

The museum was established more than a century ago and houses thousands of precious artifacts — from treasures retrieved from 10th century Viking tombs and manuscripts from the Ukrainian Cossack period in the 17th century to national costumes and samples of embroidery from past to present.

In the aftermath of  the Crimea conflict in 2014, the museum prepared a thorough emergency evacuation plan, but with Chernihiv besieged and the looming airstrikes, leaving town with the collections was no longer an option.

Layevsky realised that, with Ukraine and Russian forces fighting just a short distance away, the only safe place for the collection was in the building, barricaded in locations like the basement.

“Everyone has families, children, grandchildren. I made it clear for our staff that I could not [ask], and had no intention at all to make them stay at the museum,” he says.

But staff stayed and began to dismantle the exhibits. Tens of thousands of valuable objects made from paper, wood, metal and fabric needed to be carefully packed in specific ways.

The most difficult piece to dismantle was a silver frame of an Orthodox icon created in 1695 by an unknown Ukrainian silver master. A valuable and majestic work, 3.5 metres high and made of silver plates, the icon has survived countless wars and conflicts, including World War I and II.

The icon was packed into three boxes, each weighing around 100 kilograms and hauled by hand to a storage space on the second floor, as it was too big to go into the basement.

Air raid alarms sounded non-stop. All Layevsky and his fellow museum workers could do was “pay attention to where the shelling and bombing came from, how the missiles were flying, where and when they exploded”. Then, they stashed the exhibits in rooms as far from shelling and bombing as possible.

Every time an exhibit was packed away, Layevsky spoke to it, silently, from his heart.  “It will be ok, you will be showcased again, in a brand-new place in the coming future.”

He stayed in the museum basement for the first, freezing night. Electricity and heating was cut; it was just -15 Celsius outside.

He did not sleep. Missiles flew overhead and Ukrainian forces were engaging in artillery duels with the invaders. Layevsky listened for a long time, “trying to figure out who was shelling whom”.

The only conversation he recalls from that night was a telephone call to his daughter, Stasya, pregnant and living in Israel with her family. He did not want her to worry and promised that he would stay in touch.

“I promised that nothing bad would happen to us. I felt that my daughter believed me.”

Keep calm, and do not go mad. In the first two days of the war, museum employees prioritised packing away the most valuable exhibits. Then they lingered, preserving more items, with a shared sense that remaining with the collections was the right thing to do. Keeping vigil.

As the shelling intensified in Chernihiv over the week, tens of thousands of citizens, including most of the museum workers, decided to leave.

After February 25, only six people, including Layevsky and his wife, remained at the museum. They moved in full time, continuing the painstaking task of dismantling the exhibits.

Locals carry precious artifacts to the basement for safety. Image supplied: Serhiy Layevsky

Locals carry precious artifacts to the basement for safety. Image supplied: Serhiy Layevsky

The basement became their bomb shelter. There was no water, electricity nor a system for getting rid of mounting piles of garbage and waste. But more civilians whose homes were destroyed found their way to the museum for shelter. Volunteers brought in  water, medicines, and other necessities.

“The hardest thing was to keep calm, and not to go mad,” says Layevsky. Most people who came to the museums were ordinary civilians, their only experience of war coming from books, television and stories. What war meant for them now was continuous fear.

Throughout his life and work, Layevsky had studied the history of war. He told people that the most important thing was to continue doing the ordinary things that they would do in their everyday life: sweeping and washing the floor, watering the flowers.

“Have faith in our victory, but do not try to estimate what will happen tomorrow, live in today, step by step, concentrating on it,” he says.

Every day started the same way for Layevsky. He would emerge from the basement and walk a circuit of the courtyard, taking stock. At first light, around 9am, others would join him to get some air. Sometimes bombs were exploding in the distance; sometimes close by. People stopped checking calendars and time was counted as “the tenth day of the war, the eleventh day of the war…”.

People kept to their basic routines: Cleaning, taking out the garbage, cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When there was electricity, great batches of food were cooked in the ovens and stored away.

People sometimes left to check on their homes,  relatives and friends. The basement was cleaned with bactericidal lamps every day. With many people falling ill, such measures were vital to prevent mass outbreaks.

“Between the shelling, we tried to live a full life: giving lectures, playing the guitar,” says Layevsky.

“One day we invited a hairdresser who did hairstyles for many men and women. Then, we did the same during the shelling.”

With the city under a  5pm daily curfew, each afternoon the basement would be  gradually filled with people again. Layevsky would gather everyone together, spending about 20 minutes reporting  “about the events that happened that day in Chernihiv, in the region, in Ukraine and around the world.

“One main thing we knew for sure – Russian soldiers were not going to enter Chernihiv. We believed in it and that’s how it happened.”

Confronting fear. Before the war, Layevsky saw himself as a calm person, with “nerves made of steel”.

Over the long interview with The Citizen, his face is solemn and his voice steady. But then, he takes a deep breath when he recalls March 6.

At nightfall, with the last light quickly fading, Layevsky was walking with his wife across the front yard of the museum, towards the entrance of the basement.

Damage caused by Russian shelling. Image supplied: Serhiy Layevsky

Damage caused by Russian shelling. Image supplied: Serhiy Layevsky

There was a loud explosion, and debris rained down. Was it a bomb, or did someone step on a mine? Layevsky could not tell. He imagined more bombs to follow.

“The fear crippled my arms and tried to cripple the whole body, several seconds dragging by like hours or days.”

When he went to the yard next day, he saw that it was indeed a bomb that had struck one side of the museum. A wall had separated him and his wife from the impact, and likely saved their lives.

On April 5, the Russians  withdrew from Chernihiv and moved eastward to support troops in the Donbas region. For Layevsky, that morning was strangely silent.

“All the time, something was flying over our heads – bombs were making that characteristic swishing sound, shells had that already familiar rustling sound, missiles all followed by defeating explosions.

“And then there was this silence we couldn’t understand for a few days.”

When silence became peace. The first reactions to the departure of Russian forces was not celebration and happiness, but confusion, and suspicion.

People stayed in the museum as before. There were still explosions as minesweepers removed the deadly devices left behind by Russian troops.

“The explosions made us feel better as these were the familiar feelings we had got used to,” says Layevsky.

The temperatures were  still very low and the heating was yet to come back. Layevsky walked around in the museum, continuing his daily task of checking and preserving the collections.

And the silence, over time, turned to peace.

Allowing himself a slight smile, Layevsky says he was no longer always feeling “tense and mobilised”. As the adrenaline of survival faded and people returned to their homes, the pains of ordinary life returned.

“Our joints started aching again, blood pressure increased,” he reflects. “We turned from people who are ready for anything to people with diseases once again.”

Peace eventually returned to the Chernihiv Historical Museum. Image supplied: Serhiy Layevsky

Peace eventually returned to the Chernihiv Historical Museum. Image supplied: Serhiy Layevsky

Layevsky and his wife lived in the museum for 44 days before returning home. They now call it their “longest day of the museum.”

Checking back in with him by email, as the war in Ukraine continues but, for now, at a distance from Chernihiv, I have a question: “What do you think of war now?”

“I think I know something about the history of wars of different times and eras,” he writes back. “I carefully studied everything that both soldiers wrote and what was written about soldiers. I read a lot about heroism, about their feats and self-sacrifice.

“But what is happening right next to you during the fighting is quite different. War is, first of all, grief, fear, pain, tears, blood, despair, death.”

“War is sounds that are completely different from the ones you are used to. It’s a scent that you try to stay away from. This is dirt that is difficult to wash off. It is the cold that seems to last for ages.

“But in the moments of silence, you notice the first flower break through the ground. You hear a bird singing. You feel different about things that used to be normal before and start valuing them differently. Your wife’s smile. The phone call and the words ‘I’m alive’, the embrace of a friend, and sometimes of a stranger.

“They are all personal, individual and special.”

 

This article was originally published as a podcast on STORY FM.

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THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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