Trophies From an Incomprehensible War

As fighting rages in the east, one Slovyansk museum is already trying to tell the story of the war in Ukraine, one bullet-riddled helmet at a time.

Photo by Alvaro Ybarra Zavala/Getty Images
Photo by Alvaro Ybarra Zavala/Getty Images

SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — When militants from the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People’s Republic" (DNR) set up an outpost near the regional museum in Slovyansk in April, they stole two World War II field guns from the courtyard to defend their barricades.

The Ukrainian army drove out the occupying DNR rebels in July, but the liberators took the artillery with them. The soldiers took the field guns all the way to Kiev, putting them on view outside the war museum there as trophies. Neither side bothered to take off the notices that read: "Please don’t steal our museum exhibits," which is how museum director Lilya Zander recognized her old exhibits on display in the capital, about 400 miles away.

She still has not gotten them back. Nor was either side fighting in the conflict apparently bothered that they are, in fact, useless replicas.

Other than the pair of fake guns, Zander’s museum somehow survived weeks of fighting and looting unharmed, despite the widespread destruction of the surrounding town. This spring, Slovyansk briefly became the center of the armed pro-Russian uprising in eastern Ukraine that has set neighbor against neighbor and has turned much of the area around Donetsk and Luhansk into a war zone, claiming more than 2,000 civilian lives and displacing many hundreds of thousands more. The town was retaken by the Ukrainian army on July 5, after weeks of heavy shelling.

Hospitals, orphanages, and thousands of private homes have been damaged and destroyed in Slovyansk, but inside the museum’s modest brick building, rooms re-create the peaceful interiors of a traditional Ukrainian peasant cottage and a 1950s Soviet dining room. Slovyansk’s history from a prehistoric settlement through medieval trade, revolution, and world war to contemporary salt and clay industries is charted in collections begun in the 1970s.

Now Zander and her colleagues have started a new collection of artifacts from the town’s latest occupation and liberation. They hope to create an exhibition that will make sense of those terrible, absurd months in 2014 when people who had known each other all their lives took up arms against each other; kidnapped, tortured, and murdered; played at soldiers; stole what they could; or hid in their cellars and waited for the nightmare to be over. 

Museum staff have no name for the collection yet or for their planned exhibition. Zander tentatively calls it "Trophies From an Incomprehensible War."

"Our job is to tell the history of our region," Zander said. "Today, our sorry history is our war."

Today Slovyansk may feel calm, but the peace is skin-deep. Instead of DNR recruitment posters, notices urge residents to report their neighbors for separatism (punishable by up to 15 years in prison) and warn them to be on their guard against terrorists and provocateurs. Wounded soldiers and refugees arrive daily from fighting less than 60 miles to the south and east. The town buzzes with rumors of an imminent new onslaught from pro-Russian or Russian forces.

Amid these tensions, Zander and her colleagues have put up notices in the town hall asking locals to donate recent artifacts that can help explain what happened in this city of 130,000 during the spring and summer of 2014, though they do not expect the exhibition to be ready for months, even years.

Still, in its beginning stages, so far the collection consists of cardboard boxes of body armor and gas masks, shell casings, paramilitary badges, and propaganda materials collected after DNR fighters fled Slovyansk. There are DNR recruitment fliers that resemble Hollywood action-movie posters and issues of the short-lived Slovyansk Front newsletter, which combine Soviet-style martial appeals from DNR leaders with domestic news about soup kitchens in a town under siege.

Zander has been unable to get any objects from the Ukrainian army, and anything of military value either DNR or Ukrainians forces took with them. Left behind are the useless remnants of an amateur fighting force: "bulletproof" vests made from homemade metal sheets held together with tape and canvas straps, a helmet with a paper cutout of the Russian two-headed eagle glued lopsidedly to the front.

But curating the exhibit will be at least as difficult as building the collection.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has yet to find a coherent narrative. Ukraine calls it an "anti-terrorist operation"; Russia calls it a "Ukrainian internal conflict"; propaganda on both sides has termed it everything from NATO aggression to genocide. The debate over nomenclature extends to those who are participating in the fighting: Locals who took up arms to support the DNR or its sister republic further east, the Luhansk People’s Republic, object violently to being called "separatists," preferring the term "militants" who are fighting to protect their land from invasion by the "fascists" in Kiev.

This semantic battlefield presents a potential minefield for the museum. "I’m for a united Ukraine," Zander hurried to tell me. But, she said, the museum is "not trying to show ‘for’ and ‘against.’ We’re trying to show the facts." She pointed to a helmet with a DNR sticker and a bullet hole right through it, picked up from a battlefield; whoever was wearing it presumably died. The helmet, she said, could be labeled a "separatist" helmet. "Separatists are those who want to divide Ukraine. It isn’t an insult — it’s the right name." But others, she said, would want to label the helmet with words like "hero" or "bandit."

Everything in the coming exhibition has been donated by local people. But for some residents, the conflict still raging within Ukraine’s borders remains too raw for its remnants to yet make the transition into history. In Slovyansk’s main square, pensioner Tatiana Tyshenko showed me a bundle of leaflets the Ukrainian army dropped from airplanes in May, with instructions for residents on how to behave under occupation by what the pamphlet calls "terrorists."

"I didn’t see them fall, but I saw someone running to collect them in the garden, so I ran out too, and we fought over them," she said, showing me the torn corners. Until she read them, she said, "We were like blind cats; we had no idea what was happening. I hid three of them; I heard that anyone who had one would be shot."

"These are important documents," said Tyshenko, stowing the leaflets carefully back in her handbag. For her, these are not museum pieces but vital instructions she might yet need. "They will become history; this will pass and then maybe we will start to forget. But now it is all fresh."

As Tyshenko told me her version of what happened in Slovyansk this summer, a man sitting near us on the bench interrupted. "She’s fooling you; she’s not telling you what really happened. Tell the truth," he shouted at her.

In neighboring Mykolaivka, massively damaged during the Ukrainian army’s rout of the DNR on July 3 and 4, a woman told me about her brother, who was returned home to be buried in early August. He was killed fighting for the DNR near Donetsk.

"He was a hero," Svetlana told me. She still keeps at home the items her brother gave her, despite visits from Ukrainian law enforcement officials: rebel-produced Novorossiya newspapers, DNR flags, and a St. George ribbon, the Soviet symbol of World War II victory that has become a sign of separatism in Ukraine.

"I’ll always keep that because it isn’t just a symbol," Svetlana said. "It is my memorial."

Fluttering St. George ribbons have now disappeared from Slovyansk’s streets, along with the separatist outposts — like the one outside the Slovyansk museum guarded with Zander’s two stolen World War II cannons.

Zander herself is still coming to terms with what happened in the town she grew up in and what is still happening to her country. 

"I can’t say we were really fighting each other," she said. "Those people on the DNR outpost who took our guns weren’t really our enemies, not exactly. Some of them came to visit the museum — they even bought tickets. It’s just that some took one side and some took another. That’s all."

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