Can You Kill the Past?

On the 17th of October 2022, a Russian bomb fell on a building in Kyiv downtown, not only taking the lives of innocent people but also ruining a 120-year-old architectural monument. And if there is one thing you should learn about Ukrainians and Ukrainity from this essay, it is that we grieve not only our dead but every loss of our tangible cultural heritage destroyed by Russians. This very house was erected by a Jewish merchant and was a witness to Kyiv’s history and the lives of its people from the previous century. It had survived all the mischiefs of the time and contributed to the visual ensemble of the contemporary Kyiv streets. It has done nothing to provoke Russian aggression. But for Russia, the mere fact of being a cultural and/or historical artifact in Ukraine is a provocation. The poor old pal, another innocent architectural victim.

The pain of this loss resonates very strongly with another heritage lost — so close to my heart it is almost personal. It was in my hometown, a small place in Western Ukraine located on the banks of the Dniester river with a Mediterranean-like microclimate. Thanks to these two factors and some local politics, it became a popular Polish resort in the 1930s and remained so throughout the interwar period. Back then, the heart of the town was in its main square in the shape of a rock castle from the 16th century. It had a long life, the castle, and watched centuries pass by. It survived the Turks in the 17th century, when it served, according to some theories, as a caravanserai. Later it was turned into a hunting residence of the Poniatowski, a Polish noble family. In the early 19th century, it was slightly rebuilt and made into the city hall. Craft shops dotted its perimeter, and a farmer’s market was scattered around it. What a treasure it must have been!

It also survived World War I and II but did not survive the Soviet (please, read: Russian) occupation. As a little tourist guidebook published by the local authorities in the 1980s ‘proudly’ presented, the castle was “dismantled during the redesign of the main square of this prosperous Soviet town.” In 1968, a 500-year-old witness of time was cynically murdered. A marker of rich history and heritage; a red flag for the hateful eyes of the Russian oppressive imperial machine.

I was born just twenty years later — a curious little girl, forever deprived of the right to see the history of my birthplace with my own eyes, to be part of it, to know it, to understand it better, to pass it on to my children one day. Instead, my hometown appeared before my eyes with a vast barren space in the place of its historical heart, with a meaningless statue of Lenin in the midst of it. Luckily, the statue was removed back in 1990, just after Ukraine regained independence. But my hometown is still hurting with an open wound and longing for its past.

Sometimes I ask myself: will it ever be possible to speak about Ukraine without having to mention Russia? Probably not until we reclaim everything stolen and ruined, everything erased and destroyed. Not until all our pains go away. But will they ever go away? They won’t until, for the first time in history, Russia is made fully responsible for its crimes.

Can You Kill the Past-2

Author: Iryna Vikyrchak, Ukrainian writer

Literary Editor: Hanna Leliv

Illustrator: Victoria Boyko

Content Editor: Maryna Korchaka

Program Directors: Julia Ovcharenko and Demyan Om Dyakiv Slavitski