CHICAGO – “Right now we need grit, to win – but afterward, we will need love, lots of love.”
That was the empathic appeal of Iraq War veteran and Spartan Sword Chairman Boone Cutler at the “Children of War: A Lens on Russia’s Terror in Ukraine” exhibit that has been hosted by Chicago’s Ukrainian National Museum since May 6.
As he passionately spoke these words before an audience that gathered to learn more about the exhibit, Mr. Cutler pointed to an image of grit in a scarf mask – a Ukrainian soldier lighting a cigarette, while seemingly contemplating how to transcend the evil his eyes have seen, so that his hands can unequivocally exterminate it.
Like that photograph and the photographs of Russian terror surrounding it, the guest speakers’ stories flashed through this writer’s mind at breakneck speed. Brain researchers claim that the human brain can process an image that the eye sees for as little as 13 milliseconds. But war veterans know that, for those who survived the scenes depicted in those photos, the images in this exhibit will take a lifetime to process.
Bundled corpses of a mother and infants on a city street. A shell-shocked girl weaving camouflage nets for soldiers. A grandmother pushed in her wheelchair across the rubble that was once her town square. Bombed-out kitchens, with teacups still eerily intact.
How does the human brain react after viewing unspeakable horror? It’s often jolted into action, any action, to combat impending nihilism. Which is exactly what all of the exhibit’s guest speakers have done, in their own ways.
Officials at the museum said they were deeply grateful to their generous sponsor, veteran officer and Spartan Sword founder Steve Danyliuk, for enabling participants of the exhibit to gather and share insights.
Veteran U.S. Marine Andre Rivera recounted how, only after rescuing a team of diplomats in 2004’s Iraq War, was he able to see and fully comprehend the collateral damage – both physical and emotional – that the war took on him.
“The war within will continue for Ukrainian children,” he warned. And, as he has done before, Mr. Rivera is prepared to help them fight it.
Viewing and encouraging more people to view these images is one way of honoring the photographers who risk, and sometimes lose, their lives, like the late longtime Reuters photographer Maksim “Max” Levin who was killed photographing Russia’s war on Ukraine.
“Every Ukrainian is striving to take a photo powerful enough to stop the war,” Mr. Levin previously said.
In organizing the exhibit, museum officials said they are attempting to help do just that.
Photographs of Mr. Levin’s modest funeral were missing his four children, who could not attend as they had been evacuated from their homeland. His widow’s message, however, was read by Sarah Chadzynski of Dattalion, a grassroots group of Ukrainian mothers that document violence for U.S. policymakers and support families like the Levins.
“He was thirsty for life. He wanted all of us to live for the truth — the truth is our only ammunition,” Ms. Levin wrote.
On display alongside Mr. Levin’s work were the works of fellow truth seekers: Ukrainian photographers Yuliya Bulgakova, Andriy Dubchak, Ruslan Gorovyi, Anatolii Stepanov, Ruslan Lytvyn, Kostiantyn Sova, Vera Blansh, who left her successful fashion photography career to cover the war, and Polish photographer Grzegorz Litynski.
To celebrate that Poland, once a Ukrainian adversary, today heroically stands with Ukraine and to honor Polish neighbors, the traditional costumes and flags of both countries take center stage at the exhibit, where Vice-Consul of Ukraine Yevhen Drobot and Vice-Consul of Poland Paulina Szafałowicz stood side-by-side during a moment of silence honoring the victims of Russia’s terror. Bishop Benedict Aleksiychuk of Chicago’s Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy offered comfort through prayer.
“Through the lenses of photographers, we want our audiences to understand the truth and denounce Russia’s false narratives about their history and territorial borders,” Lydia Tkaczuk, president of the Ukrainian National Museum, said. The museum, which was established 70 years ago, works to preserve the culture that Russian terror last aimed to destroy during World War II.
As guests walk from photo to photo, in a deja vu-like daze, each urban apocalypse, landmine-laden road, smoke-choked sky, each image of loss, destruction and desperation engenders the rawest of rage.
That rage inspired exhibit curator Maria Klimchak’s installation of blood-red ribbons tied around the neck of a grandmother’s embroidered blouse, the hands of a mother’s embroidered blouse, and, streaming by the dozens from a daughter’s blouse, down to the toddler boots on the ground. There are no words needed, or even possible. The exhibit elicits more rage.
That rage also transformed Samuel Cook from software startup founder to philanthropist. He and his fiancee, Katya Mogir, run the Borderlands Foundation, a humanitarian aid organization. After funding his employees’ evacuation to Poland, he interviewed more than 30 fighters, humanitarian volunteers and refugees for his podcast, which includes stories of survivors who’ve lost loved ones or sources of income. Once corroborated, these stories are posted on the Borderlands website so visitors can read and choose to donate directly to the survivor that moves them most.
Founder of the Ukrainian National Women’s League of America (UNWLA), Branch 140, Oksana Taratula, has been moved by the plight of Ukrainian babies for six years now. Ms. Taratula, Branch 140 President Sofia Zebeliuk and their 23 members have been organizing fundraisers – from festivals, to fashion shows, to masterclasses, to caroling house visits – in order to send incubators and medical supplies to Ukraine.
“We need to explain our mission,” she said, and did so with a wall installation depicting the branch’s wide-ranging events and current collection for the City of Kindness orphanage, which is housing children who’ve been orphaned by the invasion.
Kharkiv refugee Elizabeta Dembovska told her story of winning the “lottery” by getting out alive, and of now doing everything possible to support her friends and family who stayed behind to help those who can’t help themselves. She said that she is open to working for any fundraising organization that needs her.
Although only 50 images were on display, co-curators Maria Klimchak and American veteran and Vietnam War photographer Jerry Kykisz had 1,000 submissions to cull for the exhibit. Those that didn’t make it onto the walls were edited into a video by editor and museum Executive Board Member Irene Bojkewycz, along with footage from videographers Oleh Meleshko and Yaroslav Zakharchuk.
Pianist Vyacheslav Makarkin’s piano performance provided a pensive atmosphere for guests as they networked and determined what actions to take next. The need is endless, but it was uplifting to see volunteers prepared to help meet the challenge in any way they can.
“Thanks to these photographers the world can see, feel, and cry with Ukraine,” said Yevhen Drobot, who later encouraged museum guests to follow Taras Shevchenko’s edict: “Fight, and you’re sure to win!”
Museum officials said the exhibition space will also be shared with inhabitants from the Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv, Mariupol, Kherson, Bucha and Sloviansk. Proceeds from the exhibit entrance fee will go to support Ukrainian children who’ve been orphaned by the invasion and now reside in the City of Kindness orphanage.
Museum hours are on Thursday through Sunday, 11:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. or by appointment. Individuals who are unable to see the exhibit in person but still want to support the cause can do so via the following link: https://www.facebook.com/unwla140/. Readers who would like more information can call museum administrator Orysia Kourbatov at (312) 421-8020.