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Kyiv museums exhibit Russian artefacts with pride and a warning

The Guardian logo The Guardian 23/05/2022 Shaun Walker in Kyiv

A young woman takes a selfie in front of the burned-out carcass of a Russian armoured personnel carrier. A child eating an ice cream peers at the remains of a tank turret. A curious pensioner photographs the label on some mangled plane fuselage, which explains it belonged to a Russian Su-25, shot down by the Ukrainian military on 2 March.

Vladimir Putin doubtless envisioned a scenario in which Russian military hardware would stand on Kyiv’s central streets this spring, but he probably did not imagine it would look like this.

Here on Kriposnyi Lane, just a few minutes’ walk from the compound where Volodymyr Zelenskiy has spent the last three months evading reported Russian plans to kill him, Ukraine’s military history museum has opened a street exhibition of captured Russian hardware.

Inside the museum, there is a temporary display of souvenirs, trophies and evidence of the Russian occupation of the towns and villages around Kyiv.

“Many soldiers had been here on excursions before, so they knew where to bring things they had found,” said Oleksandr Shemelyak, a senior researcher at the museum. “All the time we are getting new items to put on display.”

Across Kyiv, at the museum of the second world war, an even larger exhibition has opened, which is named Crucified Ukraine, and also features both captured hardware outside and a vast array of items chronicling the Russian occupation around Kyiv.

Video: Kyiv dismantles Ukraine-Russia friendship statue (Reuters)

The Russian army began its push towards Kyiv from the north, west and east in the first days of the war, and spent more than a month occupying areas around the capital before a chaotic withdrawal at the beginning of April, effectively an admission of failure.

“Three days after the liberation, the museum staff set off on missions to collect artefacts, accompanied by the Ukrainian military,” said Dmytro Hainetdinov, head of the museum’s education department.

Some of the exhibits look almost like artworks: more than a hundred pairs of Russian army boots, of different shapes and sizes, are arranged inside a red star. A charred church cupola hangs in the air among various other artefacts recovered from three different churches that were destroyed during the fighting. An icon with a hole in it made by shrapnel forms the centre of the display.

Other items on display include the passports, bank cards and other personal effects of Russian soldiers. There is a map of the left bank of Kyiv, with police stations and other strategic points carefully marked using coloured coding; it was allegedly seized from a Russian diversionary group operating inside the city during the first days of the war.

In the basement, the staff have recreated a shelter used by residents of the town of Hostomel, who spent more than a month below ground during the occupation. All the contents are original, from the blankets, teabags, salami and makeshift memorial plaque for a woman who died during the occupation.

The museum believes the artefacts are important to preserve for posterity, but also wants those Ukrainians who did not experience occupation to be able to see the horror for themselves. “Many people left for safer places, and are now returning, and happily, they did not have to experience these things first hand,” said Hainetdinov.

Upstairs, a television screen shows footage of Russian politicians, television hosts and ordinary citizens making derogatory statements about Ukrainians, in an attempt to show how such rhetoric can lay the groundwork for what has happened in recent months.

“This is a project that shows what happens when the lessons of history are not learned,” said Hainetdinov.


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