Borodianka, 23 October 2023 – In early spring 2022, as the Russian invaders withdrew from Borodianka, a town outside the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, a piece of street art by world-renowned artist Banksy appeared on the wall of a war-damaged home.
The artwork – a ballerina balancing precariously on the rubble – solidified the town’s reputation as a beacon of resilience, underlined by a damaged monument honouring national poet Taras Shevchenko, and the iconic image of a tin rooster, perched on a cabinet, watching over a bombed-out kitchen.
Despite the town’s sudden fame, the efforts of its local artists, musicians and librarians to revive their beloved hometown remain largely unknown outside Ukraine.
Natalia Vyshynska has led Borodianka's culture department for nearly two decades. She works out of the local cultural centre, still scarred from shelling and standing next to homes destroyed in the devastating March 2022 bombings. Despite the dangers of war, she has remained dedicated to her colleagues and the important work they carry out.
“On 26 February 2022, two days into the invasion, my colleague from finance and I were here to ensure our staff would get their salaries. We resumed working on 15 April 2022, and worked for a year with broken windows covered with plastic film,” she recalls.
Natalia, along with her husband, daughter-in-law, and two granddaughters, took refuge in a cellar, where they survived weeks of heavy fighting. Eventually, the family was able to escape and briefly relocated to Western Ukraine before returning to find their hometown in ruins.
Of its 26 cultural establishments, 18 were damaged or destroyed, losing 95 per cent of their facilities and assets, among them a local arts school.
“Every musical instrument, including a grand piano, was ruined. We had a violin from 1826 stored in a protective box, but it was consumed by fire. Only a scorched metal violin clef was found amidst the rubble,” Natalia says.
Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Natalia and her colleagues were working to modernize the cultural institutions in Borodianka, a town with a pre-war population of roughly 13,000. Natalia applied her background in psychology to transform a local sewing class into a fashion theatre where students were able to walk onto a stage, demonstrating their creations, gaining confidence and overcoming fears of sharing their art with a live audience.
Before the war, Borodianka's librarians helped senior citizens develop digital literacy skills.
“As many young people have left the town to find safety and jobs elsewhere, this particular service is in demand from their grandparents, but we lacked computers,” says Natalia.
Since the Government of Ukraine regained control over Borodianka and the Northern areas of the country, many displaced people have made the decision to return, even as the war continues. “People continue returning home, especially those in their forties and fifties,” Natalia explains.
Natalia is committed to reviving cultural life in the town. She and her colleagues have organized several public events since last year.
“We don’t use the word ‘concert,’ we say ‘a public gathering with musical performances.’ Concerts will be after our victory,” she explains, acknowledging that some people still might find such activities inappropriate. However, for hundreds of attendees and for those who organize them, it all has meaning.
“Many of our singers lost their relatives; many lost their homes. They could not sing for some time. Some needed two months, some needed three. They managed. They are singing now,” she says.
Natalia has a colleague who teaches piano and singing in a local school of arts. A year before the Russian invasion, she wrote a song dedicated to her mother, Halyna, who was also a cultural worker. In March 2022, Halyna did not manage to leave her home on the central square of Borodianka before a bomb hit it. Her body was never identified, so she is registered as a missing person. At one of the open-air concerts, Natalia’s colleague planned to sing that song.
“My mom would hear me,” she said. But she wasn’t able to: her voice was shaking and she burst into tears. It took her a month, yet at another concert, she did it.
“We go to the cemetery; we cry and remember our dead. I think they would like life in Borodianka to go on.”
Natalia and her team continue to engage psychologists in their efforts, particularly with children.
“Children are afraid of death, injury, and losing their parents and homes,” she says. “By using drawing, music and games, they can express their fears and traumatizing experiences and we help them process these difficult emotions and continue with their lives.”
Members of Natalia’s community give her strength and make her proud. Local history expert Valentyn Moiseenko miraculously survived the bombing of Borodianka and escaped with his wife, who has a mobility impairment, to a basement where they spent weeks. Later he wrote a book about the days when the town was under Russian military control and at the centre of heavy fighting. A local artist who creates pysankas (decorated Easter eggs), Svitlana Vyskochyl, conducts master classes for hospital patients every week, including people with amputations.
The Borodianka cultural centre relies on grants from businesses and international organizations. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is supporting its revival with funding from the governments of the Republic of Korea and Canada by refurbishing a local museum and a space for young families, purchasing equipment for the information centre based in a local library, and arranging for a huge tent that will allow Natalia’s team to bring services to people in war-affected communities around Borodianka.
With support from IOM, Natalia and other community members took part in inclusive dialogue sessions, where they could collectively shape the future of their community through projects for social change. They benefitted from informal learning opportunities that focused on the topics of civil society, project development and community revitalization. Together with volunteers from across Ukraine, they applied these skills to transform their cultural centre, so that Borodianka can continue to celebrate its unique culture for generations to come.