Linda Kinstler: I saw that the last meeting you had before the war was about creating a museum to the Russian war against Ukraine in the Kyiv Fortress. Tell me everything that happened since then.
Yana Barinova: We woke up at 5 AM, probably on the 24th. My upper management was calling, saying to urgently get all of the department directors to our place of work. There was an alert in the city that there is a threat. I live alone with my daughter, who is 13 years old. We packed two suitcases, and she came with me to work. I can’t describe this condition in which you arrive at work with your child and two suitcases. We received instructions about the evacuation of documents and cultural artifacts, and each department went to implement their own plans. We called an urgent meeting with our department heads, what to do with personnel records, what to do with rubber stamps, what to do with secret documents, where is the safe? We did not believe, until the end, that we would ever need to implement these plans for real.
Then, on a special line, I got a call saying that we all needed to leave the building. My daughter was in my office the whole time, she saw it all, how her mom was conducting meetings and how we were gathering documents. This was the first day, when the first rocket fell, February 23 or 24, the first day of the war.
After that, I went home. Over the next day and a half there were constant air raids. Alerts, alerts, alerts. During the day, we ran five or seven times to the bomb shelter. When the first missile fell, it was probably the 25th. It happened not far from my house. I understood that we needed to get away from Kyiv, that it was no longer safe, that they were encircling the city. Me and my daughter got in the car at 6 AM and drove to the south, where my mother lives. It was like in a horror movie. As we were leaving Kyiv, tanks were entering, there were rocket launchers on the highway, diplomats were leaving in cars with diplomatic license plates. There was no gas at the gas stations. Everywhere there were military on the road.
We got to my mother’s house. We were glad that we were at least together. And that’s when the shelling of the Odessan port started. My parents live next to the port. I took a video from the balcony, how they were bombing it. I understood that I could not stay there. So we decided to go into the Odessan oblast, to a house with a generator and a concrete basement. We spent two and a half, three days there, until a rocket fell on the village ten minutes away. After that, I couldn’t hold it anymore. We read that the Chechen army was approaching, that Wagner militias from Africa were coming, that they were looking to hire soldiers in Syria to bring to Ukraine. I decided I need to get my daughter out. And this is when the shortages start, the food shortages . . .
My sister lives in Vienna. We went from Odessa to Moldova to Romania to Hungary to Vienna. We waited in the car for thirteen hours at the border between Moldova and Romania, where there is a ferry. Thousands of people were there. It was snowing, infants were swaddled in blankets and sheets. It was a nightmare. Now the situation is becoming worse. People are simply leaving their things, abandoning their cars at the border. Russians are shooting even at the humanitarian corridors. Basically, in the course of a week, we were fleeing. We ran away from Kyiv to Odessa, from Odessa to the Odessan region. From there to somewhere on the border with Europe. We didn’t sleep for three days and nights.
My mom didn’t want to come with me. In the end, I persuaded her. She suffers from migraines, she had a migraine attack, it was terrible.
Now I’m in Vienna. I am following the events, but I think I need to go back. I’m organizing an effort to show movies in the metro for people sheltering. We have an arrangement with the GosKino Fund [the State Film company]. We found projectors and speakers because there are thousands of people at every station.
We evacuated all the museum valuables into the basements. We took them off the walls. We have very precious cultural artifacts, such as Aivazovski paintings. So, I’m continuing to work. I just helped evacuate the famous Ukrainian composer Valentyn Silvestrov from Kyiv. Every day, there are fewer and fewer of my coworkers in touch. A lot of them have left Kyiv, a lot of their phones are turned off. Many of them live in the regions of Kyiv—Bucha or Kostomel—where a lot of the strongest battles are occurring. So every day, we just check in on our chats: “Good morning, who is online?” And many people are not online. So our department is paralyzed. It’s like this. They’ve started shooting at peaceful civilians. It’s very scary.
LK: Tell me about that final meeting you held in Kyiv, about creating a museum to the Russia-Ukraine war. What kind of museum did you want it to become?
YB: We wanted to make a museum about the war that began in 2014, that would illustrate everything that happened in the east, and the annexation of Crimea, and Russian aggression. To show the chronology of events, to tell the story of the resistance that Ukraine has demonstrated. We wanted to create a new peace-building institution, that would speak about an ongoing war, not a past war, not WWII, but what’s happening here and now, in real time. To provide psychological and legal help. To have a place for people to reflect on what has happened to our country over the past eight years. That meeting was on the 17th. And then on the 24th the first missiles fell.
LK: How do you think about that meeting now?
YB: (Sighing) The meeting was prophetic. It’s hard to reply to this question. You know. I have become very afraid for my life. I’m a public figure and civil servant who has spoken publicly about building a museum about the Russian war against Ukraine, I have expressed patriotic Ukrainian sentiments. I am a great believer in Ukraine and its victory. But I also understand that if we lose, I will never be able to return to Ukraine. In Russia, they throw you in prison for a Facebook post.
LK: How did you save Ukrainian cultural artifacts?
YB: First of all, the information about the cultural valuables is secret. They are safe. Everything we could do we did. We provided armed security for the museums. The Minister of Culture called a special operative Zoom conference and gave instructions to all departments of culture over the whole country. As much as we could, we secured everything. Regarding the evacuation of animals, it is not being planned right now. The animals are still in the park, and the director is practically living there, trying to control the situation. During the bombings, the elephant almost lost its mind. The animals are being watched and receiving treatments so that the sirens that go off every ten minutes do not break their hearts. A lot of the directors are spending nights in the museums, they do not leave, they sleep in the basements and wear body armor in their parks.
It turns out that all our directors are very devoted—the directors of all our organizations, museums, and theaters. Until the last minute they were thinking about their museum artifacts almost more than about their families. It is very impressive, their heroism and pain for our country.
LK: Who is left in Kyiv? How are you still managing to organize cultural events on the ground?
YB: Everyone is in the bomb shelters. They can’t move around without permission. People can’t go out onto the street. Many made their online resources available—courses in history, art, philosophy—so that people can somehow keep themselves together. But the cell connections drop, internet connections drop, and in many bomb shelters there is no connection at all. What we have been able to organize is to show films in the metros. This is our big project. The ministry of culture is actively reaching out to UNESCO [and other organizations] because it was said that they were threatening to send a missile into St. Sophia Cathedral. We are trying to maximize diplomatic outreach, to try to ask the international community to support us. But culture is soft power. There’s nothing more we can do than try to preserve what we have, and tell people what is happening.