SALEM — Waking to the sound of explosions, Oleksandra Kovalchuk quickly grasped what was happening. It was 5 a.m., and as she checked her phone that February morning, Kovalchuk saw that friends across her hometown of Odesa had heard the same blasts.
The war in Ukraine had begun.
US intelligence had predicted for weeks that Kyiv could fall in a matter of days, and Kovalchuk, acting director of the Odesa Fine Arts Museum, feared the worst: no water, no power, no exit.
The museum’s collection might come under fire, she worried, and so might her infant son, Yehor.
“The thought of having my son in that situation was unbearable,” said Kovalchuk, 37. “I still feel I’ve let down a lot of people by leaving, but it was a conscious decision: I wouldn’t be able to do any good for my country if my baby’s in Ukraine.”
She and her husband, Igor Solodov, gathered their money, travel documents, and property records, along with diapers and baby food, and drove to Ukraine’s western border with Moldova, later trekking by taxi through Romania and Bulgaria, before finally catching a flight to Boston in mid-March.
Today, the family is staying at her parents’ tidy three-bedroom townhouse north of Boston, where a Ukrainian flag hangs by the front door, and Kovalchuk, using a borrowed laptop, has become a central node in an international network trying to protect museum and library collections in Odesa and beyond.
From her parents’ dining room table near donated puzzles and toy trucks, Kovalchuk has led an effort to assist more than 20 cultural organizations, most of them in and around Odesa. At her own museum, now fortified with razor wire, that has meant helping secure money for staff who remain in country. For other institutions, it has meant funding and logistical support, helping procure everything from crates and bubble wrap, to hazmat suits and gas masks.
“She managed to systematically help us support nearly all the major cultural heritage and museum institutions in Odesa,” said Alexandra Fiebig, project manager at ALIPH, a Swiss-based cultural-protection funding organization.
For Kovalchuk, who became the museum’s acting director last year, the fight to save her country’s art is part of a larger battle to preserve Ukraine’s identity as a free and independent country.
And nowhere, she said, is that more true than at the Odesa Fine Arts Museum, or OFAM, a museum that has modernized “like a rocket” in recent years, doing away with old Soviet systems.
The museum has bolstered its collection of contemporary Ukrainian art, acquiring some 660 works in 2021 alone. It has also sought to reclaim artists such as Arkhip Kuindzhi, the 19th-century realist who was born in Mariupol but has long been classified as Russian. And just before the war, the museum mounted a vast exhibition chronicling the past 100 years in Ukrainian art.
“They’re going to destroy it,” said Kovalchuk, speaking of what the Russians would do to the collection’s Ukrainian works, if they get to them. “We are a young country that is only now coming to realize who we are and what we want. It kills me that right now we are standing on this edge of existence.”
Though Kovalchuk, her husband, and their 17-month-old son arrived here on tourist visas, they now count among an estimated 5.7 million people who’ve fled Ukraine since Russia invaded on Feb. 24. They are also among the first Ukrainians to arrive in the US, which has agreed to accept up to 100,000 refugees and has offered temporary protected status for some already here.
Still, Kovalchuk’s in-laws remain in Odesa, and she was deeply shaken when a rocket struck a residential tower near their home recently, killing an infant girl and her young mother — the friend of a friend.
“It’s hard to continue after that,” Kovalchuk said haltingly. “I couldn’t work for a couple of days. I couldn’t take it.”
Their relatives remain unharmed, but Solodov, 43, compared the war’s casualties to the toll of the coronavirus.
“At first, COVID is somewhere else,” he said, spoon-feeding Yehor yogurt with chia seeds. “Then the friend of a friend is ill. Then your friend is ill. Then you are ill.”
The threat to Ukrainian culture is similarly widespread. The country is home to seven UNESCO world cultural heritage sites, and the agency has verified damage to 120 cultural spots since the war began, including museums, monuments, and libraries.
Some landmarks, such as a large bust of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, have been shot with artillery. A museum was reportedly destroyed early Saturday morning, and Ukrainians have accused Russian troops of bombing theaters, incinerating paintings, and pilfering antiquities.
The 1954 Hague Convention prohibits the intentional targeting of cultural sites and property during wartime, meaning deliberate damage could constitute potential war crimes, said Yasmin Waljee, a partner at the international law firm Hogan Lovells.
Waljee, who’s responsible for the firm’s international pro bono work, first contacted Kovalchuk after hearing her interviewed on the BBC. The pair has since worked to document incidents of cultural destruction and disburse funding on the ground.
“We’re trying to collect evidence of people’s experiences,” Waljee said via Zoom from London. “What has been damaged, and how does it relate to the identity of Ukraine?”
Rising early each morning, Kovalchuk toggles between e-mail, Zoom, WhatsApp, and Telegram, communicating with a network that stretches from Salem to Berlin, Odesa to London. As Solodov watches Yehor, she fields requests from other Ukrainian museums, while also communicating with staff at the now-shuttered OFAM, where a colleague is handling day-to-day operations.
Fiebig said Kovalchuk’s team of four was “very operational” from the start.
“She was in direct contact with the people in Ukraine and identified the needs of the museums,” Fiebig said via Zoom from Geneva. “When they receive the funds, they know where to look for equipment.”
Kovalchuk has been effective, in part, because of an NGO she started with friends in 2016 to help support museums around Odesa. That organization, Museum for Change, now serves as a hub to receive international donations and disburse the funds inside Ukraine.
Similarly, OFAM had already purchased packing and storage materials for its collections, so it was unusually well-positioned to de-install, pack, and conceal its collection of some 10,000 artworks following the invasion.
“The first bomb fell at 4:40; at 5:20 we were already in the museum,” Anna Petrova, who heads up tours and education for the museum, said via Zoom from Berlin. “We had no idea how much time we’d have: Would it be five hours to pack and to escape from here, or would it be two days?”
Working quickly, museum staff and volunteers removed paintings from their frames, packing away the canvases and inscribing each frame with the title of its corresponding painting.
“Nobody’s going to destroy frames,” said Petrova, who likened the work to photos of similar efforts eight decades earlier during the Second World War. “When you compare them, this 80-year gap doesn’t exist.”
Cyrill Lipatov, head of the museum’s scientific department and exhibitions, coordinated the evacuation. Lipatov, who remains in Ukraine, said it took them three days to secure the collection, adding they digitized files for safekeeping.
While some of the works remain in the museum’s basement, no one interviewed would describe the current whereabouts of the so-called “Red List” — the museum’s most precious holdings, including works by both Russian and Ukrainian artists.
“The last time the museum was evacuated was in 1941,” Lipatov, wrote via Telegram. “Today, Ukrainian museums are saving masterpieces of Russian art from Russian military aggression.”
By midday, most of Kovalchuk’s European partners, some of them seven hours ahead, have logged off for the evening. She and Solodov will often take Yehor for a walk, stopping at a playground. But their phones are never far from reach. The couple has made a point to monitor the conflict, and they soak in an informational stream from the UK, US, Ukraine, and Russia.
In their former life, the family would stroll through Odesa’s historic city center after work and spend languid weekends at coffee shops and parks. That serenity has all but vanished now, and Kovalchuk, who was in the running to become OFAM’s permanent director, said she remains conflicted with her decision to leave the museum at its darkest hour.
“I just have to acknowledge that I, as a museum director, am guilty of leaving my staff and the collection on the first day of the war,” said Kovalchuk, who plans to return to Odesa, and the museum, once it’s safe.
Still, she doubts she’ll pursue the permanent directorship when the museum’s search resumes.
“I don’t feel like I will be morally able to participate,” she said. “That’s what I feel right now.”
Kovalchuk has found moments of solace during trips to the Museum of Fine Arts and other area museums. Her Boston colleagues have been welcoming, and her parents, who moved here 12 years ago for her father’s work in maritime logistics, have a generous circle of friends.
“There is this emptiness that sucks you in,” she said. “It’s very close to what you feel when someone very close to you is dying. . . . It’s what we continue to experience every day.”
But then Yehor needs tending to. He’s been sleeping poorly since they arrived in the US. He’s developed a skin rash that’s resistant to medicated creams. And he’s outgrown some of his clothes from Ukraine.
Recently, Kovalchuk was brought to tears when a care package from Solodov’s parents arrived on their front porch. The box contained Ukrainian baby books and clothes, but it was something about the emblem for Ukraine’s postal service that moved her.
It seemed so far from home.