Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

The faces of freedom

The National Museum of Literature of Ukraine is hosting the “Portraits of Volunteers at War” exhibition
26 October, 2017 - 10:21

The opening ceremony featured the launch of an art album of the same name, released by Promin Publishers. Kharkiv artist Serhii Pushchenko has been fighting in the ATO since 2015 with the 5th Separate Battalion of the Right Sector Volunteer Ukrainian Corps (RS VUC) under the nom de guerre “Friend Artist.” He created 110 portraits of fellow soldiers (56 oil paintings and 54 drawings). Each of his heroes also shared his life’s motto, writing a couple of lines of that nature on the reverse side of the picture. So what is it like, in fact, that legendary RS VUC? In order to find out better, Den visited the museum.

The public near the main entrance as well as other visitors stood out from ordinary passersby because they wore camouflage uniforms and well-used army boots. They included soldiers of the RS VUC’s 5th Separate Battalion as well as their families, civil volunteers, military doctors, and all those who wanted to personally thank the servicemen for protecting the rest of Ukraine from death and horror every day, hour, minute, and second. By the way, the evening was hosted by the actress and director Kateryna Stepankova, who read out the greetings from the legendary theater and cinema figure Ada Rohovtseva.

“I am an ordinary person, I just do my job. In the war... I am not a hero, look to other people in the hall around us, they are heroes. Talk to them instead,” it seemed to be a pre-agreed response of all these VUC soldiers, civil volunteers, female frontline medics, and even regular army soldiers, both retired and active service, who also came to the festive event. They got somewhat relaxed after learning that I represented Den: “You are ours, I see.” And then... they repeated again that “we are not heroes...”

People who have actually served at the front are not talkative. They are also very unwilling to tell their own war stories. Instead, after the official part of the evening, during which commander of the 5th Separate Battalion “Friend Petrovych” (this title is the norm in the VUC) presented letters of thanks and awards to his subordinates, they talked about peace, about life “here and now.” They were laughing and hugging as they clapped each other on the shoulder...

“We are the greatest terror for our soldiers! Volunteer dentists from the Tryzub Dental Project,” – finally, I was able to find more talkative interlocutors. They were three smiling men. I “caught” them as they took pictures with an exhibition portrait. “I hope that our modest contribution will shorten the war, however slightly. We do it all for the sake of victory and sincere smiles of our defenders. Glory to Ukraine!” the label read. These are words “for eternity” which were said by one of the doctors – “Friend Tryzub Dental.” He is called Nazar on Civvy Street. He is a real superstar of the Ukrainian-Russian front. True, it is mostly soldiers and war veterans whom he cured who know about him, just as about the majority of the local realities. Also, those who are personally interested in the frontline affairs are in the know as well.

The lack of promotion of the ongoing war’s heroes, or even the lack of mere information on military realities on Civvy Street is almost the most important difference between the present-day soldiers and those of the 1940s. In other words, it seems that today, this factor very significantly affects the attitude of the society to the frontline soldiers, past and present, to say nothing of the volunteers who are the main heroes of modern Ukraine, but at the same time, remain practically invisible for its peaceful part. By the way, do you know that the VUC soldiers differ from any regular army in their... age? The oldest ATO fighter, “Friend Tykhin,” has turned 80! “Friend Did” is slightly younger at 77. For his oil paint portrait, he composed an epigraph: “One love, and nothing else...”

When I asked him about reasons behind the inscription, Did, who has four grandsons and a little granddaughter, answered that he was among the first to join the fight, right after the Euromaidan. He is now recovering after a stay at the hospital, and resides in countryside. Still, he dreams of going to the front again. Den, by the way, is his favorite newspaper.

While I was examining the exhibition, I talked to different people, asking, for example, the commander Friend Petrovych under what conditions his portrait had been created, on the back of which he had written lines from Taras Shevchenko’s The Fate and the saying that “artillery is the god of war!” (“I did not have time at all! Pushchenko finally talked me into it, so I posed only for half an hour, because I had to go on a mission urgently”). I then tried to find out whether Petrovych personally knew all 110 portrayed soldiers (the answer was positive) and whether all these guys were still alive; the latter question turned the commander’s face sad and even grayish-pale. He said “No” and ended the conversation at that point.

57-year-old Friend Artist Pushchenko spent more than two hours of “informal communication” at the opening ceremony… fleeing and hiding from me. “Look at the portraits. Go, read the biographical article at the entrance to the exhibition. I have nothing to add to this!” he said brusquely and pretended to not notice me. His mood changed for the better only after the intervention of the “frontline brotherhood,” when brothers-in-arms told him to “stop offending” their favorite newspaper... Pushchenko, who specialized in Cossack-themed pictures in times of peace, joined the VUC after the Euromaidan. He serves as mortar operator. The faces of his brothers-in-arms on his canvases are surprisingly expressive, as if they are living people who are looking at you out of windows.

“I am not going to continue adding to the gallery, and will stop here: 110 portraits is a large enough gallery,” Friend Artist Pushchenko made a stunning statement.

He sells his portrait works to nobody, and often gives them for free to his brothers-in-arms. The artist has no plans to transfer these works to a gallery or a museum, even though other works of his are held by many Ukrainian museums. In particular, the Kamiana Mohyla National Reserve owns a whole gallery of 23 paintings.

The artist says: “I hope that my son will keep them after me...”

“Is this a firm decision?”

“I do not oppose donating them to a museum. Even better, I would like to sell my paintings. Half of the amount earned I would then immediately transfer to the battalion’s account... But no one needs them. One day, I got an offer to hang portraits of my brothers-in-arms in a cafe. The owner said: ‘We will get good publicity, and you will too.’ But is this really the way to do it? And so I refused...”

By Hanna PAROVATKINA. Photos by the author