“I don’t want people to associate our East with separatists” – how the Luhansk Museum was evacuated to Lviv during the war

A conversation with the directors of the two museums, Olesia Milovanova and Olha Honchar, about the evacuation of the Luhansk Regional Museum of Local History to the Lviv Museum “Territory of Terror” and cooperation under the wartime circumstances.

Photo: Luhansk Regional Museum of Local History

How did you leave and what was the most difficult in the first days after moving?

Olesia Milovanova: It is difficult to leave your job, your life, as it is for all immigrants. It was difficult to pack all your life into one small bag and come here with a child. But I have friends here and we come to Lviv every year. That’s why we didn’t come to an empty place, I came to my friends who were worried all the time, who supported me in various ways  – from moral and psychological, physical to material, so I was luckier. Integration was easy.

I had to think about everything at once. Our museum (Luhansk Regional Museum of Local History — ed.) has already been moved twice. We had to move for the first time in 2015. We resumed work in the city of Starobilsk, Luhansk region, we renewed the documentation and the seal, and we created a new team. They worked successfully in Starobilsk for 8 years.

Since February 24, we are again in exile. We are hosted in Lviv by our friends and long-term partners – the “Territory of Terror” museum. And we work on the same again – we resume our work. There were no documents, no seal, salary arrears, and evacuation of employees. And since the Luhansk Regional Museum is a methodical center for 17 museums in the Luhansk Region, we are responsible for those people, so we dealt with everything at the same time.


What about most of the employees of other museums, could they leave?

Olesia Milovanova: Many workers remained there, but they do not cooperate with the occupants` authorities. We are in touch every day and we monitor the conditions of their lives, we work with everyone to evacuate people, try to help them, to solve their issues. Therefore, for their pro-Ukrainian activities, they are taken for questioning and asked very scary questions, and their families are under search and there is no way for them to leave at the moment.

Some researchers decided to stay there, and most of them left – scattered all over Ukraine. Now my employees are moving to Lviv, renting apartments. I help them because I was the first to move. We are fully resuming our work. For now, we are working remotely, but starting next month, all employees of the Luhansk Regional History Museum will work here in Lviv.


Olesia Milovanova and Olha Honchar

Mrs. Olia, could you please tell us about the work of the Museum Crisis Center.

Olha Honchar: Olesia and I have been in touch since the first days of the full-scale war. On February 24, my mother from Brovary called me first. She was also evacuated to Lviv. The second call was from Olesia. In the first period of the war, Starobilsk was under occupation, we were in contact and I wondered what we could do to help our Luhansk colleagues. At that time there was no shelling in Lviv, people were coming and leaving (further — ed.).

And this mission fell on us from the first days of the war: who to save? Ourselves or our families, or our colleagues? But I also had to do everything at the same time. Lesia monitored the needs of our colleagues in the Luhansk Region. And we realized that museum workers do not have basic things: food, water, and medicine. Many of them did not receive a salary since February 24 but stayed there to defend their museums.

How did the Museum Crisis Center start? Well, it started with raising funds and giving them away, raising them – giving them away – we have still been dealing with since February 24. Our organization has existed since March 3, and, unfortunately, the situation has not changed. If it all started with the Luhansk region, now we have 10 regions. Our initiatives mostly deal with packing materials, and moving boxes, but our focus remains on money or funds for individual needs. Mostly everything is used on food, but sometimes a person receives some funds to evacuate someone or receive treatment.

Now the next phase has begun, when they reach those who help, this is done for optimization and budget reduction – and it is not only about museums, but also cultural and educational institutions. Therefore, we are already entering the stage when we need to be saved, we who struggled to save others, but at the same time we have taken responsibility for everyone, so the struggle continues.

Were you financially supported by foreign foundations or private individuals? Did they understand that money is needed for survival, not for cultural initiatives?

Olha Honchar: This had to be explained to them because mostly there were such initiatives that sent us a wagon of boxes, a wagon of packaging materials, which are also important, like fire extinguishers and some other basic things. What you see in Lviv, all came from abroad. And besides this help, it was necessary to convey at every meeting that we need quick individual financial help because all payments from ДІЯ (DIYA) and the UN take a long time. It is hard to live until the payments are made, but mostly money is needed here and now, especially when the issue of evacuation has arisen. It is also expensive. Sometimes this money can save a person’s life and there is no time to wait 2-3 months for it.

How can the public, or sponsors, help you?

Olha Honchar: There is a Facebook page of the Museum Crisis Center, where one can find the statistics of the museums with which we cooperate, there are statistics of funds raised and spent. One can get our bank accounts, usually, we give them personally. This financial process is administered by our partners – the public organization “Insha Osvita”, and we also carry out all administrative processes through the public organization “New Museum”. I am the founder of it since we have to work within the limits of the law so that we are not punished for doing good. Thus everything is checked. You can send money into our accounts, and we distribute it further. Now, most of the requests for help are from the south.

A question for Olesia Milovanova. What are you currently working on in the organization of museum work?

Olesia Milovanova: We have already had 2 events. The first “Lviv – Starobilsk” two museums, one war”, where we talked about the evacuation, our cooperation with the “Territory of Terror” museum, and how we escaped from the war and resumed work here. The second event took place before the anniversary of the formation of Luhansk Oblast, where we told a part of our eastern history called “Luhansk Space Industry” – about our achievements in space exploration. Therefore, we introduce our Luhansk history and culture to the residents of Lviv. There are also many of our Ukrainians here, I don’t like the word “immigrants” though who temporarily moved to Lviv.

Since the beginning of April, we have been gathering a new collection of our future victory in the Russian-Ukrainian war. It began with the first and coolest exhibit — the parachute of a downed Russian plane. I brought it whis my child and I had been traveling for 3 days with a small bag, and a parachute.

Фото з фейсбуку Луганського краєзнавчого музею

How did you manage to transport it?

Olesia Milovanova: After our victory, I will tell you all these adventures in detail. And this is really an interesting thing. Everyone is wondering what to take away first when fleeing from the war? Everyone thinks of underwear, socks, a bathrobe, documents, and pets, but there are things so close to the heart – photo albums, and gifts from grandmother, and we have a ceramic goose from Kreminna. Yes, it is a very interesting story, because the grandmother’s house was destroyed by the enemy, and there is such a tradition in the villages – to put ceramic birds between the window glass. And this family used to visit their grandmother’s house for many years and when they came again they only saw this little ceramic goose, the rest was destroyed, but this little goose survived.

Like a ceramic rooster from Borodianka.

Olha Honchar: Exactly


And who is interested in Luhansk history: locals or people who moved here?

Olesia Milovanova: Many people who have not been to the East. There are also many people originally from the East who have not been to Lviv. The two cultures are really different. And it’s so great, it’s so great! We complement each other perfectly. Sometimes we celebrate Easter, then the neighbors, some other days my neighbors bring me bread rings because they say it is the Feast of Corpus Christi. They ask: “And how are you?” I tell them about our East, about our cultural traditions, how our holidays are held, how our weddings are held. I have such cultural meetings with my neighbors in the evenings! It is interesting for those who have never been to the East, and who came here from there, they are more interested in communication.


When you worked in Starobilsk, were museum visitors interested in the history of the occupied part of the Luhansk region?

Olesia Milovanova: Our museum was very popular among residents and visitors from other regions. If we talk about the people of Starobilsk, they are very interested in and know the history of their small town. And we talked about the history of the entire region. We went beyond the boundaries and walls of the museum…

While the war was going on for those 8 years, and I don’t recognize the names as ATO, we were visited by many journalists and a lot of military personnel. Some soldiers were coming to the East for the first time, and therefore we suggested visiting the museum and learning about the history of the region where they are now. We took them around the city, I don’t want people to associate our East with separatists, with mines.


And what should it be associated with?

Olesia Milovanova: With beautiful Slobozhansk ethnic area, with rich Ukrainian history. We are the land not only of miners and farmers, it is the land of scientists, poets, and chemists, we are the descendants of the conquerors of space. We also have a European trace in history – the Belgian heritage. All this was very interesting to them.


Did you recreate all the museum’s storage?

Olesia Milovanova: No, in 2015 we moved to the base of the Starobil District Museum of Local Lore, and over these years we have collected another 5,000 new exhibits. Likewise, we have moved here and are collecting a new collection now. After the victory and liberation, we will first return to Starobilsk, take our collection, and then return to Luhansk, take our 4-story building and continue to work there.


Mrs. Olia, please tell me, maybe your colleagues from the south will read this interview. I understand that now it is difficult, sometimes dangerous to leave, but how can they apply for help at the Museum Crises Center?

Olha Honchar: We have our monitoring group, which works directly with museum employees. So our data contains now about 660 personal contacts and we receive information from our monitoring group or those whom we have already helped. You can write to me by email, then I will provide this questionnaire. We do not publish Google forms because it is dangerous. In general, all museum workers are in touch, there are not so many of us, but it happens that people find out after all the interviews that come out.


Mrs. Olesia, it is too early to talk about it, but how do you imagine the museum of the future after the liberation of the Luhansk region?

Olesia Milovanova: All the walls, starting with the Starobilsk collection and ending with the Luhansk 4-story building, are ours. Of course, we do not have long-term plans, because we will see what remains after the liberation of the territories. If the buildings survive, we take the collection that was collected in Lviv and take it to Luhansk. In Starobilsk, we are making a department of the Luhansk Regional Museum, as it should be.

A new team will work there because it’s clear that museums have always been used and are still used now as a tool of propaganda, and that is why we know that “ordinary fascism” gathers there, their exhibitions and their expositions about “Ukrainian crimes against Russians” or whatever. So everything will be reviewed there. Perhaps we will leave a couple of exhibits to talk about the period of occupation.