(Bloomberg) — Katia Vozianova had gotten out.
The moment Russia invaded Ukraine, the Kiev-based art dealer had packed a small suitcase, hairdryer and a single framed watercolor and was on his way to the border with Romania. The following week, she volunteered by transporting medicines and supplies from Romania to Ukraine and spending the nights with seven others at a friend’s apartment in Chernivtsi, a Ukrainian city about 45 minutes from Romania.
But then, Vozianova says, she began to think about what she had left behind.
Vozianova is the Ukrainian representative of the London merchant James Butterwick, who specializes in modern and contemporary Ukrainian art. Some of the artists Butterwick sells are represented by Kiev dealer Oleksandr (Sasha) Shchelushchenko, whose Tsekh gallery is a major hub for contemporary art in the city. Together, Vozianova and Shchelushchenko had planned a major show of Ukrainian artist Ievgen Petrov’s work and had collected dozens of his artworks in the Kiev gallery in preparation for shipment to the UK.
In addition, Shchelushchenko’s gallery was filled with many works of art by three other artists, Mykola Bilous, Yaroslav Derkach and Rustam Mirzoev. Each is Ukrainian and each resides in a place already under Russian control or under active threat from Russian forces.
After some discussion, the two dealers decided they owed it to these artists to get that art out of town. “We had to put the art in a cave or somewhere underground,” Shchelushchenko says. “If it’s bombed, there could be fire, or even broken glass could destroy everything.”
They started planning a mission to Kiev to retrieve the art. “We tried to organize transport and a way to do it without getting killed,” says Vozianova. “That was our main task.”
Shchelushchenko eventually went back first, in part because his mother, who had been evacuated with him and his family, refused to continue traveling to Berlin with his wife and son. “My mother didn’t want to leave the country,” he explains. “She was born in 1942, so this is okay for her.” After spending a few days with him in Chernivtsi, she decided she wanted to return to Kiev.
Accompanied by his mother, Shchelushchenko drove back to his country house near the city of Vasylkiv, and soon he was joined by another 80-year-old, the mother of a close friend who had joined the Civil Defense. “Both old ladies are here with me,” he says on March 10 from his mansion, which in normal times would be about a 45-minute drive from Kiev city center. “They both destroy my brain, but it’s okay.”
Spurred on by a desire to get his paintings out of town—and perhaps in an effort to get a break from his two octogenarian flatmates—Shchelushchenko planned his trip to Kiev.
He decided to drive his wife’s bright orange Subaru (“it’s like an exotic bird, and it definitely doesn’t look like the enemy,” he explains). Armed with all the documentation he could find showing that his primary residence and business are in Kiev, he made his way through a series of checkpoints and convinced a series of attentive guards that he was not, in fact, a Russian agent.
In the beginning, Shchelushchenko says, he wasn’t exactly a beacon of courage. “The first two days I was completely nervous,” he says. ‘Now I am so brave, but the first day I was a mouse. I was a wreck, I didn’t know what to do.”
Luckily he had some help.
Complicated and dangerous
While in town, he was joined by a number of patrons of the gallery, including his friend Maksym Cherkasenko, a lawyer who had joined the civil defense.
Everyone spent a day getting paintings and drawings out of frames and rolling them up, but there was a finite amount of art—just 20 paintings or so—that Shchelushchenko could take to the countryside. His wife’s Subaru, it turned out, was excellent for comforting army checkpoints, but not ideal for transporting art.
“The problem is — if it’s a small car — if you drive around with art in the car, people keep stopping you and asking you to open it up to see if it has any weapons in it,” Shchelushchenko says. This meant that traversing each village from Kiev to his manor involved lengthy discussions with civil defense. “If you’re from another city, they ask where you’re going, so you should always talk with conviction about what you’re doing and what your motivation is,” he says. “And you also have to speak the Ukrainian language.”
This meant that Shchelushchenko’s first trip with his 20 paintings was going to be his last, at least until he could somehow scratch a moving van. “It’s just so complicated to move from city to city,” he says. “Complicated and dangerous.”
Shchelushchenko plans to remain in or near Kiev even after the art has moved on. “I’ll stay and help the local army,” Shchelushchenko says. “I am not a warrior, I have no experience. I’ve never fought in my life.” He doesn’t want to, he continues, “kill anyone. But I can do other work and help them build walls against tanks, so I’m definitely staying.”
Back in Chernivtsi, Vozianova became restless. She had continued to transport medical supplies and foodstuffs to Ukraine, but she had stored artwork in her apartment in Kiev that no one could pick up.
“It’s hard to find someone you can trust in the first place,” she says. “And you don’t know under what conditions they’re going to drive.” Most importantly, she continues, “most people are just trying to get out of Kiev.”
So on Sunday she decided to drive back too. Sitting in the passenger seat – “my friend is a much faster driver than me” – they arrived back in Kiev in about eight hours and stopped once to accelerate. After a small line of cars through checkpoints, Vozianova reached the city center. “It’s kind of weird in Kiev,” she says. “It’s very, very quiet. You can hear birds singing.”
The center of Kiev, she continues, is untouched. “The bombed-out bridges, those horrible pictures you see, it’s in the suburbs,” she says. “That’s why it’s so strange: in the city center you don’t see any broken houses or damage, but you realize that 20 kilometers away is a war zone.”
After loading her car with paintings from her apartment, she stopped at several friends’ houses to pick up valuables and souvenirs they had left in their dashboard from the capital. Then she drove to Shchelushchenko, who gave her additional art roles – about 30 works by Petrov and Bilous. With her car packed to the roof, she drove back to Chernivtsi. It took longer to get back because she had to spend the night in a hotel given the curfew. But on Wednesday morning, she and the art were safe.
Now, says Vozianova, the question is what to do with it. None of the artists, she says, have said anything about their endangered artworks. “None of them have complained,” she says. “It never came up in a conversation.”
“We have non-stop contact with them,” she continues. “Mykola is a very strong man. He said, ‘I don’t care, I’m going to protect my house and my studio, I’ll never leave.'” Petrov, she continues, “is in Odessa, and of course he does.” doesn’t want to leave either, none of them want to.” As soon as they change their mind, she says, “We’re going to get them out right away.”
Meanwhile, both dealers try to find a way to exhibit and sell the work of their artists. “We are optimists, we do not cry,” says Shchelushchenko. “Of course, if you called me a week ago, it would be a sad story about poor Ukrainian refugees. But now it’s totally changed.”
This post Ukrainian art dealers race back to Kiev to save artworks from warpath was original published at “https://www.bloombergquint.com/pursuits/ukraine-art-dealers-race-to-kyiv-to-save-artwork-from-war-bombings”