Oleksandra Kovalchuk, director of the Odesa Fine Arts Museum in Ukraine, had to flee with her husband and young son when Russia invaded on Feb. 24. She’s now in Massachusetts and working to protect the museum’s collection from afar. She’s also been speaking about the importance of preserving art and items of cultural significane in times of war. Photo courtesy of Odesa Fine Arts Museum

OGUNQUIT — Before her son was born, Oleksandra Kovalchuk used to say that the Odesa Fine Arts Museum in Ukraine’s third biggest city, where she served as director, was her baby, something she would fight fiercely to protect at all costs.

When Russia invaded her country on Feb. 24, she had a choice. She could stay and help protect the museum and its contents, risking her life and her son’s life in the process, or she could leave knowing the museum might not be standing whenever she was able to return.

“I was so worried for him, for his future,” Kovalchuk said of her now 21-month-old son, Yehor. “We see the way Russians have acted in the occupied territories, they would usually find representers of local government, especially from the party of (Ukrainian) President Zelensky, which I happen to be.

“So, after all the books that I’ve read on history of Nazis and history of repressions in Soviet Union and other totalitarian regimes, I knew what it would mean if they managed to occupy Odesa.”

Kovalchuk fled with her husband and son, bouncing for three weeks between hotels and staying with friends in the neighboring countries of Moldova, Romania and Bulgaria before flying to Massachusetts, where her parents live in a Boston suburb.

Since leaving her country, Kovalchuk can only watch the horrors of war unfold, but she’s still fighting for her museum from an ocean away.


The 37-year-old has made several appearances throughout the Northeast speaking about the importance of preserving art and cultural artifacts in a time of war, most recently last week at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art.

“I think everyone was really shell-shocked by her story,” Ogunquit museum director Amanda Lahikainen said. “It put so many things in perspective and offered a reminder that all museums need to work to preserve all cultures.”

In addition to speaking out here, Kovalchuk has been working with cultural organizations, mostly in Odesa, to help raise funds and provide logistical support to protect works of art and other items of cultural significance. Most museums and arts organizations in Ukraine didn’t plan ahead for an invasion and have had to scramble.

“Instead of making programming, we have become experts in bubble wrap and crates. I guess that could be some type of contemporary art,” Kovalchuk told an audience of about 70 people Tuesday in Ogunquit, one of a few light moments in an otherwise somber lecture.

Intentionally targeting cultural sites and property during wartime can constitute a war crime, per the 1954 Hague Convention, but Kovalchuk said she doesn’t expect Russia to abide by such guidance.

She recalled what Russian President Vladimir Putin said prior to the invasion.


“He said, ‘Ukraine doesn’t exist, it was invented,’ ” Kovalchuk said. “Well, our artwork, our heritage collections, that is what proves Ukraine existed. That’s why it’s so important to preserve.”


Ukraine first gained independence as a country in 1917.

That same year, Kovalchuk said, leaders established the Ukrainian Academy of Arts to underscore the vital link between art and heritage.

Many of the more than 10,000 objects inside the Odesa Fine Arts Museum predate the country’s independence, but its collection has grown in recent years to include more representation from the last century. Additionally, the museum has worked to reclaim the work of artists of Ukrainian heritage who have been classified as Russian.

Now, all of it is in limbo.


In mid-March, a missile strike shattered the windows of the Kharkiv Art Museum, which holds one of the country’s largest collections. A week later, the Kuindzhi Art Museum, devoted to the life and work of influential Ukrainian realist painter Arkhip Kuindzhi, was destroyed in the eastern city of Mariupol. And in Skovorodinovka, in the Kharkiv region, a museum dedicated to the Ukrainian philosopher Grigory Skovoroda was leveled by a Russian missile.

“In Skovorodinovka, there was nothing else around, no government or military targets and they directly hit the museum,” Kovalchuk said.

Throughout history, artwork has been targeted in wartime. In Nazi Germany prior to World War II, many pieces were burned. More recently, artwork in Syria has been destroyed.

“They destroy whatever doesn’t fit their narrative, and Ukrainian culture definitely doesn’t,” Kovalchuk said of the Russians.

Even after she fled, Kovalchuk worked with other museum staff in Odesa to remove works from the walls and put them someplace safe. But where is safe?

“There is no actual safe spot,” she said. “They are bombing everything.”


Lahikainen, who has been museum director in Ogunquit since 2021 and whose father was a longtime curator at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, said she’s thought a lot about ways to protect her museum’s collection, but has never had to think about bombs.

“There are always threats in trying to care for a collection, but that’s not one we’ve had to face directly,” she said.

Those who listened to Kovalchuk speak in Ogunquit were struck by the bleak choice she and so many others faced.

Carol Leary, a board member of the Ogunquit museum, said the photos Kovalchuk showed of empty and darkened museum walls were devastating.

“One of the thoughts I had as I was listening to her, I was so profoundly saddened by the depths of what she must be feeling personally,” she said. “There was so much silence in the room at the end, I don’t think anyone knew how to respond.”



Since arriving in the U.S., Kovalchuk has been in constant contact with family and colleagues back in Ukraine.

She still thinks about her decision to leave.

“Some people who are staying in Ukraine, they say it’s hard inside, but outside it’s even harder because you just feel this guilt and you feel like you’re not allowing yourself a normal life,” she said.

This month, her museum opened for the first time since February. It looks a lot different. There are only contemporary works on the wall from artists who understand the risk.

“I was crying,” Kovalchuk said of that news. “People do need art, even in time of war.”

As for the permanent collection, she said there have been talks about trying to move it out of the country temporarily.


“It’s an interesting concept, but let’s think where,” she said. “France? Italy? Germany? None of those places seem appealing. Right now, it is a very intriguing moment of history. We don’t know anymore. We just know we will not give it out to Russians.”

Art is a small world. Lahikainen first learned about Kovalchuk in a Boston Globe story back in March. The town where she’s been staying, Salem, is the same town where Lahikainen grew up. They attended a social function there in late spring, which led to an invitation to have Kovalchuk speak in Ogunquit.

As a parent of young children, Lahikainen said she empathized with Kovalchuk’s decision to leave.

“I’m sure it felt to her like this final choice, but everything she’s doing now, she’s still fighting to protect her museum and her culture,” the Ogunquit museum director said. “And she brought her 21-month-old up to a museum in Maine to give a talk in a foreign language because it matters.”

Leary said those who appreciate art don’t always understand how much it connects to cultural history.

“We’ve never experienced (in the U.S.) the attempt to eradicate a culture,” she said. “But that country has such incredible resilience. They keep coming back. And they will put those pieces back on the wall.”


During her visit to the Ogunquit museum, Kovalchuk stopped at a painting by Jacob Lawrence, a modernist painter who for much of the 20th century chronicled the African American experience through his work. The 1977 piece, titled “Carpenters,” was strikingly similar to a painting done 50 years earlier by Ukrainian artist Oleksandr Bogomazov that is part of the collection of The National Museum of Ukraine in Kyiv.

“These are two examples from different artists, in different nations at different times,” she said. “But there is a thing that I think all artists share, and that is hope.”

Kovalchuk has hope, too. That the war will end soon. That Ukrainian independence will be affirmed. That her museum will look as it did before late February.

“We are definitely going back,” she said. “I don’t even want to think about ‘if.’ Because if I think ‘if’ … it will be very bad news for humankind.”

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