A crowd is gathering outside the historic Ukrainian National Opera House in the center of Kyiv on a sunny Saturday.
Patrons are greeting each other with hugs. Some are clutching fresh flowers to present to dancers after the ballet, scheduled to begin mid-afternoon.
Valeriia Podemok has come with friends to help support the arts even as rockets and missiles land on Ukrainian homes and businesses.
“Russia wants to destroy our culture and our language. We want to do everything to support it and defend it,” she told Global News in an interview.
Another woman became emotional when asked why she was attending the performance.
Tapping her heart frequently as she speaks, the woman explains that her grandson is fighting in the war. She needed a brief escape from the horror and worry, she said.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February — attacking homes and businesses and occupying Ukrainian territories — the country has been fighting a second war: defending its cultural identity, which many agree is also under attack.
“They want to steal everything,” said Kateryna Tsimbaliuk, a mezzo-soprano who performs in the opera in Odessa.
Tsimbaliuk told Global News the country’s arts institutions are fighting back. She pleaded for other countries to help.
“Ukraine is a shield for all of Europe because nobody knows if he (Vladimir Putin) will stop here in Ukraine. We don’t know how far he will go. He will not stop,” she said in an interview.
Russia’s president has said publicly he doesn’t believe Ukraine really is a separate nation.
“The Russian propaganda machine says Ukraine does not have their culture, their identity, their history,” says Daryna Pidhorna, a lawyer with the Regional Centre for Human Rights.
“It should be destroyed, it should be shelled, it should be looted,” she said in an interview, describing Russia’s intent to wipe out her country’s cultural institutions.
Museums, galleries and other centres of culture have been heavily damaged by the Russian offensive.
They include at least 25 works by Maria Prymahenko, a self-taught folk artist whose colourful paintings depict daily Ukrainian life. They were burned by Russian troops who attacked the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum.
The Kuindzhi Art Museum in Mariupol was destroyed on March 21 when the eastern port city was shelled. It contained the paintings of Ukrainian realist Arksip Kuindzhi.
Russian attacks also damaged the Regional Art Museum in Chernihiv, the Kharkiv Art Museum, and the Hryhoriy Skovoroda National Literary Memorial Museum in Skovorodynivka.
Skovoroda is considered a prominent figure credited with redefining Ukrainian cultural identity. 2022 is the 300th anniversary of his birth.
“It’s obviously a war crime, a crime against humanity,” said Pidhorna.
Defending Ukrainian culture is nothing new for Olesya Ostrovska-Lyuta, director of Mystetskyi Arsenal in Kyiv and a former vice-minister of culture.
“This war is all about identity. It’s about the Russians’ idea that Ukraine does not exist, that Ukrainians do not exist as a separate society, as a separate nation,” she said in an interview.
Mystetskyi Arsenal recently opened a contemporary art exhibition called “An Exhibition About Our Feelings”. It encourages Ukrainian visitors to talk openly about how the war is affecting them.
“People should feel and should speak about their feelings. This is an exhibition about that,” said Anastasiia Yablonska, who is responsible for education programs at the institution described as Ukraine’s flagship cultural institution.
Many galleries and theatres are still closed because of safety concerns. The government is hoping that will change.
“Despite war, we believe that cultural institutions should operate, if possible. It’s most important for the public to attend,” said Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s deputy minister of culture and information.
At the opera house, many Ukrainians appear to agree, despite the risks. On Sunday, at least five people in attendance were wounded when Russian missiles struck Kyiv, the first attack on the Ukrainian capital in weeks.