I set out for Ukraine on a cold, clear morning in March, four weeks after the Russian invasion. A taxi whisked me 150 miles east from Krakow, Poland, toward the border town of Budomierz, past a convoy of trucks without license plates that, my driver told me, were almost certainly carrying weapons to the front. Then I crossed the border on foot. My Ukrainian interpreter was waiting for me. During the 70-minute drive into Lviv, western Ukraine’s largest city, we passed sandbagged checkpoints and posters proclaiming “Don’t Run Away, Protect Ukraine” and “Russians, Go F— Yourselves.”
Lviv, a jewel of cobblestone alleys, Hapsburg-era palaces and squares, and churches dating to the Middle Ages, possessed a veneer of calm. In the nave of the Baroque Peter and Paul Garrison Church—now a frequent site of military funerals for soldiers killed in combat against Russia—three workmen, balancing themselves on scaffolding, wrapped a fireproof blanket around an 18th-century angel. As I strolled beside City Hall, in medieval Rynok Square, the late afternoon hubbub of street musicians and cafégoers was shattered by an air raid siren. It blasted from loudspeakers mounted on the building’s four-story clock tower, sending pedestrians scurrying into shelters. Others gambled that the Russians wouldn’t target the city center and ignored the warning. On this day no attack came.
The Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum in Lviv had been closed since the first day of the war. But by a side entrance of the opulent former villa, dating to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, I met Ihor Kozhan, the museum director. A short, burly man in his late 60s, with a kindly visage and tufts of brown hair sprouting from the sides of his pate, Kozhan led me up a flight of marble stairs in the museum’s deserted atrium. We walked through an arched doorway flanked by Corinthian columns and entered an exhibition hall that had been stripped bare. “This room was filled with religious icons,” he told me, pointing out rows of white climate-controlled display cabinets containing nothing but brass mounts.
On the morning of February 24, Kozhan awakened to the news of the Russian invasion. “All of the Western countries had been claiming that troops were massing, but our government insisted that nothing was going to happen,” he told me as we strolled through one empty gallery after another. “The Ministry of Culture gave no hints about what was going on. So we had no plan.” Blindsided, Kozhan told his wife and daughter to stay safe, and then he steeled himself and went to work.
His first decision, a difficult one, was to immediately shut down the museum. Two years of the pandemic had been hard on the staff, and, with the situation inching back to normal, they had been busy planning an exhibition of the modernist Lviv painter Oleksa Novakovsky, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his birth. Now that project was scrapped. Instead, Kozhan and his employees met to formulate a strategy to protect the museum’s 1,800 objects on display—Ukrainian modern art, illuminated manuscripts and sacred icons spanning 800 years. Kozhan was particularly concerned about the pride of the collection, regarded by many scholars as the greatest example of Baroque-era religious art in Central Europe: the Bohorodchany Iconostasis. For more than two centuries it had been caught up in the region’s invasions, conflicts and shifting borders. Over the years the enormous, elaborate wooden altarpiece had been hastily disassembled and transported to safety, claimed as a spoil of war, tossed aside and left to rot. It had finally settled into a gallery of its own at the National Museum nine years earlier.
Now it was threatened once again.
Even in a genre known for its dazzling opulence, the Bohorodchany Iconostasis stands by itself. Created between 1698 and 1705 by the Galician monk and painter Yov Kondzelevych and a team of at least 20 artisans, the iconostasis is a 42-foot-high, 36-foot-wide wall of gilded icons and other religious scenes set in exquisitely ornate wooden frames and crowned by a huge gold depiction of the Crucifixion. Ivan Tyktor, a Ukrainian-born publisher and community leader in Lviv, called it “the pinnacle of Ukrainian art.” Originally, the iconostasis hung inside a wooden church at the Manyava Orthodox Monastery in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, in what was then Polish Galicia. But in 1782, a decade after Austria-Hungary annexed the region, the Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II ordered the monasteries throughout the empire to shut down, calling them “sources of superstition,” and appropriated their land. Three years later, the community of Bohorodchany, 16 miles to the north, paid the equivalent of about $12 for the giant altarpiece. It was moved to the town’s Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity, belonging to a Byzantine branch of Catholicism, where it hung in obscurity for more than a century. “If such antiquity was in France, every child there would know about such a precious monument, and all educated people would contribute to its maintenance,” wrote an amazed Victor Tissot, a Swiss-French journalist who visited Bohorodchany in the late 19th century.
The iconostasis was still hanging in Bohorodchany when, in August 1914, weeks after the start of World War I, the army of Czar Nicholas II, approaching from the east, launched a massive assault on Galicia, the northernmost territory of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, comprising modern-day western Ukraine and parts of Poland. Russian troops stormed across the border, setting off a panicked exodus. Just as in early 2022, thousands of people streamed into the central railway station in Lviv, hoping to find transport heading west. One writer described “choked full evacuation trains from Lwòw,” using the Polish name for the city. “So desperate were people to get out, they were riding on the carriage roofs. There, in the capital of Galicia . . . ruled a chaos.” The Hapsburg Army launched three futile counteroffensives against the Russians in the Carpathian Mountains. The casualties on both sides numbered over a million men.
Amid the chaos and violence, a company of Austro-Hungarian troops risked their lives to save the obscure religious icon. Riding into Bohorodchany, perilously close to the front lines, “the soldiers began to dismantle the iconostasis and pack it—to the joyful surprise of the residents, [who awakened] from sleep began to crowd in the streets,” wrote one witness. The soldiers, assisted by locals, disassembled the iconostasis in one night, loaded the dozens of parts onto trucks, and transported them to a museum in Vienna.
For most of the past century, the Bohorodchany Iconostasis has been seen only in fragments, if at all. Austria-Hungary surrendered the iconostasis to Poland after its defeat in the First World War, and it hung in the Royal Castle in Warsaw. In 1924, Andrey Sheptytsky, a leader of the local Greek Catholic Church and a Ukrainian nationalist living in Lviv, bought the iconostasis for the equivalent of $4,000. He displayed parts of the huge masterpiece in a museum dedicated to Ukrainian iconography that he had founded on Lviv’s Drahomanov Street, known first as the Lviv Ecclesiastical Museum and later renamed the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum in Lviv.
Still, the artwork’s trials weren’t over. In 1939, the Soviet Union occupied the region, and held it until the Nazis invaded two years later. In 1944, toward the end of World War II, the Soviets seized control of the region again, merging parts of Galicia with present-day eastern Ukraine, greatly expanding the size of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Declaring war on religion, Stalin’s commissars shut down churches, destroyed icons and dismantled the Bohorodchany Iconostasis. They hung one of the work’s 50 panels in a folklore museum and warehoused the rest in Lviv’s shuttered 14th-century Armenian Cathedral. And there it remained, gathering dust, until the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
After Ukraine gained its independence, in 1991, the masterpiece was reassembled, restored and finally placed on full display at the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum in Lviv in 2013. One year later, Vladimir Putin’s forces seized Crimea and kindled an uprising in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, planting the seeds for this year’s full-scale invasion.
Ukraine’s national identity is still evolving. The Ukrainian-speaking region once known as Galicia, in the west, with its longstanding ties to Austria, Poland and Central Europe, developed a culture that was distinct from the rest of the country, which was ruled by Imperial Russia from the 18th century until the early 20th century. Yet many people I met in Ukraine cite a common origin in Kievan Rus’, a loose federation in Northern and Eastern Europe founded by the ninth-century nobleman Oleg Novgorod and centered in Kyiv. Others describe a shared experience of long-ago invasions and conquests, from the Khazars to the Mongols. The Ukrainian language and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church created a kindred spirit, too, though Russian speakers make up the majority east of Kyiv and the Dnieper River. Ukraine’s suffering under Joseph Stalin, including a forced famine that killed more than three million Ukrainians, as well as Ukraine’s 21st century experiment with democracy and Vladimir Putin’s violent meddling since 2014, have all strengthened a sense of national solidarity.
Another thing that binds east and west is art, especially now, with Ukrainians determined to protect their cultural legacy from destruction by Russian troops.
Officials in Lviv are coordinating a rescue campaign that extends across the country. In late February, Olha Honchar, the director of a Lviv museum that documents Stalin-era atrocities, launched the Museum Crisis Center with a colleague to support their beleaguered counterparts across Ukraine. When I met Honchar, in March, the center had already wired €15,000 to 280 employees of museums in areas that had sustained the heaviest assaults—Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Sumy and the “independent” Russia-backed states of Luhansk and Donetsk. The money was to provide food and other necessities for workers who were attempting to safeguard collections.
Liliya Onyshchenko-Shvets, the director of Lviv’s cultural heritage office, initiated an online data bank that allows museum directors across Ukraine to report war damage and identify their needs. She arranged with Poland for the delivery of thousands of fire extinguishers and fireproof blankets; she distributed them to churches across the Lviv oblast, or region. “We have 2,000 wooden churches, many on the Unesco heritage list,” she told me. All are considered highly vulnerable.
Ihor Kozhan, meanwhile, concentrated on the National Museum’s most famous work.
The artist who created the Bohorodchany Iconostasis, Yov Kondzelevych, was born in 1667 in Zhovkva, a center of painting and wood carving located 20 miles north of Lviv. At 19, Kondzelevych left home and entered a monastery in nearby Volhynia, where, experts speculate, his Ukrainian identity began to take hold. “In those days one of the most important means of identifying yourself was through the church,” Taras Otkovych, an art restorer and historian in Lviv who wrote his doctoral thesis on the Bohorodchany Iconostasis, told me. “He was Ukrainian Orthodox, and that separated him from the Poles and the Russians.”
Not much is known in detail about his life, but Kondzelevych is thought to have fallen under the tutelage of the great Baroque icon painter Ivan Rutkovych, who kept a studio in Zhovkva and whose masterpiece, the Zhovkva Iconostasis, also hung in the National Museum in Lviv until it was removed earlier this year. In 1698, Kondzelevych received a commission from the Manyava Skete, or Monastery, which had 200 monks and controlled more than 500 other monasteries in Galicia. Kondzelevych assembled 20 carpenters, joiners, goldsmiths and other artisans, and established a workshop at the Carpathian retreat. He remained there with his team for seven years.
They created a vast tableau of 50 panels of varying sizes displayed across five “registers,” or rows. The central painting depicts an enthroned, golden-crowned Christ the Sovereign. Other icons portray saints, the Last Supper, the Ascension, the Archangel Gabriel and other Christian subjects. But Kondzelevych also included numerous biblical scenes that had never been depicted in Ukrainian iconography, such as Christ and Nicodemus, which shows Jesus attended by an early follower mentioned in the Gospel of John; the Temptation in the Desert, which portrays Jesus resisting the enticements of Satan after fasting for 40 days and nights; and the Apostles at the Tomb of the Virgin Mary. Beautiful wooden frames, intricately overlaid with floral panels, small Rococo-like brackets and garlands of cherubs, set the paintings off from one another. Between the frames stand dark columns covered with spiraling golden grape vines. “The unique motif of the Ukrainian iconostasis is the vines on the columns, growing out of the body of Christ, springing out toward the top,” Kozhan told me, as we entered the large room in which the Bohorodchany Iconastasis had hung, divided into three sections and mounted on three walls.
The naturalism of Kondzelevych’s images, with their vibrant colors and the individualized facial expressions of the figures, marked a dramatic departure from the formalized Byzantine art that had shaped Ukrainian iconography through the 17th century. Art historians have praised the subtle emotions depicted by Kondzelevych, the corporeal detail and energy that infuses each scene. “The image of the Savior carries…inner dynamic action, gaining a convincing real completeness,” Vasil Romanyuk wrote in his research article “History of the Journeys of the Bohorodchany Iconostasis.” “In the image of the Mother of God we see the suffering of the mother…thus the artist affirms the greatness of the suffering man.” M. Fedyuk, a Ukrainian art scholar, described Kondzelevych’s work as representing the consummate fusion of the ornate Byzantine style with the humanism of the Western European Renaissance. “The Western artist could not have known the Eastern tradition so well,” he wrote, “nor could the man of the East have come so close to Western art to create such a harmonious whole from those two world views.” The masterpiece helped forge a distinct Ukrainian identity, separate from that of its giant neighbor to the east. For Kozhan, the realistic depictions of human beings, so different from what he calls the “very still, very stiff” style of Russian sacred art (“it’s barely changed since the 14th century”), is captured by the nickname bestowed on Kondzelevych by art historians: ‘The Ukrainian Raphael.”
Kozhan’s own life story reflects his devotion to Ukrainian culture. Born in Lviv in 1953, he was the son of Ukrainian nationalists who instilled in him a political consciousness from an early age. “I listened to the talks that my parents had with their friends in their kitchens, the kind you cannot discuss with anyone else,” he told me, as we left the galleries and headed down a flight of stairs to his office. He studied history at Ivano Franko University in Lviv. There he associated with a group of fellow Ukrainian activists who revered Taras Shevchenko, a mid-19th-century poet, writer and artist from central Ukraine, who is known as “the apostle of Ukrainian identity.” Kozhan and other dissidents clandestinely put up posters in Lviv celebrating Shevchenko—who agitated for Ukrainian independence in the 1840s, wrote poems in Ukrainian and ridiculed the czar—but their rebellion ended in 1973. The KGB ordered Kozhan’s expulsion, along with seven faculty members and 19 other students, for, he told me, “activities that didn’t align with the Communist regime.” After his academic expulsion, he served in the Soviet Army, then tried to return to Ivano Franko University, but the authorities “wouldn’t allow me do it,” he says. He earned his college degree elsewhere in Ukraine, and afterward went to work for the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum in Lviv, rising to assistant director.
Meanwhile, the Soviets were systematically dismantling Ukraine’s artistic heritage. Communist apparatchiks tossed sacred artworks into the streets. They confiscated more than 2,000 icons that were displayed in the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum and warehoused all but a dozen of these Ukrainian glories in the medieval Armenian Cathedral, one of Lviv’s oldest surviving buildings, which was allowed to slowly fall apart. Some of the National Museum’s employees, Kozhan told me, “would ride through the villages looking for icons and find them tossed on the ground.” Under the Communists, the museum was dedicated to displays of Soviet folklore and arts and crafts.
Then, in 1991, the failed putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev led swiftly to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The incoming local Ukrainian government designated the Hapsburg-era villa then housing the city’s Lenin Museum as the new home of the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum, and named Kozhan director. “I got a phone call from the city council,” he recalled. “They said, ‘Liquidate the Lenin Museum.’” Kozhan kept some Russian rugs and a scale model of the Aurora, the famous ship that fired the first shot of the October 1917 revolution, and tossed out almost everything else. As we made our way down to his office, he pointed out the window to a dingy courtyard, where a bust of Lenin still lay discarded among other debris.
Kozhan’s next step was to fill the empty halls with Ukrainian artworks that had been moldering in storage. But it wasn’t until 1997 that restorers began to prepare the Bohorodchany Iconostasis for public viewing. “It was serious work,” Taras Otkovych, director of the restoration team, said as we ate cheesecake and sipped cappuccinos in the Café Virmenka in Lviv’s Old City. “The painting was really dark. At first scientists thought it was the artist’s technique, but we realized that it was the way the painting had been treated.” Neglected for decades, the paintings were covered with grime. Old varnish needed to be stripped away; misguided restorers seeking to improve the masterwork a century earlier had painted over many icons. Otkovych’s team conducted chemical analyses, X-rayed the paintings to determine the look of the original layers and used cotton swabs and gentle emulsion cleaners to remove dirt and old varnish. The restoration took seven years. In 2013, the entire Bohorodchany Iconostasis was put on display for the first time in a century.
This past March, Kozhan supervised its dismantling for the seventh time in its history. Twelve museum workers toiled for four days, removing the ingenious wooden joints that had locked the icons to their frames, then carefully separating the giant panels into dozens of parts. Kozhan held up several of the crude-but-effective locking mechanisms as he gestured to a large color wall photograph of the iconostasis. “Every piece was linked,” he told me, demonstrating how the far right section of the masterwork—consisting of two columns, a golden crown, side ornamentation, the main painting and two small icons—had been disassembled into eight pieces
By order of the Ministry of Culture, the storage place of the Bohorodchany Iconastasis had to be kept secret. Kozhan agreed to show it to me on the condition that I revealed no details that could give it away. The next day, I rendezvoused with an aide in Lviv, and she led me down a flight of stairs to a basement. There, I set eyes on hundreds of icons and other treasures. Parts of the Bohorodchany Iconostasis were stacked together without wrapping. Kozhan was confident that they’d be well protected, though he’d reached out to colleagues in Poland to make contingency plans. “Putin’s idea of this war is to destroy Ukrainian nationality, and our task at the museum is to preserve it,” Kozhan told me. “This museum is supposed to show that the Ukrainian nation is an old one, that we weren’t created by Lenin. It goes back to ancient times.” Putin, he declared, would never succeed.
The Manyava Monastery, where the astonishing artwork was created, lies in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, 110 miles south of Lviv. Just beyond the city of Ivano-Frankivsk, with the snowcapped mountain range spread before us, my interpreter and I turned off a two-lane highway and followed a dirt road past the village of Bohorodchany. Half an hour later, we drove across an old wooden bridge, then inched up a steep, muddy track leading to the hermitage, a stone-walled compound overlooking a riverine gorge and pine-covered hills. As we walked through the gate, I took in the peacock-blue-and-golden onion domes, rising from churches, a bell tower and a four-story library.
We walked into a butterscotch-colored wooden church topped by three dark-brown, pyramidal tiled roofs. In the nave stood a replica of the Bohorodchany Iconostasis, created after the monastery reopened in 1998 after having been closed for more than 200 years. “The artists went several times to Lviv and studied the original, and tried to copy it as closely as they could,” said Ioasaf Stasiuk, Manyava’s 23-year-old deputy bishop, a cherubic-looking man wearing a brown robe, his black hair pulled back into a ponytail. Even without having seen the original, except in pieces inside the basement in Lviv, I could easily discern that this iconostasis was an inexpert knockoff: the depictions of Jesus, Mary and the saints were less realistic, more cartoonish, and the tableau lacked depth and richness of color. The work had taken eight months, I was told, and cost $28,000. Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire chocolate baron who was elected Ukraine’s president before Volodymyr Zelensky, had contributed much of the funding.
The Manyava Monastery had begun modestly. In 1601 a religious ascetic named Ihor Manyaski retreated to this gorge and built a crude hut on the hillside. “He became popular among monks,” Ioasaf Vasylkyv, the monastery’s 67-year-old, gray-bearded bishop, said, as we sipped herbal tea in his library. “They started to come to him, and they stayed beside him. And eventually about 20 of them founded the monastery.” Manyava flourished, becoming the dominant hermitage in Galicia, until its abrupt closure in 1785, the dispersal of its monks, and the confiscation of the Bohorodchany Iconostasis and other icons. During shelling in World War I the original wooden church burned down. In 1978, the Soviets announced plans to make the abandoned complex a retreat for cosmonauts. “But they failed,” Vasylkyv told me. “God did not permit this to happen.”
Vasylkyv reopened the destroyed compound in May 1998. “For two years I was alone here,” he told me. “Everything was in ruins.”
Vasylkyv led me down the main path through the monastery, redolent of wood smoke from heating and cooking stoves. He pointed out the fragments of the original structures that were still standing when he arrived: the base of the outer wall, the bell-tower archway, the bottom floor of the four-story library tower. With donations and God’s support, he said, he had put Manyava back together. The monastery has reclaimed its place as one of the holiest Eastern Orthodox sites in the region, drawing thousands of pilgrims a year. It now housed seven monks and had just opened its doors to several families of war refugees who had fled from eastern Ukraine.
Vasylkyv had two wishes, he said. The first was for the return to the monastery of the original Bohorodchany Iconostasis, a prospect that seemed unlikely. “We asked and we asked, and they still said ‘no,’” deputy bishop Ioasaf Stasiuk told me in the wooden church earlier that afternoon. Indeed, Kozhan had said as much to me in a conversation at the museum in Lviv two days earlier. “The general principle is that what goes into the museum doesn’t come out,” he said. But the bishop’s second wish seemed potentially more attainable, if far from certain: a Ukrainian victory in this latest catastrophic war. “I hope you have good health,” he said, escorting us through the front gate as the sun dipped behind the forested hills. “And may the Russian president and the Russian Army never enter here.”