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Storytelling as Survival: Surrounded by War, Ukrainians Preserve Stories of Tragedy and Resilience

—Image courtesy of Museum of Civilian Voices

“The first text entry from some journalist appeared on Twitter saying that a mortar attack was taking place in Romanivka, that there was shelling of civilians during evacuation and that a family had died…I hoped until the last that it was not my family.”
— Serhii Perebyinis

Serhii Perebyinis shares how he learned of the deaths of his wife and children in this devastating account documented by the Museum of Civilian Voices of the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation (MCV). It is one of more than 100,000 firsthand testimonies collected by MCV. 

On February 24, 2022 Russia launched a military invasion of Ukraine with Russian forces committing widespread attacks against civilians. On February 18, 2023, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken determined that members of Russia’s forces and other Russian officials had committed crimes against humanity in Ukraine. 

Two years after the military invasion, we spoke with the MCV about their efforts to preserve and share the personal stories of individuals affected by the war.

Can you tell us when the Ukrainian Museum of Civilian Voices was founded, and what your Mission is?

The Museum of Civilian Voices (MCV) is the world’s largest collection of stories from civilians who have suffered from Russia’s war against Ukraine. The MCV can trace its inception back to 2014, when the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation deployed its Here to Help Humanitarian Center to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in the Donbas. Thanks to its activities, the Center helped save three and a half million people—many of whom shared their stories with the Foundation. As a result, the Foundation was able to gather thousands of stories from Donbas civilians and compile them into a unique online museum. 

The mission of the MCV is to collect, file, categorize, and share the stories of Ukraine’s civilians for a better understanding of life amid the war and to lay the foundation for a better future. All the stories posted in the MCV were told by their authors in the first person and reflect their own personal lived experiences. These Ukrainians’ stories were collected and then published with their permission. The MCV also aims to become a unique psychotherapeutic project that will contribute to the psychological well-being and mental health of Ukrainians traumatized by the war by giving them the opportunity to share their stories.

How does the Museum of Civilian Voices document, protect, and share stories?

The MCV aims to be the primary source of truth; it records testimonies during the war and publishes them on an online portal, where they are then accessible for use and sharing by any and all who are interested in preserving historical memory. Each of these first-hand narratives are guided by the presumption of trust and honesty in people who choose to share their stories. 

At the MCV, we are developing a methodology for collecting stories using modern scientific approaches. Employees and volunteers of the MCV provide people with the opportunity to share their stories in the way that is most comfortable and convenient for them. As the war continues to rage, the list of civilians' stories keeps growing by the day. Anyone who wants the world to know their story is welcome to share by visiting the MCV portal, calling its toll-free hotline, or using the chatbot.

The MCV makes every effort to ensure the memory of the war is not falsified and that justice is restored. We consider it important not only to collect, but also to share stories so the world knows the truth about Russia's crimes in Ukraine. For this purpose, the MCV initiated discussions on creating documentaries and developing a methodology for collecting stories during the war. In 2023, the MCV held the first International Forum of Oral History of Ukraine.

Our partners include the USC Shoah Foundation, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, the Maria Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin, and The Museum of the History of the City of Kyiv.

Learn about the experience of Serhii Perebyinis, who learned of the deaths of wife and children on social media.

Why is storytelling important?

By communicating with people who have experienced and suffered directly from the ongoing war, and recording and preserving their stories while the memories are still fresh, the Museum works to preserve the national memory of Ukraine and combat Russian misinformation. This is very important because the firsthand account of each person is not only honest, painful, and scary, but it is also a piece of the modern history of Ukraine. All these stories are our common memory, which must be cherished and preserved, so that the truth about the war is not forgotten, and that the names, voices, and faces of its witnesses and victims do not turn into cold statistics.

In addition, when a person who has not lived through the war watches and listens to these stories, they will feel these emotions and understand the tragedy that Ukrainians are facing. This has a significant impact on the perception of the war in Ukraine by other countries and on the attitude towards aid to our country from the international community.

In Ukraine, we are all confident that we will ultimately prevail and maintain our sovereignty. We are also confident justice will be served against all who were involved in committing crimes during the war—including the propagandists, the Russian elite, and those who gave the orders to the direct executors. The stories of people collected by the MCV are, in fact, testimonies. These are the voices of direct witnesses to the events, who talk about what they and their loved ones experienced. Several heroes whose stories are included in the MCV archive have already given their testimony at the People's Tribunal in The Hague in March 2023—and this is just the beginning of the journey to justice.

Learn about the experience of Alla Nechyporekno during the Russian occupation of the town of Bucha, Ukraine.

Can you share some of the priorities and hopes of those who shared their stories?

Vladyslav, Mariupol: I will remember all those who died, all those who sacrificed their lives in the name of peace. Anatoliy Kochnov, Mariupol: In the first place, I will go to Mariupol… But only to our Ukrainian Mariupol. Iryna Orel, Bakhmut: I want to go home, I want back (my) home! Even if it is destroyed, I want to go home! Valentyna Martynenko, Kyiv region: I want to travel around Ukraine so much now. Just get in the car and go… Olha Shoptenko, Kyiv region: I had my 70th birthday just recently. I said, I’ll celebrate it when our victory comes!

Learn about the experience of Liudmyla Veselko and her husband in the Kyiv region of Ukraine.

What can US policymakers do to support peace, documentation, and accountability in Ukraine? What can the American public do to support the people of Ukraine?

From Natalya Yemchenko, a member of the Supervisory Board for the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation: 

As for US policymakers, how they can best help bring about peace in Ukraine is by supporting Ukraine's accession to NATO as soon as possible, in addition to continued support for Ukraine until the end of the war. One of the areas which the US can best provide support is in preserving and spreading the truth about the reality of the war, including in the United States. This war is occurring live and before our eyes, and we already have millions of civilian and military testimonies, which are essentially serving as an online archive of this war. This needs to be turned into a real archive that can be preserved, digitized, studied and disseminated, ideally with the support of American scholars, museum institutions, and technology companies (such as Google). This will make the truth recorded, the process transparent, and Ukraine as clear and visible to Americans as possible.

As for ordinary Americans, yes, they are helping a lot, but where they could do more is in spreading the truth about this war, as told by ordinary people who are living through it and sharing their own experiences.

You can find the full versions of Serhii Perebyinis, Alla Nechyporenko, and Liudmyla Veselko’s testimonies, as well as many more stories of war and resilience in the Museum of Civilian Voices digital collection.