Story #118: Savyntsi Native Restores Community Culture Post Russian Occupation

October 16, 2023
Victoria Zaritska narrates about Russian unsuccessful attempts to erase Savyntsi culture and its role in improving residents' moral state.

Roofless buildings, mined lands, and a fearful atmosphere characterize Savyntsi village a year after it was liberated. In these conditions, Victoria Zaritska does her best to bring the local community together and organize cultural activities for the residents.

"People were so depressed," Victoria recalls her return to the settlement after Ukraine regained control. "Only now we are returning to our usual living."

The first thing Victoria, the head of the Savyntsi settlement council's Department of Culture, Tourism, Youth, and Sports, told us was how happy she was that the roof above the local music school would be restored because they had finally found donors.

Russia occupied Savyntsi village in Kharkiv Oblast for six months. No one expected the 'guests' to stay for so long, according to Victoria. But when the shelling became constant and the roof of her neighbors' house burned down, the scope of Russian plans became clear, and she fled to save her children.

"Nevertheless, I tried to keep everything under control from afar: I asked friends to hide all equipment, including our computers and music equipment. People risked their lives and kept it all in the basements or in the attics. We spoke on the phone, not often, but I knew almost everything."

During the occupation, Russia established its own cultural department. The liberation of Savyntsi happened just in time, Victoria says, because the occupants were unable to carry out most of their plans, including confiscating all books in Ukrainian.

Currently, just 2 of the 15 cultural establishments have been restored, and some, such as the Zalyman village House of Culture, are unsalvageable. Thus, many people are still unemployed as their previous place of work no longer exists.

Destroyed Zalyman village House of Culture

When Victoria returned, she had no idea where to begin and, frankly speaking, her options were severely limited.

"We couldn't move freely because the area was riddled with mines. And so, we initially established a volunteer center in the Savyntsi House of Culture. We wove nets, made candles, and created thermal heaters that create heat using oxygen."

This helped residents band together and alleviate their collective stress. Over time, more than 50 women joined the occasional handicraft club, which eventually led to the formation of the volunteer group called "Berehynia".

The same location has become critical for children's leisure time because they are unable to attend kindergarten, school, or even leave their homes at times.

We try to provide children with the opportunity to communicate with each other through creating something together, some boxes, some toys, etc. We encourage them to meet for at least half an hour every day just to have something to look forward to. This is our way of engaging the public and assisting our people in overcoming depression.

The cultural life of Ukrainian villages isn't something conspicuous in the global arena. However, it serves another purpose - not representative, but supportive, which makes it unique.

Locals who know each other gather to play or listen to their children play music, sing in unison, read the same books from the local library, and help each other with humanitarian needs since the war began.

Victoria recognizes that the liberation of Savyntsi didn't move the village much farther from the frontlines, and as a cultural worker, she does not prioritize culture over other people's basic needs. However, she seizes every opportunity to integrate culture into the daily life of the settlement. As she puts it, this war is about more than just territory; it is also about preserving our country's culture.

Yelyzaveta Dzhulai
Journalist at UkraineWorld