“We had exhibits about the ATO and OOS. And we were occupied, there were soldiers with guns walking around. They walked in groups of five. We snuck into the museum and took out these materials, we even took the computers. You understand, if they had caught us, they would have thrown us into the basement. I don't know what would have happened to us. It would be considered looting. I'm the director of the museum, and under Ukrainian law, taking things from my museum…. But because they were occupying, I'm a looter. I'm nobody. I'm stealing from the “young republic”. They would have thrown me in jail. And there were a lot of materials about the ATO and OOS: lists, people, addresses, contacts. We collected a lot of that information. And if they had used that information, they would have had everyone...what they didn't learn from informants...where they fought, how they died. And there were even “evidence of their criminal activity as fascists and Nazis”. And we had to take those materials, both in paper form and electronic...we took them out in paper form. And I said: “What about the computers? Everything is still in there”. So we started taking out the computers. We couldn't leave the materials behind. How could we not take them out? They would have killed the guys.”
“While it was still “lawlessness”, while they were looking for ATO soldiers, I was still hiding. And then they called and offered me a job. That's when I realized that they had come for me. [...] Their goal is not to come and beat you up. Their goal for the people they are persecuting is to make you collaborate. That is much more valuable. Because those videos with alcoholics from Sievierodonetsk, with marginal people - toothless, alcoholics, it is clear that they are not well-off: “Oh, our dears, you've come! How we've been waiting for you!" - you won't fool anyone with that anymore. They see that these are alcoholics and marginal layers of society. But here? If you are a museum employee, then you are an educated person. And you say: “Yes, yes, Russia is right and we've been waiting for you.” This is worth a lot because that [video with marginals] didn't work with the public. Even the Russian audience didn't respond to that content anymore. Therefore, they were interested in involving as many people as possible who worked in museums, libraries, in cooperation. By various [methods]. Promises of money: “You understand. What's wrong with that? We'll pay you.” “You'll stay in your place,” - these are also persuasions. “So what? Russia is right here”. There are also threats: “Are you a Nazi?”
“We created a chat in Facebook Messenger and added all the museum employees - directors, researchers, those who were active or department heads, the most active ones. And on the 24th [of February 2022] - that was our first evacuation system - I first told my deputies that the war had started and what to do: “Act according to the protocol. The responsible ones are gathering at the museum now, others are waiting for orders at home.” I, the deputies, the chief accountant - those who had to go to work on the morning of the 24th, i.e., to arrive at the museum... And then I immediately [wrote] in the general chat: “People, the war has begun. We work, keep calm, hold on, secure the exhibits. Double-check if we have stocked up on water. Keep each other informed.” We understood [the movement of Russian troops] in our chat. The director of the Milove Museum [in the village of Milove, Starobilskyi district] was the first to write and sent us a video: “That's it,” - she says, “they've broken through the defense and are coming like cockroaches. They're coming, they're coming, they're coming!”
“They're coming with the Z mark.” – “Are they shooting?” – “No, they're wandering around” – “Are our guys resisting?” – “No, they're not... They drove around, - she says, - and then they moved forward, forward... We understood their movements. Then they went to Bilovodsk. They couldn't make it, they got stuck. They went to Novopskov. After lunch, they were already near Starobilsk, but we knew all about their movements. They passed through Markivka - two shots fired... Now they’re here... The flags haven't changed...
We understood that we were together. During the occupation, especially in the first days, we didn't feel lost because we knew that we were in contact. Every second something was buzzing in our chat. We all wrote to each other about what was happening, how everyone was coping. We didn't have any bombings in Starobilsk. We were just occupied right away. Girls in Lysychansk, Rubizhne wrote that they started bombing them mercilessly with bombs and all kinds of weapons. The girls wrote that there was panic. One girl was doing a course [psychological exercise “5-4-3-2-1”]: “Name 5 things around you, name something else...” And she wrote... I wrote: “Girls, pray for my husband. They're encircled, no communication. Kostyk could die.” And we all, the whole evening - all the museums and everyone in the chat... - supported and wrote. Every day began with: “There's water, but no this or that. They're shooting there, they're climbing into the museum. Is everything okay?” We were in touch every day”.
“During the war [the start of the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) in 2014], a lot of military personnel came here from different regions. This led to a sort of cultural exchange, because they need to know the local history of the region where they are stationed. They need to understand us. I went to the management “with guns” and convinced them to make the military visit the museum. They were very surprised. To this day, they still remember when I approached them. They were in shock. Now, civil-military cooperation is common. It appeared much later, when the military started visiting libraries and attending meetings. Initially, it didn't exist, so I took the initiative and established all these contacts myself. We started receiving exhibits, and people began attending our events. Military personnel stationed here started coming to us. Even information about our museum started spreading: “They sell liquor here, girls are there, the bathhouse is there, and make sure you visit the museum. Oh my God, what a museum it is! You must go to the museum!” Now people come to us and say: “The guys told us that you have a museum. They advised us, they told us...”
“In our family, we had a very negative attitude towards everything related to the Party and the Soviet Union, but my mother, who was a historian, gave lectures at the Moscow State University and participated in many scientific conferences. She was invited to continue her studies there. She was expected to join the Komsomol and pursue a career in the Party, as it was impossible to advance without being a member. If she had followed the party line, as she was encouraged to do, she would have had a brilliant career. However, she considered it all to be lies and corruption. She couldn't stand it and made fun of it. She focused on her museum and didn't pursue a career in the Party. My grandmother felt the same way. They understood what was happening. My grandfather was the same. Because my mother was also a historian, we discussed these things at home, even in the kitchen. We talked about the deportations and the camps. Then one day I heard that Lenin died of syphilis, and I told my classmates. I remember that I was accepted into Little Octobrists. Everyone joined, but I didn't think it was important. The next day, I lost my badge, which was a five-pointed star with the image of a young Lenin. Then, when they said that we should join the Pioneers movement, I was the only one in the class who refused. At that time, it wasn't persecuted anymore, but people looked at me sideways for refusing to become a Pioneer. They asked: “But why? What about your mother?” and I had already told them about Lenin and other things. Fortunately, there was a “thaw” at the time, so nothing happened to me. For some reason they lined us up in school and pinned the badge on me because I wasn't wearing it, then they ceremoniously took it off. So, I was expelled from the Little Octobrists for spreading such information.”
More than one film could be made about what museum workers did during the war
Olesia Volodymyrivna Milovanova was born in 1981 in the city of Starobilsk in the Luhansk region. Olesia’s mother was the director of the Starobilsk Regional Museum of Local Lore. During her school years, Olesia was publicly expelled from the Little Octobrists for refusing to join Pioneer movement. Due to financial necessity, she began working at the age of sixteen - cleaning the museum before it opened and then attending classes at a pedagogical university. Her first degree was in music and art education. Later, she completed a master’s degree in public administration at the Volodymyr Dahl East Ukrainian National University in Luhansk (after 2014, the institution was relocated to Siverodonetsk), but realized that public service was not her calling. She also completed a master’s degree in history and archaeology at the Taras Shevchenko Luhansk National University. Initially, she did not take her career at the Starobilsk Regional Museum of Local Lore seriously, but after implementing several of her own initiatives, she became interested in the work. She progressed from caretaker to director of the museum. In 2015, she became the head of the Luhansk Regional Museum of Local Lore, which was restored based on the Starobilsk Regional Museum of Local Lore. She oversaw 18 museums in Luhansk Oblast on the Ukrainian side of the front line. Since 2016, she has been collaborating with the project “Museum Open for Repairs”, visiting museums in western Ukraine with museum employees. After the start of the full-scale Russian offensive, she spent a month and a half in occupied Starobilsk. Along with other colleagues, she secretly retrieved exhibits and materials about ATO/OOS participants from the museum so that the occupiers would not use them for reprisals. She moved to Lviv and helped evacuate museum staff who also wanted to leave the occupation. She restored the work of the Luhansk Regional Museum of Local Lore based on the “Territory of Terror” museum in Lviv.