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Arts Ukrainian staff working unpaid in history museum to preserve culture

Acting director of the Donetsk Regional History Museum, Nikolai Sklyarov, says most of the museum’s staff are still coming to work.

Sergey Ponomarev

Shellfire booms somewhere close by, but Oksana Radkevich doesn't flinch. Instead, the 26-year-old welcomes rare guests into the remains of the Donetsk Regional History Museum with a bitter smile.

"Those are just our special effects," she says of the deep thuds made by artillery shells and rockets slamming into the city's besieged airport eight kilometres to the north.

The fighting often comes much closer. The four-storey museum has been hit at least nine times by artillery rounds and rockets in recent months, crumpling its natural-history wing into a pile of smashed cement and leaving holes in the roof and walls elsewhere. Some broken chunks still have labels on them explaining missing exhibits about prehistoric life in the region.

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Radkevich isn't being paid – the salaries from the Ukrainian government stopped coming in July, and the breakaway Donetsk People's Republic that now controls this city hasn't started paying civil servants yet – and the "sound effects" make it clear that danger of another strike is real. But Radkevich, an accountant at the museum, and dozens of other staff at cultural institutions in this battle-scarred city keep going to work, trying to make sure Donetsk maintains at least some connection to its prewar self.

The destruction of the museum was likely unintentional, a symptom of two poorly trained armies battering each other in a war that has left upward of 4,000 people dead in the Donetsk area and the adjacent region of Lugansk. Russian-backed separatists declared the independence of both regions in April following a pro-Western revolution in Kiev.

Ukrainian government forces that now control just a few floors of the battered Sergey Prokofiev International Airport – a modern terminal that opened just before Donetsk co-hosted the Euro 2012 soccer championship – have been accused of firing indiscriminately into civilian neighbourhoods while beating back a months-long siege by separatists. A short walk from the museum, the state-of-the-art Donbass Arena that hosted the high-profile international matches has also been damaged.

Some Donetsk residents believe the museum may have been hit by rebel mortar rounds that fell short of their targets. But the museum's acting director, Nikolai Sklyarov, is more interested in salvaging what he can than in assessing blame. The natural-history wing, he says, was one of the best of its kind in all of the former Soviet Union. He's especially proud of how the museum illustrated working life in the Donetsk region, where the prewar economy was powered by factories and coal mines.

The museum took direct hits on three days in August, he says, destroying some of its most precious artifacts. "I can't tell you how I feel, as a scientist, about what's happened. But as a person, it's disgusting. It's beyond comprehension," the 53-year-old says bitterly as he walks through the museum's dark basement, where a stuffed woolly mammoth, fortuitously placed, is keeping a section of roof from collapsing on an exhibit of minerals found in the region.

Like Radkevich, Sklyarov doesn't even look up when the sounds of combat to the north get louder. "It's when it's quiet that we are worried. When we hear boom-boom, then we feel normal," he said as fighting near the airport audibly intensified earlier this week.

Despite the risk and the lack of salaries, he says most of the museum's staff – those who haven't fled and can afford to make the commute – are still coming to work.

They have managed to move most of the museum's 150,000 artifacts to safer premises, and plan to take a small travelling exhibit to those Donetsk schools that have been able to open for classes this fall. (Two children were killed on Wednesday when an artillery shell struck a school in the city's west side. The attack was blamed on the Ukrainian military.)

Staff are also working hard to clean up the less damaged parts of the museum in hope that it can be at least partially reopened to mark its 90th anniversary in December.

The dogged determination is mirrored at many other businesses and institutions in the city. Hundreds of thousands of people are believed to have fled Donetsk, which was home to about one million people before the war. But those who remain – many of them older citizens who say they have nowhere else to go – are trying to carry on as best they can.

As with the museum staff, performers and administrators at the Donetsk Opera also haven't been paid in months. (Accessing their savings is also difficult, as there are no functioning banks or bank machines in the separatist-controlled regions.) But this weekend, management is hoping a full house for when the thick scarlet curtain swings open for a production of Silva, a Sovietized version of a Hungarian operetta, The Gypsy Princess. The 1944 film version was one of the most popular movies produced in the Soviet Union, beloved as escapist entertainment during the grim days of the Second World War.

A children's adaptation of the ballet Cinderella – written by Sergei Prokofiev, a native of the region for whom the besieged airport is named – is also planned.

The reduced-price tickets to both performances are in high demand. "People fight their stress through theatre. We're helping them psychologically," said Yevgeny Denisenko, the Donetsk Opera's director.

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Although the centre of the city where the opera is located has not been badly damaged by the war, the fighting can still feel very close: Taped signs declare that the graceful yellow building now doubles as a bomb shelter.

Staff say the show must go on even in wartime, lest Donetsk lose touch with the cultural side it had before the war. "You could say our theatre was the centre of cultural life before the war. People in Donetsk love the opera, the ballet," Denisenko said.

The opera has the same role today, he added, with the only difference being that no one is being paid any more. "Our theatre operates only on enthusiasm."

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