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The Russia-Ukraine conflict is taking an increasingly deadly toll on the novelists, poets, musicians and dancers who put their careers on hold to defend their country

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An honour guard in Kyiv carries a portrait of Maksym Kryvtsov at his funeral in Kyiv on Jan. 11. Mr. Kryvtsov was poet and soldier killed in a Russian artillery strike on the Kharkiv region.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

As his funeral procession wound through the streets of Kyiv, the words of Maksym Kryvtsov blasted from a speaker mounted on the military jeep leading his hearse from the church to the city’s main square, echoing off the walls of the city’s Soviet-era architecture.

“We dance for Ukraine; we dance for the glory of the heroes. We dig, we die,” the poet-turned-soldier’s voice rang out, reading the verses he wrote from the front lines of a war that was thrust upon him and his country.

“Puma – 200, Zorky – 200, Sitiy – 200, Squirrel – 200,” Mr. Kryvtsov’s voice continued, listing off the nicknames of fallen comrades and the military code for someone killed in action. “Where are you? Where are you all?”

Mr. Kryvtsov, a 33-year-old machine-gunner whose own nom de guerre was “Dali” – because of his resemblance to the Spanish artist – was added to the list of 200s on Jan. 7 when he was killed in a Russian artillery strike in the eastern Kharkiv region.

His funeral last week, which made its way from the golden-domed St. Michael’s Cathedral to Independence Square – better known simply as the Maidan after hosting two pro-Western revolutions this century – carried on despite an air-raid siren that sounded just as his casket was being carried out of the church.

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Mourners gather inside St. Michael’s Cathedral and outside at Independence Square, also called the Maidan, for a visitation at Mr. Kryvtsov's funeral.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

The ceremony was attended by flag-bearing members of his special operations unit, as well as members of the country’s cultural elite, who reminded the assembled mourners that Mr. Kryvtsov had been a poet before he became a fighter.

“His poetry gives hope that in 100 years on this spot, on this land, on this Maidan where we stand and commemorate Maksym Kryvtsov, there will still be a Ukraine – which he believed in and fought for and gave his life for,” poet Olena Herasymyuk told the crowd of perhaps 1,000 people.

“He left behind a weapon which doesn’t shoot the enemy or hit its territory, but which hits people’s hearts. So, take this weapon and use this weapon.”

Mr. Kryvtsov is the latest in a string of prominent Ukrainian cultural figures lost to the war. In December, PEN Ukraine compiled a list of 95 names of artists, writers, musicians, directors, dancers and designers killed over the previous 22 months.

Many of them, like Mr. Kryvtsov, had abandoned their artistic careers and enlisted to fight for their country. Others, such as novelist-turned-war crimes researcher Victoria Amelina – who was killed last summer when a Russian missile struck a restaurant – had found new ways to use their talents in wartime.

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Andrei Kurkov takes a walk in his Kyiv neighbourhood, where one building features a Christmas tree made of artillery shells.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Andrei Kurkov, Ukraine’s most famous living novelist, says destroying Ukrainian culture and bringing the country back under Russia’s cultural dominance – as it was in the days of the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire – was one of Moscow’s main war aims.

“Russia is fighting on three levels. On the ground, to grab most of the territory. The middle level is actually a war against Ukrainian identity, which means it is a war against Ukrainian culture. And on the third level, as Putin says, it’s Russia’s war against the collective West,” Mr. Kurkov told The Globe and Mail in an interview in Kyiv. “Russia has always considered Ukraine a territory of the Russian cultural market.”

Ukrainian culture, he said, had been “either ignored or mutilated or faked” by the ruling Communist Party during the Soviet era and had only begun a renaissance in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “We have not enough writers, poets, composers, and we don’t have enough people to create contemporary Ukrainian culture. That’s why death of every Ukrainian author and musician is so painful.”

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Snow covers a damaged church in Donetsk this past November. Donetsk is part of Donbas, a Russian-held eastern region of Ukraine where Mr. Kurkov's latest novel is set.Emile Ducke/The New York Times

He said the war – which began in 2014 with a proxy conflict in Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region that Russian President Vladimir Putin escalated by ordering a full-scale invasion in February, 2022 – had worryingly distorted Ukraine’s modern cultural output. Mr. Kurkov’s own most recent novel, Grey Bees, was written in 2018 and is set in an abandoned village near the front lines in Donbas.

He switched to non-fiction after the start of the invasion and published Diary of an Invasion in late 2022. An updated version will be published in April, but Mr. Kurkov said what he wants to do most is return to writing a series of detective novels that he abandoned when the wider war began.

“In the last two years, very few novels were written, and those which were written are mostly about the war. And this war literature will probably prevail 10, 20 years after the end of the war,” he said. “This reminds me of the Soviet postwar reality because, I mean, I was born in 1961. So, for the first 16 years after the end of the war, we were asked constantly to read books about the Soviet heroes. So there will be a new cult of martyrs and heroes. And some overzealous patriots will use this literature and history to make young people more militant and more patriotic in a political way. I’m not sure it’s a good thing.”

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Grigory Chkhartishvili, who writes under the pseudonym Boris Akunin, speaks in Moscow in 2012.KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images

Russia has experienced its own cultural carnage over the past two years, with many of its top writers, journalists, artists and academics forced to flee the country as the Kremlin has cracked down hard on freedom of speech. On Friday, one of the country’s most popular fiction writers, Grigory Chkhartishvili, was added to the country’s list of “foreign agents,” a tool used to punish anyone who speaks out against the war in Ukraine.

Mr. Chkhartishvili, who wrote a popular series of detective novels under the pen name Boris Akunin, made light of his new status in a social-media post. “They are writing that I have been declared a foreign agent today. Me, a terrorist and extremist?! I feel like Bin Laden who has been given a ticket for parking illegally,” he wrote.

Mr. Kryvtsov’s poetry from the front line could be similarly whimsical, sometimes featuring an unnamed ginger cat that was often at his side in photographs he posted to Facebook (the cat was also killed in the Jan. 7 strike).

But, like anyone fighting in a war that has already taken tens of thousands of lives, Mr. Kryvtsov most recently seemed consumed with how his own life would end. The day before he was killed, he published his last work, Poem of Death.

“My bones will sink into the earth and form a carcass. My shattered gun will rust, my poor mate. My things and fatigues will find new owners. How I wish it were spring to finally bloom as a violet.”

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