Images from a pre-war Ukraine seem all the more poignant now

From “Lviv – God’s Will,” published by Overlapse.
From “Lviv – God’s Will,” published by Overlapse. (Viacheslav Poliakov)
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War is an unmitigated force of destruction. This is no secret, especially now that the war in Ukraine has been raging on and capturing headlines on a daily basis. Every day we are inundated with its effects — death, destruction and endless sorrow. War has the unfortunate and uncanny ability to erase things.

Art, on the other hand, can preserve things and be a potent reminder of the heavy cost of war. What once existed can be memorialized and categorized — remembered.

I came across, or was rather introduced to, a book that does exactly this. The book was originally published several years ago but has now increased in relevance as bombs and missiles tear apart what once stood in the villages and cities of Ukraine.

Viacheslav Poliakov documented unique examples of ingenuity amid a wholesale lack of resources, images collected in his book “Lviv — God’s Will” (Overlapse, 2018).

The book contains a multitude of eye-catching and boldly colored photographs of improvised sculptural artifacts that, at one time, popped up all over Bozha Volya, a small village in Ukraine, situated just across the border with Poland.

Here’s how Poliakov describes these peculiar structures and explains the book’s title, too:

Lviv—God’s Will comes from the name of a bus route that connects the city of Lviv with Bozha Volya, a small village lost deep in the forests along Ukraine’s border with the European Union — the promised land of wealth and eternal joy. The bus departs from the main gate of an old Lviv cemetery and travels west. In Ukrainian ‘Bozha Volya’ translates literally to mean ‘God’s will’, but also shares origin with the word ‘bozhevillia’, meaning madness.
“A naive, visual subculture involving public space has become widespread throughout Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union and expansion of globalization. Makeshift sculptural scenes appear in the environment through accidental interactions and random interventions by unrelated people — products of indiscriminate behaviour, mistakes, destruction, and natural vegetation running wild. Ultimately, nobody is responsible for this happenstance. It is all God’s will.”

These words, and this book, strike me as extraordinarily eerie and poignant now that a heinous war, replete with death and destruction, is ravaging Ukraine. I can’t help but wonder if these quirky structures have survived.

Looking at photographs pouring in from places like Kharkiv, Mariupol, Odessa and Kyiv, it wouldn’t surprise me if these monuments to human ingenuity that Poliakov recorded have been erased, just like families, pets, neighborhoods and homes have been.

I have no way of knowing what has happened to Bozha Volya. But “Lviv — God’s Will” may very well have transformed from a colorful, fun book documenting the peculiar structures put up by Ukrainians grappling with a lack of resources into a memorial and remembrance of their vibrancy and resilience. Even if the town has remained relatively unscathed, the psychological toll of war will remain.

In the best of times, I would love this book for its bold and quirky character. But with all that is going on, it now holds even more poignancy, resonance and weight.

You can find out more about the book, and buy it, here. And you can see more of Poliakov’s work on his website, here.

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff members and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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