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​Russia’s war on Ukraine changed all that.

23.08.2023

BY LAURA KING STAFF WRITER OF LOS ANGELES TIMES

Photography by MARCUS YAM


ODESA, Ukraine — Ukraine’s best-known sculptor, Mikhail Reva, was once famous for his whimsical works — playful, outsized creations found in parks and plazas across the country, and scattered throughout his southern hometown of Odesa.


His genial features obscured behind a welder’s mask, the 63-year-old sculptor gestures toward an industrial workbench bearing the day’s dark materials: jagged missile fragments, dented shell casings, twisted hunks of shrapnel, ready to be assembled into towering, talismanic works that reflect a world upended.


“For me, it’s like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle, a puzzle made up of horror and chaos,” he said. “That is the life of this war — what our lives have become.”

Ukrainian sculptor Mikhail Reva looks through a work fashioned from a destroyed Russian military vehicle. After visiting Bucha, where Russian atrocities had come to light, he said, “I could not even begin to think of how to express it. I thought then: There are no words. There must be some other way.” (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)


In his cavernous workshop near the shores of the Black Sea, and in an immaculate studio and display space in downtown Odesa, the fight is never far from view: here, a fearsome dragon-like figure fashioned from the shattered roof of a Russian military vehicle; there, the slashing wings of a colossal owl conjured from misshapen mortar fins. A starburst of metal depicts an explosion, but its title, “Blossom,” serves as a bleak reminder that war’s violence can grotesquely echo nature’s beauty.

‘For me, it’s like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle, a puzzle made up of horror and chaos’

— Ukrainian sculptor Mikhail Reva



Mikhail Reva prepares to weld debris collected from Russia’s war on Ukraine. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)


The idea of repurposing wartime detritus for his art came to Reva last year after his dacha — the Russian word for a simple summer home in the countryside — was damaged in a Russian missile strike. Reva was not there at the time; he was in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, where the war’s first wave of shocking atrocities had come to light after Russian forces retreated.


War-crimes investigators are still documenting the killing, torture and sexual assault of hundreds of civilians during the Russians’ monthlong occupation of a string of towns near the capital at the start of the February 2022 invasion.


“When we learned what had happened to people there, I could not even begin to think of how to express it,” said Reva. “I thought then: There are no words. There must be some other way.”


When he returned to Zatoka, the beachside resort near Odesa where a missile strike had blasted the doors off Reva’s workshop in his absence, a neighbor who had collected some spent ammunition and fragments of wreckage from near the dacha presented them to him. With that, the sculptor realized he had found his new medium.


“To me, it’s treasure,” he said of the war scrap he works with now.


Reva estimates he has made use of about 2 tons of remnants of battlefield weaponry and wreckage from Russian drone and missile strikes on Ukrainian cities and towns. Contacts in the Ukrainian military arranged to have these dangerous dregs of combat made safe for artistic repurposing: materiel as material.


By his own account, which sounds much like that of novelists who describe their characters as taking on lives of their own, Reva’s wartime art arises more from a flash of recognition than a carefully preconceived plan.


“I start to layer the fragments, and then I see the shape they want to take,” he said. “This owl, for example — the eyes and the point of its beak — it all came almost accidentally.”

A close-up of details of spent munition collected from the war. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)


Nearly a year and a half after the full-scale Russian invasion, the war remains a supply line of sorts for Reva, a never-ending tide tossing up new flotsam and jetsam. Odesa — a graceful old imperial capital known as the “jewel of the Black Sea” — had been largely spared the direct hits that have ravaged many other major population centers, but that too has changed.


In July, almost immediately after Russia withdrew from an internationally backed initiative that allowed for vital shipments of Ukrainian grain to transit the Black Sea, Odesa’s baroque city center, a UNESCO-designated endangered site, was hammered for the first time by Russian missile strikes.


The ongoing bombardment shattered historic structures including museums, villas and the venerable House of Scientists, situated in a 19th century palace that once belonged to Russia’s aristocratic Tolstoy family. From his ninth-floor apartment, Reva witnessed the strike that wrecked the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, Odesa’s oldest and largest.


The recent rain of projectiles — ship-to-shore missiles, drones and cruise missiles — galvanized rage against the Russian invaders. The city’s mayor, Gennadiy Trukhanov, who before the war had been considered strongly pro-Moscow, released a video message railing against the Kremlin.


“If only you knew how much Odesa hates you,” he seethed. “You must hardly know us Odesans. You will not break us; you will only make us angrier.”


Reva holds design plans for his work, including a massive piece meant to embody Moloch, a Canaanite god appeased by human sacrifice. A snarling bear head bristling with metal symbolizes Russia. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)


In his art, Reva channels that fury, fiery as the burst of sparks that fly from his welding torch.


“Art is a tool that freezes time,” he said. “I have to create commemorations of this tragedy.”


One of the most monumental pieces in his wartime oeuvre is a bristling mass of metal shards, rising 12 feet in height, that he says is meant to embody Moloch, a Canaanite god appeased only by gruesome human sacrifice. It is in the rough shape of a bear, the unofficial symbol of Russia.


“We are hostages, all of us, of one man and his sick ambitions,” Reva said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.


The Moloch sculpture, currently in Berlin, is the centerpiece of a planned exhibition titled, with cold outrage, “Russkiy Mir.” The term, meaning Russian world, is used by Putin and his backers to justify dominion over sovereign lands they nonetheless consider rightfully part of Russia.

Art is a tool that freezes time. I have to create commemorations of this tragedy.’

— Mikhail Reva


Odesa, molded by the Russian empress Catherine the Great into an international seaport in the 18th century, has always had complicated ties with its imperial past, especially since Ukraine’s independence more than three decades ago following the collapse of the Soviet Union. An imposing statue of Catherine held pride of place near the city’s iconic Italianate landmark, the Potemkin Stairs, until Ukrainian authorities removed it late last year.


Reva readily acknowledges himself to be a product of the Russian world. Born in 1960, when Ukraine was still a Soviet republic, he is a native of the Crimean peninsula that was seized and annexed by Putin nearly nine years ago. He spent formative years at an elite art school in St. Petersburg, a city he expects never to see again.

Mikhail Reva’s work is displayed in his gallery space in Odesa. His talismanic pieces draw on outrage, and on private sorrow. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

His career began with some state-sponsored artistic commissions for works he now describes as false and soulless. More than 20 years ago, at the behest of Ukraine’s Kremlin-allied government, he crafted a small silver sundial that was presented to Putin — then considered by many in the West as a potential reformist — who reportedly kept it on his desk.


Like many Odesans of his generation, Reva uses Russian language in his daily life. The switch to Ukrainian, an impulse broadly followed across much of the country, is easier for younger people, he said. His grown daughter, an artist who lives in Kyiv, now speaks almost exclusively in Ukrainian, he added with pride.


In a war that has left almost no family here untouched, his work draws on private sorrow. Soon after the invasion, he spirited his elderly mother, Valentina, out of the country to safety. But she died at 89, after a rapid decline he blames on the stress of forced relocation.


“When all this began, I looked into my mother’s eyes, and I saw the fear of that little girl who had survived the Second World War,” he said. “This war took from me the most precious thing I had. If she could have stayed here in Odesa, she would be alive today.”


Reva’s Odesa roots, he said, are anchored by family ties, particularly his recollections of his mother and his sea-captain father — “the one who taught me to look to the mysterious horizon.” He describes his ancestry as mirroring the city’s rich traditional cosmopolitan mix of Jewish, Greek, and Crimean Tatar.

Reva welds war debris into art that channels his outrage over Russia’s attacks on his country and hometown. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)


“In all the world, there is no other place like Odesa,” he said.


The city in turn has long embraced him. Visitors and locals alike snap selfies with his best-known works, which often draw on local lore. On a main boulevard, people clamber to perch atop an outsize chair — a nod to a Soviet-era satirical novel, authored by a pair of Odesan writers, about the unseemly scramble for a lost inheritance of jewels hidden in a dining-room set.


Another much-loved peacetime installation, this one on the seaside — a large, ornate door frame modeled on one from an old Odesa mansion — has taken on menacing new meaning: The open portal frames the Black Sea, from which Russian warships now fire missiles at the city.


Reva said he was confident that the soul of Odesa — insouciant, sardonic, seductive — would survive the war. But he sometimes wondered, he said, whether he would ever find a way back to what he calls the romanticism and optimism of his previous works. He is already pondering designs for large-scale memorials in places like Bucha.


“I’m not one for beating swords into ploughshares,” he said, shaking his head. “Maybe there will be a time for that someday. But not now.”


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by Laura King is a Washington, D.C.-based reporter for the Los Angeles Times. A member of the Foreign/National staff, she primarily covers foreign affairs. She previously served as bureau chief in Jerusalem, Kabul and Cairo.

photo by Marcus Yam Marcus Yam is a foreign correspondent and photographer for the Los Angeles Times. Since joining in 2014, he has covered a wide range of topics including humanitarian issues, social justice, terrorism, foreign conflicts, natural disasters, politics and celebrity portraiture. He won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography in 2022 for images documenting the U.S. departure from Afghanistan that capture the human cost of the historic change in the country. Yam is a two-time recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Journalism Award, notably in 2019, for his unflinching body of work showing the everyday plight of Gazans during deadly clashes in the Gaza Strip. He has been part of two Pulitzer Prize-winning breaking news teams.

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