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A news agency needs all kinds of journalists and professionals to effectively cover a war zone: reporters and photographers who can gather information, local journalists and interpreters to access sources, security experts and drivers to help everyone stay safe. One person you almost never need is a critic.
However, I spent several weeks this month of July in Ukraine, leaving behind my usual bailiwick of art galleries and biennials to look head-on at military conflicts and humanitarian crises. As General Critic of The New York Times, my job is to help readers understand culture within the larger context of history, politics, cities, and climate. And this era-defining war is, at its core, a culture war: an imperial incursion underpinned by misrepresentations of history, language, and religion.
So I headed to Kyiv – one of Europe’s most artistically vibrant cities, its avenues now punctuated by military checkpoints – to inspect its museums and monasteries, interview its artists and archivists and check the boxes legendary nightlife in the capital. I also traveled to several mangled towns north of Kyiv, carefully navigating the ruins of devastated heritage sites, and reported from Lviv, the beautiful Habsburg city in western Ukraine, where many of the country’s cultural preservation initiatives have been orchestrated.
My trip to Ukraine is the result of an alliance between the Culture and International departments of the newspaper. I started getting serious about it at the end of April, after the Ukrainians repelled Russia’s attempted siege of the capital. And after discussing it with my colleagues at Culture, I learned that Michael Slackman, the Times’ associate editor for International, was also keen to examine the cultural dimensions of this conflict.
Our coverage of the Russian-Ukrainian war
Before I could go, I had to go through safety training, where I learned how to stay calm if you’re kidnapped, or what to do if a grenade is thrown at you. (Shout “Grenade!” and fall to the ground, feet facing the explosion.) I crossed the border wearing a combat helmet and a Kevlar vest alongside a Venice Biennale tote bag .
At first I thought I got more than I bargained for; when I arrived, Russia was bombing many civilian sites away from the front line. I experienced five air raids in 48 hours. But one of the privileges of being a Times critic is having colleagues with skills and experience that I never acquired by looking at pretty pictures on palace walls.
Valerie Hopkins and Megan Specia, two of our intrepid international correspondents, had some essential practical advice for a novice war reporter. (And I kept my blood pressure low when the sirens sounded.) Oleksandr Chubko, our press assistant in Kyiv, introduced me to many of the city’s designers and DJs. Michael Cooper, Culture’s associate editor for news, edited my stories from Ukraine with a reporter. the insight and discerning eye of the esthete.
All this may seem very far from the usual domains of a critic: the projection room, the opera. But the Times has a rich vein of what you might call criticism with boots in the field. Michael Kimmelman, now our architecture critic, has previously reported on threatened cultural institutions in Iraq and Syria. Holland Cotter, our co-chief art critic, has reported on painting and photography in Mali, Senegal and Ivory Coast; Alessandra Stanley, a former television critic here, went to Haiti to watch soap operas and to Saudi Arabia to watch game shows.
Criticism, as I understand it, has never consisted in making an outright positive or negative judgment; even if it was, the five-star aggregators of that era rendered this type of TripAdvisor review obsolete. The work of the critic is to set forms and ideas in motion, so that we can discover their inner workings and apprehend human art and human life. To be a critic in Ukraine is to see how artists, writers and musicians defend what we take for granted, and to find a seriousness of purpose that we almost let burn. Peacetime or otherwise, I fully intend to return.