Residents of a town submerged by the waters of the Kakhovka reservoir fear for the safety of a folk-art shrine.

Ukraine is still counting the immense damage to property and the mounting cost in human lives as floodwaters caused by the destruction of the Kakhovka dam recede. Ukraine blames Russia for deliberately blowing up the dam on 6 June, unleashing the waters of the enormous reservoir behind it on downstream communities including the major city of Kherson, which was liberated from Russian control in November 2022.

Across the Dnipro River from Kherson, residents of Oleshky fear for the safety of one of the town’s best-loved sights as they continue the mammoth task of cleaning up the flood damage. It is not yet known how badly the elaborately decorated house of self-taught artist Polina Rayko was harmed. Rayko covered much of her house’s interior with colorful frescoes after suffering the loss of her husband and daughter in the 1990s.

Most of Oleshky was temporarily under many feet of water in the days after the dam burst, and at least nine people died there, a Ukrainian official told Human Rights Watch researcher Yulia Gorbunova, who reported that much of the town was still without electricity, natural gas, or water as of 14 June.

A native of the town, Polina Rayko (pictured on left) took up painting in her late 60s and continued to decorate her house’s walls and part of the exterior until her death in 2004. As knowledge of her work spread, she was compared to the best of Ukrainian folk artists, and a campaign began to have her house listed as a national cultural monument. Photo of Polina Rayko.

“If something survives” of her house, “it will be fragmentary,” The Guardian quoted Kherson artist and designer Simon Khramtsov as saying in a story published on 12 June. Khramtsov works with the foundation that preserved Rayko’s work. 

In 2020, the Kherson-based news outlet Vhoru detailed Polina Rayko’s life and work and her posthumous rise to fame in a story titled “Paradise Within Four Walls.”

“The paradox of Polina Rayko’s frescoes lies not only in the fact that she began to paint in her declining years, or that she had never painted before, and not even that she chose the walls of her own house instead of paper or canvas. Her synthesis of naive and folk art, surprisingly, emerged in modern times, at the turn of the 21st century,” Vhoru wrote.

Click here to read the story as it appeared in Transitions.

A street in Kherson gradually emerges from the floodwaters. Photo from Vhoru Facebook page.