January 31, 2023

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He left his life’s work behind when he fled – afraid the Russians would think it was a weapon

– I guess I haven’t gotten over the shock yet.

So says Oleksandr Smykovsky, a violin maker from Mariupol who was deprived of everything by the war.

His home, workplace, and most importantly: all his violins left behind by the Russian attack forced him to flee in a hurry in mid-March 2022.

NRK meets Oleksandr Smykovskyj in the city of Vinnytsia in central Ukraine.

He is one of the millions of Ukrainians internally displaced by the war in the country.

Portraits of Oleksandr Smykovsky in his workshop in Mariupol.

Photo: private

Together with his mother and father, he finds a temporary home in Vinnytsia, while they wait for the Ukrainian army to continue its counter-offensive against the attacking Russian forces.

– When I see a picture of the coat of arms of the city of Mariupol, I have only one thought in my head, says Oleksandr Smykovsky, that we are standing in front of a large picture with the coat of arms of our country.

Inside, a destroyed house

This is how Oleksandr Smykovsky’s apartment looks like a dissent.

Photo: private

– We are all waiting for the moment when we can return to our liberated hometown, he tells NRK.

Vinnitsa was also attacked

We stand together in front of the officer’s bombed house in Vinnytsia, which was attacked by Russian missiles on July 14th.

Russia claims they were a legitimate target because there was a meeting of the Ukrainian military at the house. 28 people were killed in the attack, including three children.

In front of the Lisa Monument

Oleksandr Smykovskyj in front of the memorial to the murdered Liza Dmitrjeva in Vinnytsia

Photo: Morten Gentoft

Vinnytsia, and not least the military installations of the Ukrainian defense on the outskirts of the city, have been the target of numerous Russian missile attacks.

Still, Oleksandr says, what we’re seeing here is nothing compared to what happened to his home city of Mariupol.

A friend from Australia woke up

– I was woken up at 04:00 on the morning of February 24 by a friend of mine from Australia calling to say that Russia had attacked.

Destroyed house in Mariupol

This is what the house where Oleksandr Smykovsky lived in Mariupol looked like after the Games in the spring of 2022.

Photo: private

Oleksandr Smykovsky says that he did not fully understand the seriousness of the situation right away, and that there were no direct attacks on the city on the first day of the war.

We heard gunfire. But at first they bombed only the outskirts of the city. But since March, the whole city has been bombed more systematically. And Oleksandr says that until March 15 there was heavy bombing.

From Me to Stradivarius

Oleksandr Smykovsky is a trained computer engineer. But at the end of the 1990s he became interested in building violins.

This soon became such an obsession that he decided to pursue a career as a violin maker.

The road led to courses in Cremona, the violin capital of the world.

Together with Leotaio Giovanni Battista Morassi

Oleksandr Smykovskyj with Italian violin maker Liutaio Giovanni Battista Morassi in Gremona.

He had a workshop set up in the basement of his home in Mariupol, and was thus able to offer repairs of stringed instruments to the city’s musicians. Eventually, modern instruments were also made in line with ancient traditions from Italian masters such as Stradivari and Guarneri.

Then came the war, and in mid-March things happened with frightening speed.

Battles a few blocks away

Oleksandr Smykovsky and his family thought the war might end, as it did during Russia’s first attempt to take Mariupol in 2014.

But then fighting began to rage a few blocks away.

Olsander Smekovsky

Oleksandr Smykovsky worked as a violin maker in Mariupol for 20 years.

Photo: private

– I didn’t have a car and only had to carry most of the necessary documents in a small bag, – says Oleksandr.

Then he had more than a dozen violins in the workshop. Five of them he made himself, and one of them finished completely.

– I still couldn’t take it with me in a violin bag because I was afraid it would attract attention. Perhaps some snipers suspect that I have a rifle in this case, Oleksandr Smykovsky tells NRK.

Escape through small roads

And so the work was left for life in a workshop in an apartment building in Mariupol.

He and his parents even managed to join a car, which traversed the small roads through Russian checkpoints and into the Ukrainian-controlled region of Zaporizhia.

From there, the road continued through acquaintances in the Dnipro and Poltava to Vinnytsia, hundreds of kilometers from the front in the war, but therefore not entirely safe from Russian missile attacks.

Through some of his acquaintances who remained in Mariupol, he was sent photographs confirming what he feared.

Both the apartment and the workshop with the violins were completely destroyed in the fierce fighting between the Ukrainian defenders and the advancing Russian forces.

Support from colleagues around the world

In the end, the story of Oleksandr Smykovsky spread among the small circle of violin makers around the world.

One of those committed to trying to help Oleksandr start over was Norwegian violin maker Jakob von der Lippe.

“Good to see you,” they both say almost into each other’s mouths, when NRK sets up a chat between the two online.

Conversation with Jacob von der Liebe

Jakob von der Lippe promises to help Oleksandr Smykovskyj so that he can start building violins again.

Photo: Luqman Ghorbani

They have been in contact, but only through text messages. Jacob also sent a bundle of clothes to Oleksandr, who took almost nothing with him when he fled Mariupol.

They both studied in the same environment with the Italian violin makers of Cremona. But Oleksandr now stands on barren ground.

– You must tell me if there is anything I can do for you, if we can also send some instruments so that you can start building violins again, says Jacob von der Lippe.

It is difficult to plan ahead

Oleksandr Smykovsky is delighted and touched by the support he is now receiving from colleagues around the world.

But for now, he has problems thinking about the future.

As a Ukrainian man under the age of 60, he is not allowed to leave Ukraine.

He was also unable to find a more permanent place to live, where he might be able to resume his profession.

Lisa and the brutal war

Returning to the officer’s house in Vinnytsia, Oleksandr shows us an example of how brutal the conflict in Ukraine can be.

By one post, there are loads of teddy bears and toys. Oleksandr Smykovsky says that it was here that four-year-old Lisa Dmitrieva was killed.

Dead girl in Vinnytsia

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself posted this photo of the dead Lisa Dmitrieva in Vinnytsia on July 14, 2022.

Photo: Ukrainian Presidential Administration

Many may remember the pictures of the happy four-year-old with Down syndrome, which his mother took shortly before he was killed by Russian missiles here.

– What can one say, it’s hard to talk about this, that something like this could happen in the 21st century, says Oleksandr Smykovsky and looks away at the small, touching memorial site of Lisa.

– You must be able to solve problems in other ways than what we see now, says the violin maker from Mariupol, currently without violins and instruments.

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