Collector and philanthropist Dmytro Pirkl: When we get everything back, the world will be surprised at what a wealthy nation we are

7 April 2023

Filling the museum collection is one of the most crucial functions of every museum. Regretfully, for a long time, Ukrainian museums have not received funds for purchasing new artefacts. Therefore, everything new that has appeared in our stock collection in recent years is thanks to donors, benefactors, and patrons. And we are sincerely grateful to all of them for that.

Dmytro Pirkl, a Ukrainian public and cultural figure, collector of antiquities, medalist, local historian, and museum donor, has been one of the permanent friends and benefactors of our museum over the past five years. During the period of our cooperation, he handed over fifty storage units to the Holodomor Museum. These are old books, brochures, and magazines from the Holodomor-genocide period and the 20s and 30s in general. Dmytro Pirkl also came to the recording of our interview with gifts – a 1929 edition of the works of the writer and priest Tymofiy Bordulyak, who during the Holodomor organized the collection of grain for starving Ukrainians, and a book by Fedor Morgun “Stalin-Hitler’s Genocide of the Ukrainian People.” During our conversation, Mr Dmytro shared why he helps Ukrainian museums, where he looks for artefacts, and how he became interested in collecting antiquities in general.

“I will not fight for a piece of bread, but for a piece of will I will fight to the end”

Mr. Dmytro, you are a metallurgist by education and even worked at a metallurgical plant for some time. Subsequently, before the annexation of Crimea by Russia, they were co-owners of the enterprise for the production of wood flour for filters of the Crimean factory “Titan.” And suddenly, in this purely industrial history, museums, collecting antiquities, and charitable activities in the cultural sphere appear. How did it happen?

All this came into my life in 2004, in the wake of the Orange Revolution. I remember that we, businessmen from Dnipro, came to Kyiv to support the protesters. We rented a truck, loaded it with warm clothes, firewood, water, medicine, and food, and brought it all to the Maidan. It was the first surge of a powerful national rise and inspiration. And it was then that the question of identity arose before me for the first time: who am I?

I have Czech roots, my grandfather is Czech. From him, I have a somewhat unusual surname for Ukrainians. The story is told in the family that when I was born, my father joked: “Well, how to write it down now?” Although he did not hesitate for a moment: of course, Ukrainian, there was no doubt about it. But apart from writing it down in the documents, it was neither politically nor consciously emphasized in any way. And it was the orange Maidan that prompted the search for one’s identity.

In the wake of this national upheaval, I became fascinated with history. |It prompted the creation of the first commemorative medals. I was interested in numismatics before that, and then I had the desire to do something of my own.

In 2006, together with Ihor Lukyanov, he prepared his first commemorative medal for the 230th anniversary of Dnipro. In 2006, together with Ihor Lukyanov, he prepared his first commemorative medal for the 230th anniversary of Dnipropetrovsk. But before minting it, the Mint set a condition: there must be scientific confirmation of the correctness of my, so to speak, plan. I turned to Dmytro Yavornitsky National Historical Museum of Dnipro. We became friends. And as soon as the medal came out, I immediately transferred it to the collection of the institution. Then it turned out that the museum collection is very poor, and my friend and I began to support the museum.

In 2008, I wanted to make a medal dedicated to Anna Yaroslavna. He flew to France to go to Senlis (the town where Anna lived after the death of her husband – King Henry I.Author) to visit those places, to be inspired. I had a couple of free days, so I walked around the antique shops. And in one of them on the banks of the Seine, I saw beautiful papers with the inscriptions “Yellow River” and “Druzhkivka.” I asked the price: it was 3 or 4 euros – in fact, pennies. I came to Dnipro with these documents and came to the museum to show them off… And there, I found out that the shares and bonds I bought are the great industrial history of the Kryvorizka-Dnipro-Donetsk district. Step by step, I began to learn more. And today, it is one of the leading areas I study and collect.

Dmytro Pirkl during the ceremony of handing over artifacts at the Holodomor Museum.

Today, you cooperate with many museums in different Ukrainian cities. And how did the Holodomor Museum appear in the area of interest?

The Holodomor and the events that preceded it – collectivization and dekulakization, and then – repression and extermination of the intelligentsia – is the story of how they tried to subjugate us Ukrainians, break them, and exterminate the disobedient ones. It is a story that continues today. That is why they tried to deprive us of the memory of that period for a long time.

I recall the first time I saw an exposition dedicated to the victims of repression in the Yavornytskyi Museum in Dnipro. It really impressed me then… And then such an incident happened. My friend had his 50th birthday at the end of November. I had already put on an embroidered dress and prepared to go to the feast when suddenly I saw a candle in the window of the house opposite. The anniversary was on the Holodomor Memorial Day… I told my wife that we were not going anywhere. I just can’t be there and watch all this drinking on a day like this. It was my first scandal with my wife, and she said I was crazy. But I resisted and did not go.

And after the Maidan in 2014, I started establishing contacts with your institution. When something interesting happens, I always try to buy it for you. After all, the demand for artefacts from the period of the 20s and 30s is insane. All the same, it was destroyed, burned, and only a few such things remained. To come across such a thing is great luck.

Recently, I handed over four magazines to your museum, and the fifth was brazenly snatched literally from my hands. I almost bought it, almost held it in my hands (laughing), and suddenly someone got ahead of me. (In January, Dmytro Pirkl gave the Holodomor Museum four magazines of “Kolkhospny Activist” published in 1933. – Author)

“Kolkhospny activist” magazines given by the benefactor.

Perhaps, your family had a history related to the Holodomor. Did older relatives tell you anything about it?

This topic was never discussed, even in a whisper in the family. The older generation came from the nobility: the paternal great-grandfather headed the Bessarabian customs office. And the grandmother was always worried that the past would not affect her daughter, her father’s mother. Therefore, the elders did not tell anything, so something uncomfortable about the family did not become public. I recall when I was a bit older, and my grandfather was still alive, he and his friends sometimes got together, drank a little, and talked, and I listened. So, they talked about the Second World War, but they never mentioned the Holodomor.

Later, I tried to find out something from my father, but he also said that he did not know anything because it was forbidden to talk about it.

The Holodomor is one of the hardest and most dramatic topics because the information has to be scratched out line by line literally in each specific case. And to find out something, as I have seen, is difficult even at the level of one’s own family. Regretfully, those who could tell are no longer alive. And the younger ones do not know anything…

But the repressions affected the family. However, there are many secrets here. My great-grandfather built the water area of the Mariupol port, and he was one of the two hydrologists who worked at the facility. One day in 1937, a “voronok” (locked police car for transportation of prisoners in the USSR) arrived, and after that, no one saw the great-grandfather again. I have searched everywhere for information – I have not managed to find out anything about his fate.

Tell us more about your family. Who were your parents? Are they somehow related to the cultural sphere?

Mom, regretfully, she is no longer with us, from the family of a Baptist preacher. She worked in kindergartens all her life, took care of the youngest children, and had the title of honoured teacher. And Dad is a physicist, a specialist in rocket engines. All that is currently flying at us from Russia is his “creativity.” Once, we gave everything to Moscow as part of the disarmament program. Father understands this somewhere in his soul; obviously, it hurts him… I keep asking him to start writing his memories – about missiles and work; he also knew Kuchma personally… He is thinking of it for now…

I have wonderful parents, they were simply squeezed by all that Sovietism in which they had to live. As they were born behind barbed wire. Although even now, many people cannot get out because of that barbed wire. How did I succeed with them? I do not know. I am a very free-spirited person. I will not fight for a piece of bread but for will – I will fight to the end. Here, the parents must have made a mistake. I was not limited in anything. I was punished by my father just once, and I deserved so. When my great-grandmother was returning from Germany, where she was in forced labour, she brought a silver brooch: it was an impressive thing. And I, a twelve-year-old novice collector, exchanged it for a stupid thing. Then I tried to return it, but it was impossible to find it. Now I understand: you cannot dispose of something that does not belong to you.

“Until now the world has perceived us through the prism of Russian culture, only now we are returning our own.”

It is known that you cooperate with many museums – at least twenty of them are in your scope of interest. And in fact, everything collected is stored in these museums…

I do not see the point in buying something, putting it under the mattress, and being happy that I own it there. In fact, my entire collection is scattered in museums. Because it is crucial that it be there, not at my house. It is there for scholars to see this material, and work with it. On the contrary, I am happy when scientific papers are written based on my documents, and exhibitions are held, in which I participate myself. It gives satisfaction and incentive.

For example, at Yavornytskyi Museum in Dnipro, I work on one area – the history of our industrial region. I have already collected so much on this topic and handed it over to them that there is nowhere else to get new documents. Therefore, I expand the direction: I take Kharkiv and Odesa because they said their powerful word in that industrial history.

The only thing is that I try not to scatter my library. I make a sin only with you, giving away books (laughing). And it is slowly growing beautifully. I dream it would be a library that could be used as a basis for a future museum of books, for instance. That’s why I’m trying to keep everything in a heap. I have collected a lot of scientific literature as well as fiction. For example, nowadays, I am interested in the poet Mykola Cherniavskyi. The first book published in Ukrainian in Donbas is his “Donetsk Sonnets,” Bakhmut, 1898. I have already got its original copy.

I want to make an exhibition dedicated to this poet, translator, teacher, and public figure. When the Cherniavskyi family went abroad, my colleague from Dnipro bought a part of the archive. And, now we are trying to organize an exhibition together. After all, the person deserves to be known more about. Mykola Cherniavsky taught in the seminary in Bakhmut, where he began to write poems. For some time, he lived in Chernihiv, where he was friends with Mykhailo Kotsiubynskyi and Borys Hrinchenko. He lived most of his life in Kherson. His poems of the post-revolutionary period are imbued with pessimistic sentiments, as the poet could not come to terms with the suppression of the national revival, the artificial Holodomor in Ukrainian villages and cities. Since 1933, he stopped writing and publishing altogether because he understood what this could lead to. But it did not save. He was arrested on trumped-up charges that he was “dissatisfied with the Soviet government.” In 1938, Cherniavskyi was shot. Almost nobody knew what happened to him until the 90s. Even in the years of independence, they found a document stating that he had been sentenced to be shot by the decision of the troika.

Artefacts handover ceremony at the Holodomor Museum. November, 2022.

Can you say the number of artefacts you have already given to Ukrainian museums?

I do not even know this number because I have never counted. I did not set this as a goal. I can tell I gave about one and a half thousand artefacts to the Museum of the Second World War alone. I know an almost exact number there because, when the museum submitted my candidacy for the National Competition “Charitable Ukraine,” in the “Philantropist of the Year” nomination in 2019, they counted the number of units I donated (Dmytro Pirkl then became a laureate of this competition. – Author). If we talk about all museums, then, this number is calculated in thousands.

Where do you usually find artefacts?

Everywhere. At auctions in Ukraine and abroad, flea markets, antique shops, specialized foreign fairs…

At first, I reacted very sharply when I could not purchase something for the museum. I understand it is essential, but the resource is not enough, and I lost it at the auction… But later, I realized that I could not help all the museums. It is necessary to define specific directions and work on them more purposefully and concretely. Now, for example, I intend to focus on the great topic of the destruction of the Ukrainian cooperative movement as a prerequisite for the Holodomor.

The philantropist presented these books to the museum during the interview.

Did you feel that in connection with the military events that drew the attention of the whole world to Ukraine, the demand for Ukrainian things also increased?

Certainly. When I first started the topic, there was no awareness of the value of what concerns Ukrainian history, art, and culture. The wave of this interest is only rising. Because until now, we were perceived in the world through the lens of Russian culture, and only now we are regaining our own. The same Metropolitan just now changed the signature under Edgar Degas’ painting “Dancers in Ukrainian Dress” and called Kuindzhi, Repin, and Aivazovsky Ukrainian artists.

When we get all of ours back, the world will be amazed at what a wealthy nation we are. And that Muscovites have nothing. And all their “great Russian culture” is mostly stolen from others.

I had the opportunity to make sure of this when I used to work in St. Petersburg – I had such a period in my life in the 80s. It was probably there that |I started visiting museums for the first time. Yes, all our museums are there! Everything was taken there! Such collections are luxurious, but everything is stolen!

What did they do in the occupied territories in the first place? The museum collections were looted and taken away! They do not understand the value of these things, but they realise that by taking them away, they rob us of our foundation, our identity, and our ability to tell about ourselves.

I remembered the story. At one time, after one of the fairs in Germany, we met with Russian dealers. They went to a restaurant and started talking. And there they tell me that every local “prince” has people engaged in a “culturka”. They do not have a culture but have a “culturka”. They perceive it that way. Because for them, these are show-offs in front of other “princes.” And now they are buying up everything related to Russian and Ukrainian history because they also consider Ukrainian history to be their own. Being already a little prepared, I insisted a lot that our culture is very different from theirs. I argued, proved – all in vain! They look like enchanted! Sadly, the amount of money they are able to invest in culture is an unlimited resource. And I often found myself in situations where I simply could not purchase a valuable thing that would be important for our history and culture. Because the Russian “culturka” bought them up once or twice. And this is despite the fact that we are talking about the lower level. And they also work at well-known world auctions, such as Sotheby’s, where we are talking about amounts in the hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars! And they pour crazy funds there. Although for them, it is still a “culturka”.

“The role of museums is to educate people who will create new museums”

What collectible items that you had the opportunity to find and purchase are particularly memorable? Which of your possessions do you consider the most valuable?

At one time, at a German eBay auction, I bought a photo album of a German engineer rebuilding the DniproGES dam after the Soviet troops blew it up. And there are 130 photos of how it was successively rebuilt. There were two such albums – how they restored the blown-up bridge to Khortytsia and the restoration of the dam. I bargained for both, but I did not manage to get any of them. The bridge was purchased, but the dam was more important to me. That was the first time I learned about its story. And it impressed me. Later, I gave this album to the Zaporizhzhia Regional Museum of Local Lore.

And the most valuable exhibit for me is the Prague edition of Shevchenko’s “Kobzar” from 1876. After the poet’s death, the Kyiv “Hromada” bought from Shevchenko’s family the right to publish all his works. Oleksandr Rusov published a two-volume book in Prague on behalf of the “Hromada” members. I have already got this edition in my library. And it is very different from what we got used to considering “Kobzar”.

Mr. Dmytro is holding a rare edition of “Committee of Poor Peasants 1920-1933”. In total, during 2022-2023, the philantropist has given us 35 books and documents.

You are an absolutely unusual collector who willingly gives away his possessions to museums. Why don’t others do this or donate artifacts to museums extremely rarely?

You know, collecting is such an intimately personal thing… People have different motivations. Everyone declares their intentions through their own behaviour. For example, I plan to live in this country; I love it and want its museums to carry Ukrainian meanings. And I see my vocation in filling museums with these meanings.

Unfortunately, there is still no understanding in Ukraine that filling a museum is a painstaking and complex job that requires knowledge and, most importantly, resources. Our museums are mostly either state-owned or communal. While in the world, it is private individuals who invest in museum collections. And the disgust brought up to museums by this Soviet moldiness will be there for years until people see and understand how crucial it is. Because when a person goes abroad, where do they go first? To the museum! Because there, you can learn more about the country, the formation of its statehood and nation, about its culture.

Given the above, what is the role of museums in society, in your opinion?

The role of museums is to educate people who will create new museums. And to give an understanding of how important it is that these are cultural codes by which each other is met and recognized. The fact that our cultural codes were stolen does not mean we do not have them. We need to identify them and say that this, this and this are ours. And we should work on creating new collections and modernizing and changing traditional collections because we have not got others yet. And most crucially, those who will invest money in the museum must be educated in our cultural codes. This is European and world practice.

Author – Lina TESLENKO