While rocket attacks in Ukraine this week damaged libraries, museums and universities, Ukraine says repeated Russian attacks on cultural heritage amount to a “war crime” that has caused hundreds of millions of euros in losses. Among Ukrainians, the struggle for the preservation of cultural heritage continues.
Residents of Ukraine woke up Monday morning to loud explosions as Russian missiles hit cities across the country, in some cases for the first time in months. In Kiev, rockets fell not on military targets, but in crowded civilian areas; one hit a glass bridge, formerly popular with tourists for its panoramic view of the city, another fell next to a children’s playground.
Cultural and academic buildings were also damaged in the capital including Taras Shevchenko National University, Maksymovych Scientific Library, parts of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Philharmonic Society, and two museums in Ukraine’s parliament building, Verkhovna Rada.
The latest strikes are part of prolonged attacks on Ukrainian culture. Since February 24, UNESCO has been registering damage to 210 cultural sights in Ukraine, including museums, monuments and libraries. A crowdsourcing website founded by the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation brings the figure closer to 450.
The damage is not just external. Nearly 40 museums in Ukraine have been looted of artifacts by Russian soldiers, Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko told AP on October 9
Bejeweled tiaras from the 5th century are missing
It is estimated that nearly 2,000 objects were stolen by the Russian occupier in May from museums and galleries in Donetsk and Mariupol. Other artifacts have been destroyed.
Items now missing include a bejeweled tiara dating to the reign of Attila the Hun in the 5th century, 2,300-year-old Scythian gold artifacts, and valuable ancient religious texts. Modern works have also been targeted, including works by renowned folk artist Maria Prymachenko and canvases by modernist painter Arkhip Kuindzhi.
“The attitude of Russians towards Ukrainian cultural heritage is a war crime,” Tkachenko said, adding that industrial-scale destruction and looting have resulted in losses worth hundreds of millions of euros.
The International Criminal Court recognizes crimes against cultural heritage as a “pervasive feature” of the atrocities under its jurisdiction. In 2015, the UN condemned the destruction of cultural heritage in Syria as a crime against humanity and a denial of identity to future generations.
In Ukraine, “Russia’s intentions are genocidal,” says Dr. Olena Betlli, historian and researcher at KU Leuven in Brussels. “It is aimed at the destruction of the Ukrainian state and the Ukrainian nation. Destruction of cultural heritage is part of this process; it is cultural cleansing.”
The long history between Russia and Ukraine also makes cultural preservation urgent and all the more complex.
Some of the targeted buildings symbolize historical Ukrainian resistance to Russia, such as the Slovo Building in Kharkov, which was a meeting place for Ukrainian poets, writers and theater directors who were later persecuted under Stalinism.
Russian bombs have damaged one of the most important buildings in Ukrainian literary history, the Slovo House in Kharkov. It was built in the late 1920s to house the writers of Kharkiv, then the capital of Soviet Ukraine and the epicenter of a Ukrainian cultural renaissance. pic.twitter.com/IqqzFrI8jE
— Uilleam Blacker 🇺🇦 (@BlackerUilleam) March 7, 2022
Other culturally significant buildings risk taking important chapters of history with them if they disappear.
“During the Soviet period, many monuments of Ukrainian identity were neglected or turned into storage facilities and everything that made Russian priority in Ukraine was emphasized,” said Olenka Pevny, associate professor of Slavic and Ukrainian studies at the University of Cambridge, UK. “One of the dangers is that many Ukrainian monuments are not yet fully documented.”
‘A war on identity’
The psychological impact of attacks on cultural buildings, monuments, artefacts and works of art is profound. Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska described the Russian aggression as “a war against our identity” during a visit to a Ukrainian museum in New York in September.
But attacks also fuel resistance among Ukrainians and give cultural preservation efforts a sense of urgency. Within hours of Monday’s rocket attacks that hit cultural sites in Kiev, a Ukrainian crowdfunding campaign to buy more military supplies (dubbed “You’ve infuriated Ukrainians”) had raised millions of dollars.
>> ‘Terrible and cruel’: Kiev residents shocked, angry after deadly Russian strikes
Many cultural preservation efforts also take place online. “There is an urge among people to document monuments and store things online so that at least there are some records,” Pevny says.
Ukraine’s blockchain community announced plans in July to digitize “any work of art or history” in Ukraine before turning them into a digital inventory in the form of NFTs. Ukrainian crowdsourcing website sucho houses a growing web archive of pages from Ukrainian cultural institutions in case their websites are taken offline.
Grassroots efforts are also thriving. An example of such an initiative is the Ukrainian Twitter account Art History of art historian Oksana Semenik. During the Russian occupation in Bucha, Semenik lived for two weeks in a basement without water, gas or electricity. “I had a lot of time to think,” she says. “And I thought, ‘Hell no, I’m not going to die here.'”
Instead, she decided to channel her “anger” at the Russian invasion into protecting Ukrainian culture. “Spreading knowledge and giving Ukrainian culture a voice also helps to preserve that culture,” she says.
Through her account, Semenik shares posts with examples of Ukrainian artistic talent, but most of them are also inherently political.
One of her first posts included a painting by Arkhip Kuindzhi, much of his oeuvre was looted after a museum named after him was destroyed in Mariupol in March. Kuindzhi was born in Mariupol, but “Russians claim he is a Russian artist, and museums and institutions write about him as a Russian,” says Semenik. “I try to show the historical context and decolonize Russian art.”
Arkhyp Kuindzhi was a landscape painter from Mariupol. In March 2022, the Kuindzhi Art Museum was destroyed during the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the siege of Mariupol.
“Сloudlet”, Odessa Museum of Fine Arts pic.twitter.com/WE6EtfaUd7
— Ukrainian art history (@ukr_arthistory) June 10, 2022
‘Turning a blind eye to destruction’
The Ukrainian government is seeking more formal protection of the country’s heritage. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday requested UNESCO to list the historic port city of Odessa as a World Heritage Site in an effort to protect it from Russian airstrikes.
Zelensky also argued for Russia’s exclusion from UNESCO, even though it currently chairs the organization’s World Heritage Committee. “We must send a clear signal that the world is not turning a blind eye to the destruction of our common history, our common culture, our common heritage,” he said.
For many Ukrainians, Russia’s continued membership of the UN body that claims to protect the world’s cultural and natural heritage is no longer tenable. “It is absurd that a state that deliberately destroys a neighboring country’s cultural heritage should go unpunished and chair the World Heritage Committee,” Betlii said.
“If one of UNESCO’s main objectives is to preserve cultural heritage and you hold everyone to it, then I have no idea how to justify Russia’s membership,” added Pevny.
But while some UNESCO members have boycotted meetings in support of Ukraine, the UN has said that as long as Russia remains a UN member, it will not be removed from the cultural body.
And even if Odessa is added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, it’s no guarantee of safety – the city of Lviv has been bombed repeatedly since February, despite being a designated World Heritage Site. On Monday, rockets hit Kiev less than a kilometer away from another heritage site, Saint Sophia Cathedral. the 11e century building was not damaged, but, says Betlii, “it still raises serious concerns.”
Ultimately, there is no surefire way to maintain the culture while Ukraine continues to be attacked. For Semenik, the answer lies in Western governments providing air defense systems to prevent the possibility of attacks. Otherwise, she asks, “how can we protect a very historic building or older people who can sing unique folk songs?”
Meanwhile, efforts to document, catalog and protect Ukrainian culture online and in real life continue. “The main task remains to preserve as much as possible,” says Betlii, “and be prepared for the difficult winter ahead.”