Erasure of Ukrainian culture is an abuse of human rights

New report documents the taking of 4,000 cultural heritage sites into Russian “protection” and detention of writers and artists

21 Dec 2022
A library in Chernihiv destroyed by Russian army shelling. Photo: Celestino Arce/NurPhoto/Alamy Stock Photo.

It is perhaps a sign of the level of public fatigue about the war in Ukraine that one of the most important recent reports on the destruction of Ukraine’s cultural heritage has received relatively little coverage. Ukrainian Culture Under Attack, jointly compiled by PEN America and PEN Ukraine is a devastating account of Russia’s targeted attempts to erase Ukrainian culture.

Liesl Gernholtz, director of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Center, which coordinated the report, places Russia firmly in the tradition of genocidal regimes and movements, invoking the Nazis’ systemic obliteration of non-Aryan culture in World War II and the recent depredations of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). She cites the important precedent set in 2016 by the International Criminal Court when it found that ISIS had been guilty of war crimes. “in intentionally directing attacks against religious and historic buildings in Timbuktu, Mali.”

As the report points out, the denial of Ukrainian identity (and even the very existence of Ukraine) has been a consistent thread in Putin’s thinking. As early as 2008, the Russian President responded to discussions of Ukraine’s NATO membership by saying: “Ukraine is not even a state! What is Ukraine? Part of its territory is Eastern Europe, and part, and a significant one, was donated by us.” In his now notorious 2021 essay, Putin prepared the ground for invasion when he said the “idea of Ukrainian people as a nation separate from the Russians” had no basis in historical fact.

The process of erasure began long before the 24 February invasion. The occupation of Crimea in 2014 led to a systematic attempt to eradicate Ukrainian and Tatar culture in the territory. Prisoners include journalist Vladyslav Yesypenko, who was detained in March 2021 after attending an event in honour of Ukraine’s national poet Taras Shevchenko in Simferopol. He was tortured in detention and, in February 2022, sentenced to six years in prison.

According to the report, Russia has “harassed, threatened, arrested, disappeared, and prosecuted writers, journalists, and others who voiced their opposition to its occupation”. By June of this year, Russia had detained 162 Ukrainian journalists, writers, and activists who have either been imprisoned in Crimea or forcibly taken to Russia. The vast majority, over 100, are Crimean Tatars. Over 4,000 cultural heritage sites have been taking into Russian “protection” – according to the report this has often involved damaging archaeological excavations and construction work.

In the parts of the Donbas region occupied by Moscow-backed separatist groups after 2014, a campaign of cultural eradication has led to the replacement of Ukrainian language and culture with Russian and Soviet heritage. This has been combined with the repression of artists and writers who opposed the regime.

The effect of the war since the invasion of February 2022 has been devastating to the cultural infrastructure of Ukraine. As of November, the Ukrainian government had documented 529 damaged and destroyed “objects of cultural heritage and cultural institutions of Ukraine” in 11 regions. Meanwhile, UNESCO has verified damage to 210 sites, including 91 religious sites, 15 museums, 76 buildings of historic or artistic significance, 18 monuments, and 10 libraries.

The report catalogues targeted strikes by Russian missiles, not just high-profile institutions such as the Mariupol theatre, but smaller regional museums and arts centres, such as the  Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum, 50 miles north of Kyiv, the Hryhoriy Skovoroda National Literary Memorial Museum in the Kharkiv region, the City Museum in Rubizhne and the Izyum Local Lore Museum.

Gernholtz told Index she believes it is particularly important for the international community to recognise the significance of these smaller institutions to Ukrainian identity and the pattern of Russian attacks on them.

“For me, they give a much clearer insight into the pervasiveness of this attempt to erase culture,” she said. She cited the obliteration of the Palace of Culture in the city of Lozova by a Russian missile as an example of a cultural war crime. “There was nothing in the area that could have been of military value and it was clear that the strike was targeted at that. There’s a lot of evidence that suggests that all of this is deliberate, cumulatively. You cannot reach any other conclusion.”

Gernholtz said it was also important to see the direct, targeted attacks as part of a wider strategy of erasure going back at least 2014. “When you layer on what happened in Donetsk, and other areas that were then occupied, you see the destruction of books, you see the prohibition on teaching Ukrainian or Crimean Tatar. When you start putting it all together, it was really a blueprint for this widespread and very, very deep damage to the physical infrastructure.”

The report’s publication was timed to coincide with a visit of three prominent US writers to Ukraine. Dave Eggers, Barbara Demick and Peter Godwin, who visited Lviv and Kyiv and Gernholtz felt it was an important show of solidarity toward their Ukrainian counterparts. “They fear that international attention is shifting away from Ukraine,” she said. “The importance of the visit for them was in continuing to just keep Ukraine in the spotlight, in whatever way was possible. And the solidarity part was really important, they really appreciate the willingness of people to come and to be with them for a period of time.”

The delegation also visited the liberated city of Bucha, the site of some of the worst atrocities of the war.

“It was important for the team to visit to be able to contextualise that these attacks on culture are part of a pattern of gross human rights violations,” Gernholtz said. “You have mass killings, you have torture, you have these forcible abductions of kids. You have a whole range of really serious human rights violations that are happening. But the attacks on culture are also a part of it.”

Index shares the belief that cultural erasure is an abuse of human rights and we will continue to highlight Russia’s targeted attacks on Ukraine’s creative heritage.

Martin Bright

One response to “Erasure of Ukrainian culture is an abuse of human rights”

  1. Dyfan Lewis says:

    Your balls are big enough to be seen from Stockholm. Happy New Year. Keep the pen sharp!

    Dyfan Lewis MD
    (Just reseen Official Secret)