Ця стаття також доступна українською мовою тут.
Four days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, a museum burned in Ivankiv, a town to the northwest of Kyiv, which held paintings by the internationally acclaimed Ukrainian folk artist Maria Primachenko. For cultural workers in Ukraine and those watching from elsewhere in the world, it was a confirmation of fears that this war would see the destruction of Ukraine’s heritage, much like that in Georgia and Syria where Russia has been a party to the conflict. Even before this new offensive in Ukraine, evidence mounted that Russia was using cultural heritage as a form of propaganda to reinforce Russia’s irredentist territorial claims. Now, escalating cultural heritage losses might not just be a sign of unfortunate collateral damage, but part of a deliberate Russian strategy to undermine Ukrainian cultural identity and its claims to nationhood.
By April 1, 2022, the Ukrainian Culture Foundation had identified more than 150 partially damaged or destroyed cultural sites. International researchers have been watching and have reached similar conclusions. The Virginia Museum of Natural History’s Cultural Heritage Monitoring Laboratory has been tracking over 26,000 cultural sites across Ukraine. As of April 6, the team had identified 191 potential impacts to archaeological sites, art centers, monuments, memorials, museums, and places of worship using satellite sensor analysis. UNESCO, working with UNITAR, has conducted a preliminary assessment, and, as of April 14, found damage to 47 religious buildings, 28 historical buildings, 12 monuments, nine museums, three theaters, and three libraries.
International humanitarian law protects cultural heritage sites during armed conflict. The 1954 Hague Convention requires state parties to refrain from targeting cultural sites and collections repositories except in limited cases of imperative military necessity. The OSCE’s major fact-finding report earlier this month concluded it is “highly unlikely that those very exceptional circumstances were fulfilled” across all the cases of destruction of cultural sites by Russian forces. Russia’s track record of targeting hospitals as well as significant cultural sites in Syria suggests that Russia has little regard for international norms.
In March 2022, U.S. President Joseph Biden announced the establishment of a conflict observatory on Ukraine, which will gather documentation intended to hold Russia accountable for its actions. Several European states have also initiated war crimes investigations, and the International Criminal Court is also on the case. If cultural heritage destruction is included in these efforts, it will send a powerful message that cultural targeting will not be tolerated by law-abiding states and the international community. Yet, if past is prologue, accountability alone will not act as a restraining factor to Russian attacks upon Ukrainian civilians, civilian infrastructure, and cultural institutions.
With this sober reality, Ukrainian cultural workers have taken steps to protect important cultural sites and museum collections. They have received an outpouring of support from the international cultural community. As the war enters into its third month, and Russia prepares for an expanded campaign in eastern Ukraine, there are five considerations international policymakers and donors need to consider for protecting the country’s culture.
First, donors should pay attention to emerging local networks, which can support heritage professionals, integrate local volunteers, and act quickly as the frontlines shift and new needs arise. Recent lessons learned from conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are instructive. Even in the most dire circumstances, dedicated heritage professionals and volunteers have successfully stabilized cultural sites or salvaged damaged collections. Most of these efforts were completed with relatively modest amounts of funding. The key to their success was accessibility to quick financial support. Inexpensive, high-impact projects are the best prospect for safeguarding Ukrainian heritage from additional damage. Already, the Prince Claus Fund’s Cultural Emergency Response Programme and the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas have taken steps to respond within their capacity. But more donor organizations are needed, especially those that have the capacity to reach local networks. Inside the country, the Heritage Emergency Response Initiative, HERI, has had significant reach across Ukrainian cultural institutions. Coordinated by Ihor Poshyvailo, the director of the Maidan Museum, HERI brings together cultural workers, members of the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Information Policy and committed volunteers to provide emergency assistance and training to cultural institutions. Local community-driven networks, such as HERI, will have the most ability to act in the weeks and months ahead.
Second, whether this war ends quickly or drags on into a stalemate, there will be a financial need for long-term assistance for Ukraine’s cultural institutions and the experts who sustain them. Support in the cultural sector will be considerable for the duration of this conflict as well as during the reconstruction period. International “friends” organizations will be necessary to support specific cultural institutions in Ukraine. An excellent start would be for the cultural institutions in Ukraine’s American “sister cities” come together, draw upon their collective expertise, pool their limited funds, and offer direct support to partner cultural institutions and workers. Such an initiative would see Chicago reach out to Kyiv, Cincinnati to Kharkiv, and Birmingham to Vinnytsia, for example. Twenty-three American cities have these partnerships.
Many universities also have cooperative partnerships with Ukraine, which can be activated to support educational programs as well as cultural institutions. Moreover, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs may be able to enhance its existing exchange programs and to amplify the reach of preexisting city-to-city, institution-to-institution, and scholar-to-scholar collaborations.
Third, policymakers and cultural institutions supporting Ukrainian colleagues need to prepare now for a long-term conflict. Much of the vital work completed thus far in Ukraine has focused on emergency actions that protect cultural sites in place or stabilize cultural collections. If this conflict continues and there is widespread economic disruption in Ukraine, there will be additional need to focus on financial support for temporary replacement of cultural collections. Some of this work will involve, when possible, the salvage and documentation of damaged sites and collections. But temporary replacement support helps to disincentivize risk-taking and reduces the possibility that cultural workers would feel obliged to undertake activities that would place their lives at significant risk. Such an intervention necessitates having a strong partnership between organizing partners and implementing non-governmental organizations in Ukraine and nearby countries. What is more, the situation in Ukraine should prompt us to look at other areas of Russian military activity and malign influence, especially where cultural heritage has been implicated. A renewed look at support for cultural workers in Georgia, Moldova, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Syria is urgently needed.
Fourth, international law enforcement agencies, museums, and art market participants must increase their vigilance for looted cultural property coming from Ukraine and Ukraine’s citizens. Widespread reports of property looting by Russian military forces raises the possibility that valuable artwork may have been similarly expropriated. Following the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, experts had raised concerns about the unlawful transfer of cultural property from Russian-occupied Ukraine to Russian territory. In 2014, UNESCO expressed alarm at reports of the “massive transfer of priceless cultural objects from Crimean museums to the Russian capital.” Similar fears came a year later, when the archaeological finds at the ancient Greek city of Chersonesus, just outside of Sevastopol, were placed under direct federal oversight from Moscow. If there has been systematic pillage of cultural property in Ukraine, it may take years for the extent to be clear, and even longer to return the works to their owners. Challenges remain to this day over identifying and restituting artwork to Jewish families, who were victims of Nazi Germany in the Holocaust. Many museums in Eastern Europe are still seeking the return of missing artworks stolen by organized Nazi looting and Russian theft from the same era. Assembling collections registers and “watch lists” for recently stolen artwork can help facilitate the work of return in the future.
Finally, policymakers and human rights advocates need to consider the steps required to protect the cultural workers safeguarding Ukraine’s heritage. Wartime reversals may exacerbate the current humanitarian crisis, and cultural workers may be targeted precisely for their efforts. In 2018, separatist forces captured Olena Pekh, a museum researcher, accused her of espionage, and subjected her to prolonged torture. Karima Bennoune, the former UN Special Rapporteur for Cultural Rights, described the experts, activists, and ordinary people who defend the human right to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement as “cultural rights defenders.” Many will stay behind, long after it is unsafe, to secure collections and to maintain the cultural memory of their communities. Because Russian propaganda and rhetoric is focused on delegitimizing Ukrainian cultural identity, it is likely that Ukrainian cultural workers will respond by even more intensely protecting their country’s heritage. When a government denies the cultural legitimacy of a specific community, a powerful act of political resistance is to protect that identity. If the situation deteriorates even further, we owe it to our Ukrainian colleagues to support their efforts at safe relocation and political asylum.
These five considerations look toward what comes next for Ukrainian cultural heritage. Already, because of the work of HERI and others, cultural institutions have mobilized rapidly in response to the Russian invasion. More needs to be done, however, as the conflict continues and the global cultural community looks forward to the day when reconstruction can come.