A narrative is emerging that Vladimir Putin’s forces in Ukraine are bent on the erasure of Ukraine’s identity to the point—if we are to believe President Biden—that a genocide is underway. Ihori Poshyvailo, the director of the Maidan Museum in Ukraine said: “The goal is our historical memory, our cultural traditions, our national and individual identity.” A report in the Observer this week claimed that Russian destruction was “concentrated” on Ukrainian memorials and places of worship. But is this true?
Despite the horror at the damage and destruction to historic places such as the Ivankiv Historical-Cultural Museum of folk art, or the threat to Constructivist architecture of Freedom Square in Kharkiv or many dozens of other places from theatres to monuments damaged and destroyed, cultural symbols do not yet appear to be a deliberate target.
This is not always so in conflicts. Sometimes a community’s representative architecture is not just damaged incidentally but, from the outset, is deliberately identified for erasure. This is especially so where wars have an ethno-nationalist or genocidal aspect such as in the former Yugoslavia where minarets, for example, were not just symbolic targets—their levelling was a component of cultural cleansing accompanying ethnic cleansing and genocide.
We have no proof of this yet in Ukraine, despite the suggestion of such by organisations such as the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab in Virginia headed up by a former US navy archaeologist that is busily analysing satellite imagery from its “command centre”. The lab has claimed that both a “targeting” of cultural heritage and a scorched earth policy is underway—two contradictory things.
Annexation and cultural erasure
It would appear that Putin and his army are guilty of war crimes including for the indiscriminate shelling of civilian centres and cultural locations and of crimes against humanity too. Absolute disregard for cultural sites? Certainly. But calculated targeting of symbols and identities by Russia? Not so far. Ukrainian cultural sites appear to have been damaged incidentally rather than actively amidst Putin’s profound disregard for civilian life and urban fabric.
This is not to say that the targeting of symbolic places will not happen. It is most likely within those regions that Russia wants to hold and permanently annex or control and where the manipulation of culture can be used to reinforce a claim to the land or to change the ideological environment. Lessons could be learned here from the Sinofication of Tibet or the Uighur city of Kashgar where traditional architecture and cultures have been decimated.
Indeed, this has happened in Ukraine before with the expulsion and genocide of the Crimean Tatars in 1944 when some 200,000 Tatar men, women and children were deported and their cultural traces back in the Crimea were then kicked over to dissuade survivors from returning.
Cultural erasure could happen again in the name of Russification in places such as the Donbas. The propaganda about the so-called "brotherly" connection between Ukrainians and Russians in the region can just as easily shift into "othering", where non-Russians and their cultural markers become usefully expendable and thus targets. Some worry that this is already happening and that the characterisation of the Ukrainians as neo-Nazis in need of re-education is a prelude to precisely this.
If so, one could expect, under longer-term occupation, a nasty and potentially deadly sifting between what is truly culturally Russian and what is infected with Nazi-Ukrainian identity and slated for erasure using disputes that linger from the Great Patriotic War (1941-45). Long term occupation certainly gives Putin time to carefully edit what is kept and what he erases—stressing supposed commonalities or national differences depending on what benefits his political requirements.
These are genuine potential dangers ahead then but, for now at least, there is no evidence of a cultural component to a genocide. Cultural genocide is itself not recognised as a crime internationally but attacks on culture may prove evidence of genocidal intent, so evidence of any pattern of cultural destruction that may warn of a genocidal situation emerging should be gathered.
Already there have been small incidents. In an appeal to Soviet-era nostalgia, for instance, the Russian-occupied town of Henichesk has recently erected a Lenin statue and there are reports of Ukrainian books being destroyed. This works the other way too, including the toppling of a monument to the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin in Ternopil, western Ukraine. Ternopil’s mayor is reported to have said that there is no place for Russian or Soviet monuments in his city. One could easily see Ukrainian monuments in the Donbas suffering a similar fate.
Cultural protection must not, though, be used as part of creating an Iraq-style dodgy dossier supporting military intervention, a siren song by those who wishing to drag NATO into direct conflict with Putin—an escalation that would only immeasurably worsen the situation for cultural sites.
The relationship between national armies and cultural property protection (CPP) has been deepening over past decades as heritage groups have been keen to avoid the damage to cultural sites seen in places such as Bosnia or at the hands of Isis. However, there is also the risk of a military-heritage complex emerging. What, for instance, are the ethics of helping NATO to compile controversial no-strike lists in Iraq, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere? They may save some historic sites but have all manner of other consequences not least for international heritage professionals no longer being seen to operate independently in conflict situations.
Heritage professionals who work with the military complain that they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, but this is the not the point: However well-meaning, there is a crucial difference between doing the important work of monitoring and gathering evidence of cultural war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the warnings of genocide that cultural destruction provides and becoming embroiled in making the case for war.
Amid all Putin’s savagery we must maintain a clear ethical stance when intervening to protect culture.
• Robert Bevan is the author of The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War and, forthcoming this October, Monumental Lies: Culture Wars and the Truth about the Past (Verso).