Culture in Flames: What Russia’s War Is About

On February 26, 2024, UNESCO hosted a conference titled “Event of Solidarity with Ukraine” at the initiative of the Lithuanian and Canadian delegations. Ukraine’s Ambassador to France, Vadym Omelchenko spoke at the event. A documentary short film “Culture vs. War“ by Serhii Mykhalchuk screened for the participants. Other Ukrainian and international voices at the conference included Olha Herasymiuk, the Chair of the National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting of Ukraine; Galia Ackerman, journalist, writer and translator; Danylo Lubkivsky, the Director of the Kyiv Security Forum; Ivan Riabchiy, the director of Ukrainian Institute in France; and Tetyana Ogarkova, journalist and essayist in charge of the international outreach at Ukraine Crisis Media Center.      

We publish the speech of Danylo Lubkivsky about Ukrainian culture pronounced at the conference.

On June 9, 1847, the Russian Emperor Nicholas I received a report about Ukrainian public sentiments in Kyiv. Those were the moods of national revival. A secret rebellious community of poets, scholars and students operated at the University. The emperor’s reaction was immediate and the order was to arrest them all. 

The harshest punishment awaited the poet Taras Shevchenko. He is a symbol of our nation. A great poet. A Prophet. Nicholas I ordered to send him as a soldier to the distant steppes of Orenburg with a ban on writing and painting. 

The Poet is to be silenced. He ordered to enforce the Poet’s silence.

The first thing a Russian soldier did when they occupied the Ukrainian town of Borodyanka near Kyiv in the spring of 2022 was to shoot the head off the monument to Shevchenko.

This shot is the essential explanation of why Russia is waging a war against Ukraine.

This is a planned, direct and symbolic killing of everything that means Ukraine.

Russian emperors systemically and deliberately prohibited the Ukrainian language, literature and national school of thought and education for centuries.  Similar methods of Russification were employed in Poland, Belarus, the Baltic nations, and the Caucasus – wherever the Russian Empire was present. After 1863, for example, the empire said there was no Poland, and instead there was only Kraj Nadwiślański.

Vladimir Putin’s notorious article, published in 2021, in which he claims that Ukrainians do not exist, can be considered a direct follow-up to the order of Nikolas I on Taras Shevchenko.

By the way, on the eve of the Second World War, Hitler labeled Poland as an artificially created state, asserting that it had no national, historical, cultural, or moral basis. Putin opted to replicate this formula in reference to Ukraine.

Ukraine is an artificial and hostile entity. Ukrainians and Russians are one people. And every one of those who consider themselves Ukrainian is, basically, a Nazi. That, in a nutshell, is the gist of Putin’s historical creed.

Predictably, it was Russia’s military who became the first and the main reader of his manifesto. This text was distributed in millions of copies among Russian officers and soldiers. It was studied in special classes. The theses of the article aimed at leading the Russian armada to believe that killing anyone who identifies as Ukrainian is, in principle, not only acceptable, but also necessary and justifiable.  

Two days ago marked the second anniversary since Russia’s full-scale aggression against Ukraine. Exactly ten years have elapsed since the commencement of the occupation of Crimea and the territories in our East.

But the war of the Russian Empire against Ukraine has a much deeper history.

Its causes are not only about land grab or the desire to deny the sovereign choice of another nation. And, of course, Russia’s claims about phantom threats of NATO enlargement don’t even merit a serious discussion. Russia’s de facto indifferent reaction to Finland’s recent accession to the Alliance refutes those allegations better than any words.

In reality, the main target of this war is the entire world of the Ukrainian people, their identity, language, historical continuity, heritage, symbols and self-expression. The main target is the Ukrainian culture. This is a war to destroy the entire universe of Ukrainian life in time and space – on its land, in its past, present and future.

The main engine of this aggression is the ideology of Russian imperialism, which cultivates among its population a sense of superiority over other peoples, national exceptionalism, constant alertness to perceived threats coming from “a global conspiracy of enemies”, and, at the same time, a desire to dominate the international arena under false pretenses and fake slogans about love, peace and equality.

With a cynical smile, the aggressor even pretends to be a victim. They say they want to stop the war and return what is rightfully within their “historical” borders. But these borders, says Putin, do not end anywhere.

On this march of imperialism, Russia pursues several cultural goals.

First and foremost, the objective is to “finally resolve the Ukrainian issue,” as explicitly stated by one of Russia’s state news agencies in the initial days of the full-scale aggression. Ukrainian identity is perceived as the primary threat. Therefore, Ukrainian identity should be delegitimized and eliminated.

Long before the Revolution of Dignity, Putin realized: there is no other way to stop Ukraine’s national revival and its European course than war and mass murder.

In a cultural sense, the ongoing war is, in fact, a colossal failure of the imperial project of the “Russian world,” which Moscow had presented as an alternative to the national independence of its neighbors. “The unbearable charm and appeal” of this project found no favor, resulting in a shameful fiasco. Subsequently, Russia opted for military intervention.

What Russia did in Ukraine was only the first big leap of the predator. Make no mistake: their “appetites” go far beyond Ukraine, both in the West and in the East. Eastern Europe, the Baltic nations, Moldova, Kazakhstan and Central Asia are all in line after Ukraine.

The second goal is complete replacement of Ukrainian culture by Russian culture with all its imperial trappings and stereotypes.

A few days ago, I returned from the town of Izyum in Kharkiv region, which was under Russian occupation and is still several tens of kilometers away from the enemy positions. This land is plundered, ravaged and destroyed. In the narrow streets of one of the villages, we were cautioned not to take a single step off the trodden path, because the place is still strewn with hundreds of landmines. 

Along with explosions, destruction and looting, the Russian army cynically brought to this land their twisted textbooks, military newspapers and propaganda glorifying the Russian Empire and its culture. The task of Russification was set as an urgently top priority.

In one of the conversations, a local resident who decided to share his stories about the occupation with us said that the most violent among the invaders were those who called themselves new residents of Donetsk and Luhansk neighboring regions. He said those people were fundamentally changed and poisoned by oppressive Russian propaganda: they believed that by killing Ukrainians they were saving Russia.

The spread of Russian culture on the occupied lands presupposes killing of everything that belongs to the living Ukrainian culture. That is why, without any military necessity, the Russians bombed to smithereens the museum of the philosopher Hryhory Skovoroda in the Kharkiv region, ensuring there would not be a single sign…

The third goal is the appropriation not only of lands, but also of the entire Ukrainian history, its heritage, artifacts, and relics.

An obsession of imperial Russia is the myth of a historical connection with Kyiv and the entire Ukrainian land. In imperial thinking, this connection is of exceptional value, as it not only legitimizes the appetites of this aggression, but also expands their historical, ideological and cultural boundaries. 

Russia grabs and takes to its museum storages everything valuable that it can get its hands on in Ukraine – from modest exhibits of local museums to the treasuries of Kherson, Donetsk region, Luhansk region and the Crimea.

Before the full-fledged aggression, there were about 13 thousand artifacts in the Kherson Art Museum and around 200 thousand – in the Kherson Museum of Regional History. The Russians simply robbed them.

If Russia’s ordinary war criminals steal and send their loot to Russia – everything from underwear to washing machines – sophisticated criminals do not hesitate to loot museum collections, with the apparent consent of the entire Russian museum community, which bears responsibility for this and, therefore, is an accomplice to those crimes.

The fourth goal is the elimination of any hint of freedom of speech, expression, or cultural or national diversity in the occupied lands. Not only Ukrainians are under the pressure of persecution, including murder and deportation, but also Crimean Tatars and all nationalities whose behavior may be considered disloyal by the invaders.

The same oppression is experienced by priests and believers who do not belong to the official Russian Orthodox Church. As to the rights of any other minorities that enjoyed freedom and tolerance in Ukraine, under occupation they are simply out of the question.

The fifth goal is Russia’s transformation of the entire reachable territory into a scorched land, with no hope of quick recovery or any cultural preservation. This is how the bonds of human destinies and human presence on earth are broken. Everything turns into rubble and ashes.

Amazing pagan sculptures in the Kharkiv region, damaged by indiscriminate Russian strikes, became collateral damage in this hateful plundering of the Ukrainian land.

One of the most terrible examples of maddened, diabolical bombing of Ukraine was the March 2022 shelling of the Mariupol theatre, where hundreds of people were hiding in a bomb shelter. According to various estimates, the number of victims who died as a result of the Russian attack ranged from six hundred to over a thousand people. After the city was captured by Russian troops, the invaders started covering up their crimes. The demolished theater building was camouflaged with enormous banners depicting classics of Russian literature.

This is one of the most terrible metaphors of this war: death disguised under the false facade of imperial Russian culture.

According to the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine, from February 24, 2022 to January 25, 2024, Russia destroyed or damaged 902 sites of cultural heritage.

124 out of those are monuments of national significance.

The worst-affected in that respect is in the Kharkiv region.

The war against Ukrainian culture is a deliberate decision of Russian war criminals. They are well aware that no tank can subdue a free people in the long run. In order to destroy Ukraine, it is necessary to kill its culture.

Our most painful losses are the tragic deaths of dozens of writers, musicians and artists. According to the recent reports, over one hundred of the Ukrainian scholars were killed by Russia during the last two years. 

Here, at the UNESCO meeting, it is with inexpressible pain that I recall Victoria Amelina, Kostyantyn Starovytskyi, Volodymyr Vakulenko, Maksym Kravtsov and all those who perished at the hands of Russian invaders.

The cultural blossom of our nation was almost completely crushed by Stalinist butchers in the 1920s and 30s. We call those martyrs “The Executed Renaissance”.

Stalin’s contemporary descendants have inherited his legacy of genocide. 

Like Russian tsars and communist leaders, today’s bloody rulers of Russia seek not just to conquer, but to annihilate Ukraine.

Their goal is to make Shevchenko silent. To kill Shevchenko.

But they will not succeed.

Our modern revival is a Resurrected Renaissance. 

Our culture will win in this war.

Our love, our freedom, and the support of the international community that stands on the right side of history will prevail in this war.
Danylo Lubkivsky is a Ukrainian diplomat, former Deputy Foreign Minister of Ukraine and the Chair of the National UNESCO Commission. Now he is the director of the Kyiv Security Forum, Ukraine’s foremost platform for high-level discussions on the issues of war and peace.