Russia Destroying Ukrainian Cultural Heritage as a Part of War of Annihilation

Korolenko Chernihiv Regional Universal Scientific Library built in 1910-1913, suffered from Russian shelling. Photo from March 30, 2022. Photo credit: Radio Liberty

Appropriation of the Kyivan Rus’ history (since the very choronym Russia (Россия) is the Byzantine Greek invariant name of Rus’). For centuries, Russia has been trying to steal and subdue Ukrainian culture as well as the Ukrainian identity itself, which was formed through the shared codes, rituals, memories, myths, values, and symbols which bound the people together.

In today’s war of annihilation, which Russia conducts against Ukraine, it also intends to destroy not only the Ukrainian people but also its cultural heritage, exploiting the colonial practices of both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. 

An Attempt to Destroy Ukraine as a Concept

However, if earlier the Russian empire and the Soviet Union used the method of bans, creeping annexation of culture, and imposing an inferiority complex, now Russia switched to direct aggression and a new level of cultural expansion

Thus, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture, Russians committed over 242 war crimes against cultural heritage in 11 regions of Ukraine. New episodes of Russian barbarism keep appearing every day. For instance, Khortytsia Island in the Zaporizhia region, which is an important place of memory for Ukrainians, remembering the culture and history of Zaporizhzhia Cossacks, was shelled by enemy missiles. 

In Mariupol, the occupiers bombed the Drama Theater, founded in 1878, and killed about 300 civilians hiding there. Also, according to the Mariupol city council, Russian occupiers seized about 2,000 artworks from the city museums, including the paintings of Arkhyp Kuindzhi and Ivan Aivazovsky paintings. Also, the invaders stole the Scythian gold collection and mined the approach to the Kamyana Mohyla (“stone grave”) archaeological site in the Zaporizhzhia region, and looted the artifacts from the “Scythian gold” collection, which is more than 2,300 years old. Therefore, Russian discourse, only in the form of a romanticized national landscape or bragging about stolen exhibits from Ukrainian museums. 

The Drama Theater in Mariupol
The Drama Theater in Mariupol, where hundreds of civilians were hiding and which was shelled by Russians despite the word ‘children’ in large letters written on the ground next to the building. Photo credit: Radio Liberty

The religious buildings in Ukraine suffered the most since the Russian aggressor damaged shrines of several confessions: from mosques and synagogues to (ironically) orthodox churches under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. In the ancient city of Chernihiv, occupiers damaged churches founded in XI, XVII, and XVIII centuries. Sviatohirsk Lavra in Donetsk region also came under Russian fire. The first mention of this monastery dates back to the early XI century. A church in Lukashivka, Chernihiv region, was used as an ammunition depot, which is the same thing that communists used to do to churches in the Soviet Union, destroying and misusing them, ruining ancient frescoes and iconostasis.   

Ukrainian libraries have also taken the brunt of the Russian war. Thus, the occupiers shelled Chernihiv Scientific Library, which is an architectural monument of the XX century, and Chernihiv Youth Library, which was an architectural monument of the XIX century. The library collection partly remained under the rubble. In Kharkiv, the Russian army damaged the Slovo Building, where Ukrainian writers and poets of the Executed Renaissance used to live. 

The invaders also shelled Freedom Square in the historical center of Kharkiv and damaged the building of Karazin Kharkiv National University, and many other historical sites even though the city was the capital of Soviet Ukraine, filled with architectural monuments of modernism created in the Soviet era, which has sacral meaning to Russia. 

Notably, Russia targets not only Ukrainian but also Jewish sites of memory, bombing Holocaust memorials in Kyiv’s Babyn Yar and in Drobytsky Yar in Kharkiv, where 15,000 Jews were killed during WWII, keeping the relations with earlier neutral Israel tense. 

Russian shelling damaged the Drobytsky Yar Holocaust memorial complex on the outskirts of Kharkiv. Photo credit: Radio Liberty

By committing such war crimes, Russia violates the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, obliging to prevent “any form of theft, pillage or misappropriation of, and any acts of vandalism directed against, cultural property”. Alas, it is not surprising since Russia does not recognize the very existence of Ukraine as a sovereign state and, as a consequence, its right for cultural authenticity. 

New Old Russian Colonialism

Such actions of Russia seems to fit the classical colonial scenario. Edward Saide, a founder of the post-colonial studies, proposes two ways of anti-imperialist resistance in the colonies: the military struggle to defend the territory from the oppressor, and the reservation of cultural heritage. Now, as a post-colonial state, Ukraine is running through both of the phases of intensive decolonization. However, in Russian discourse, Ukrainian culture (as well as the infinite number of the Russian Federation’s indigenous peoples’ cultures) is often viewed as “common heritage” since the culture is “beyond politics”.  

In a drama “The Orgy”, Ukrainian poet, playwright, translator, folklorist, public and cultural activist, and Lesia Ukrainka draws a parallel between ancient Greece (whose cultural heritage also was an object of forcible appropriation) and Ukraine and Rome (an appropriator) and the Russian empire, respectively. She states that Rome went to school in Greece, appealing not only to the fact that Kyiv-Mohyla Academy formed a lot of imperial Russia’s intellectuals, as well as to the fact that Russian imperialism was appropriating Ukrainian cultural figures. 

A church in Lukashivka, Chernihiv region, was used as an ammunition depot. Photo credit: Radio Liberty

Thus, a textbook case of Russian colonialism is a cultural appropriation of Ukrainian writer Mykola Hohol, who entered the Western canon as “Russian”, therefore, the culture of the Russian empire became a mediator between Ukrainian culture and the world one. 

Apparently, Russia’s main goal is either cultural appropriation or absolute liquidation of Ukraine as a sovereign state, as it was mentioned in a program article by Timofey Sergeytsev and published by the Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti, which demonstrates Russia’s commitment to introduce heavy censorship of Ukraine’s cultural space and the complete assimilation of Ukraine into the Russian Federation. 

According to British historical sociologist Anthony Smith, [O]ne might almost say: no memory, no identity; no identity, no nation’ – and that is exactly why the Soviet regime was doing everything to erase Ukrainians’ collective memory and make them forget their intelligentsia that Ukraine as a sovereign state within its modern borders owes its existence to the Soviet Union. 

Such a strategy is also a continuation of Soviet aggressive attempts to intervene Ukrainians’ collective memory and replace it with an inferiority complex for being not-Russian i.e., marginal, subordinate, and a cargo cult of “ideologically correct” art. The cancer of “Russkiy mir” quasi-ideology is still intended to absorb and destroy Ukraine from within, damage the sense of belonging to Ukrainian cultural space, and, after all, erase Ukraine’s cultural identity, since it is central to the national one.

The cultural front is as important for the Kremlin as the military one. Therefore, Russian invaders always start the occupation of Ukrainian territories by marking them with symbols of both Soviet and modern imperialism: renaming the streets, taking Lenin monuments (which were demolished in Ukraine within the decommunization policy) back, and changing the language of signs from Ukrainian to Russian. And that is exactly why Ukraine will win the cultural war and keep preserving its culture from the barbaric aggressor state. And all Russian crimes against Ukrainian cultural heritage will be used as evidence in international prosecutions and prove its blatant politics of cultural genocide.