The War on Culture: How Russia is Destroying Ukraine’s Cultural Heritage

February 1, 2023
Ukrainian culture and cultural infrastructure have been under systematic attack by Russia since 2014.

Russian propagandists have frequently argued that "culture is outside of politics" to accuse Ukraine of "discrimination" against Russian artists and Russian speaking people. However, while Russian propagandists claim that Ukraine is "attacking Russian culture," Russia itself has been violently targeting Ukrainian culture since 2014.

The repression of Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar culture, language, and media began just after Russia's annexation of Crimea. The Russians pursued a strategy of erasing any trace of Ukraine, crushing Ukrainian cultural expression, as well as illegally detaining and torturing  pro-Ukrainian artists and writers in the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts.

One of the biggest cultural spaces in Donetsk, located at a former insulation material factory, was turned into the infamous Izolyatsiya prison.

After the full-scale invasion on 24 February, 2022, Russia began targeting Ukrainian cultural heritage all over the country. As a result of ongoing hostilities and the lack of information from territories under occupation, it's hard to estimate the total number of damaged cultural sites. UNESCO has verified 236 such sites as of 23 January 2023. According to Ukraine's Ministry of Culture and Information Policy, 553 cultural sites have been damaged or destroyed.

Overall, Russia's attacks on Ukrainian cultural heritage can be divided into 2 big categories: direct attacks against cultural sites, and the repression of Ukrainian culture in the occupied territories.

Direct attacks on cultural sites

Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Russian troops have been bombing Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, despite their propagandists claiming that they were merely carrying out  "precision strikes on Ukrainian military infrastructure."

Thus, cultural infrastructure -- including  spiritual and religious buildings, schools, libraries, museums, schools, and theatres -- have also been targeted. Among most significant sites that were damaged and destroyed are the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum (which held the works of famous Ukrainian artist Mariia Prymachenko), the Kuindzhi Art Museum, the Mariupol Drama Theater, the Hryhorii Skovoroda Museum, the Khanenko Museum, and many others.

"In my opinion, Russians are completely indifferent to our cultural sites - they don't know about, don't value, and don't respect our heritage.

What they are doing now is not just destroying artifacts -- it's genocide, killing the custodians of this memory - us, Ukrainians. I couldn't understand the case with the Museum of Hryhorii Skovoroda. Why did they hit this museum? ... They were imposing their view on Skovoroda as a Russian philosopher on us and the whole world. It seems that this isn't working for them. That's why they bury books in occupied territories - in practical terms burying our voices and our narratives... All Russian war crimes in Ukraine are crimes against culture. They want to kill us, first of all, as the hosts of Ukrainian culture, not as enemies that threaten their existence," Tetiana Pylypchuk, the director of Kharkiv Literary Museum, told UkraineWorld.

(Photo: Kharkiv Regional Military Administration)

The destruction of Ukraine's  cultural heritage comports with Russia's overall narratives about Ukraine as a "fake state."A unique and separate Ukrainian culture is portrayed as a "threat" that has to be liquidated or appropriated.

"Everywhere they come, Russians rob museums by  removing the most valuable collections. This happened to the Melitopol and Mariupol local history museums, as well as the Kherson fine arts museum. This happens with the participation of Russian museum workers,"  Pylypchuk explained.

In addition to direct damage, these attacks lead to irreparable harm to many cultural heritage objects.

Discussing the May 7 Russian missile strike on the Hryhorii Skovoroda Memorial Museum, Pylypchuk argued that  "even when museums are not robbed or physically damaged, the ruined storage conditions of many collections are causing the museum exhibits to be destroyed."

Persecution of the Ukrainian culture in the occupied territories

The other component of Russia's crimes against Ukrainian culture is what they are doing in the  occupied territories. Here, Russia has adopted an explicitly imperialist strategy aimed at erasing any signs of Ukraine, looting valuable cultural sites, and re-appropriating them as "Russian." This is what happened at the Kherson Art Museum --  after the occupation of the city, Russians came to the museum demanding access to its  collections and afterwards appointing a new loyal director who helped to pillage valuable collections for transportation to Crimea as the Ukrainian Armed Forces were liberating the city.

"I saw 3 people standing in the yard. They were in masks. Based on their manner of communication, they were FSB. They demanded to be let into my office, but I told them I would not do this. I asked them who they were and where their documents were, but they took my documents instead. So, I had to go to my office with them. They questioned me about the collection and the museum's workers. Afterwards, they said that they would return to see the remaining collections and would help with their evacuation to Crimea or even further... " recounted Anna Skrypka, a specialist in the Kherson Art Museum's preservation department to UkraineWorld.

With the help of collaborators, Russian forces were, practically, capturing the influence under cultural sites at occupied territories. Workers who opposed their actions or tried to resist were threatened with torture and even sometimes arrested and searched under fake accusations of "Nazism" or "collaboration with the Ukrainian army."

"One day, when all the workers were gathered at the museum, one of the workers said that she had had a conversation with a person from "Russian culture," and that he would come there soon. When I asked the group what they thought about it, she had already run to meet him. I didn't even have time to say "no." Moreover, I was told that if I didn't agree, they would come in another way with other measures. It all happened on June 19. Armed people came here, from the FSB. They suggested that I hand over all the keys and open all the spaces for inspection, because a new director would come. When I asked to wait for the director and documents that prove their legitimacy, they threatened to speak with me in a different place. We tried to stall them as long as possible, but then they just cut off the alarm which began to work in the rooms. I realized that I could do nothing. They took our phones, from all of us workers..." Anna explained.

In addition to taking control of Ukrainian cultural sites, Russian occupation forces also removed many valuable artifacts to Russia or occupied Crimea. This happened to museums in Mariupol, Melitopol, and Kherson, where  the majority of collections were stolen.

"They did this between September 31 and  October 4. They removed approximately 80% of our collection. It was directed by three people. The new director called me and asked me to come to work without explaining anything. There were many people. They said, "We are beginning the process of evacuation and saving of our art." There were 10 people brought in from Russia who were selecting, sorting, and packing the collections. Every day, they brought in 30-40 people to help load up our exhibits.

They took 10,000 museum artifacts. More than 80% of the collection. The most valuable pictures were taken on 31 November - works by foreign artists, paintings from the 19th century... Now they are being held in the Central Tavrida Museum in Simferopol," she told UkraineWorld.

Another aspect of Russia's repression of Ukrainian culture in the occupied territories is their persecution of artists. For example, Ukrainian children's writer and volunteer Volodymyr Vakulenko was murdered by the Russians in Izium while it was under Russian occupation because of his pro-Ukrainian position. The same is happening in other occupied territories, as Russian occupation authorities accuse artists of "extremism" or "spying," arrest them, and force them to cooperate and publicly "disown" their views or keep them imprisoned.

"I woke up at 7 am to the sound of a car. I saw a KAMAZ truck, an armored personnel carrier, and a machine gun pointed right on me...

I woke up my family and we left the house. The house was surrounded. People with machine guns, helmets, body armor - it looked like something out of a movie. They began to search the house. They took me away, told my wife to pack my things, and said that they would take me away for a few days," recounted Oleksandr Khyha, the director of Mykola Kulish Kherson Regional Music and Drama Theater.

Russian forces also destroyed cultural sites that testified to Kherson's Ukrainian roots. This would often happen under the guise of "reconstruction" or "restoration" in order to, for example,  legitimize the dismantling of the Taras Shevchenko monument in Berdyansk or destruction of the Drama Theater and House with the Clock in Mariupol.

In some cases, the occupation authorities would explain the destruction of Ukrainian heritage markers by saying they "lack cultural value" or were "unnecessary," as they did when destroying the Milana mural  in Mariupol, which was dedicated to a girl whose mother died from a Russian missile attack on the city in 2015, or the monument to the victims of Holodomor.

The Ukrainian cultural sites which the Russians destroyed were often replaced by "ideologically correct" ones devoted to "brotherhood with Russia," a "common past" in the Russian Empire and in the Soviet Union, or "liberating the city from Ukraine."

(Photo Mariupol mayor`s advicer Andriushchenko)

In summary, Russia is fighting with Ukraine not only on the battlefield, but also in the sphere of culture. Ukrainian culture, in all its manifestations, has been  targeted by Russia since the occupation of Crimea and the beginning of the hybrid war in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts.

However, after the start of the full-scale invasion, this phenomenon only intensified and turned into direct strikes  on cultural sites, looting and erasing of Ukrainian cultural heritage, and illegal detentions of Ukrainian artists in the occupied territories. All these actions make clear how empty Russian claims about "culture being above politics" are, as Russia is destroying Ukrainian culture specifically because of its Ukrainian origin.

This article is produced within the project «EU Emergency Support 4 Civil Society», implemented by ISAR Ednannia with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Internews Ukraine and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

Analyst and Journalist at UkraineWorld