From Cathedrals to Cross Stitch: All Culture at Risk in Times of War

Editors’ note: Olivia Poust, editorial assistant of ONE magazine, reported on the destruction of cultural heritage sites in Ukraine, Syria, Armenia and Iraq as a tactic used to erase or diminish a group’s identity during conflict. In her audio report below, hear from Lubow Wolynetz, a curator at Ukrainian cultural museums in New York and Stamford, Connecticut, about this issue. Then, read more in her feature article “Erasing Identity” in the June 2023 edition of ONE. A full transcript of the audio report follows. 

I had gotten into the habit of checking UNESCO’s list of verified damaged cultural heritage sites every few days while writing a story about the destruction of these sites in Ukraine for ONE magazine — and it has continued to prove itself a disheartening and devastating statistic.

Through my drafts and notes, I am able to trace the gradual increase of this destruction: What was 251 cultural sites in April had increased to 256 by the time I filed the story in May. Now, in early August, this number sits at 274.

One of the latest sites added to this list was Transfiguration Cathedral, which is situated in Odesa’s historic city center, a recognized World Heritage Site.

Before this story was conceptualized, I had noticed Ukrainian museums, monuments, churches and other cultural sites continually popping up in headlines, and the nature of this destruction held echoes of other atrocities. The desire to “erase” — a people, a culture, a history — is dangerous, and often expresses itself in attacks on cultural heritage.

I spoke with Lubow Wolynetz, who is a curator for the Ukrainian museums in New York City and Stamford, Connecticut, about this phenomenon. Having fled Ukraine with her family after World War II, and now witnessing the war on Ukraine from the United States, there is a duality to her perspective on this issue, informed by her past and present.

At the Ukrainian museum in New York, Ms. Wolynetz is the curator of folk art, which, she says, is important to the identity of the Ukrainian people. Because of this, she said, it has historically been targeted by oppressors.

She recalls people bringing embroidery with them as they fled Ukraine after World War II as a means to hold on to this part of their past and identity:

“Throughout Ukrainian history, we were always subjugated by some other power, and the only way that people were able to survive and keep at their identity was to preserve this traditional way of life that they knew, and folklore and folk art was part of their livelihood.

“And the interesting thing is that with the different kinds of occupiers who ruled Ukraine, they understood that, and they tried to belittle the traditional way of life to trivialize it, or even to forbid.”

She says the present war’s attacks on cultural sites are aimed at erasing Ukraine’s past.  

“They want to destroy any memory, historical memory of our nation. And that’s why they’re destroying the culture.

“By destroying evidence of somebody’s existence, they will destroy that whole idea of those people ever being around.”

This form of destruction spans far beyond the borders of Ukraine, and I explore this issue as seen in Armenia, Syria and Iraq in my article for ONE magazine, titled “Erasing Identity.”

Olivia Poust is assistant editor of ONE.

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