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Erasing Identity

Destroying culture to destroy a people

Only the battered and charred walls of the Hryhoriy Skovoroda National Literary and Memorial Museum remain standing, like ribs surrounding a chest cavity, void of the heart and lungs that once beat and breathed life.

“Hryhoriy Skovoroda forged the spirit of the Ukrainian nation,” says Hanna Yarmish, who heads the educational department of the museum in Kharkiv.

“The enemy destroyed everything to destroy the identity of our people,” she says, referring to Russia and its attack on the museum in its full-scale war launched against Ukraine on 24 February 2022. “It was a direct hit. Damage was huge.”

The museum dedicated to the 18th-century Ukrainian poet and philosopher was obliterated in a Russian missile strike last year on 6 May, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy identified as a targeted attack. 

Monuments, art works, churches, museums and libraries are not always unintended casualties of war. Often, attacks on heritage sites and objects are tactical measures used by perpetrators of violence to erase a culture, history and tradition — and with them, a people.

As of 17 May, UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, had documented 256 cultural sites in Ukraine damaged since the war began. These included 110 religious sites and 22 museums, with the greatest number in the Kharkiv, Donetsk, Luhansk and Kyiv regions.

Three months earlier, the U.N. Human Rights Office expressed concern about the “severe targeting of Ukrainian cultural symbols,” including “Ukrainian literature, museums and historical archives,” and that “cultural and educational institutions” in occupied regions were seeing Ukrainian “culture, history and language” replaced by the “Russian language and with Russian and Soviet history and culture.”

The destruction of cultural artifacts is a fact of conquest throughout human history: the sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade; the iconoclastic dynamiting of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban; book burning in China’s Qin dynasty and in Nazi Germany; forced assimilation of Indigenous children by the United States and Canada; the looting of African nations by colonial powers; and the destruction of cultural sites in Ukraine.

Hanna Yarmish, left, and a fellow museum worker tend to a statue of Ukrainian philosopher Hryhoriy Skovoroda.
Hanna Yarmish, left, and a fellow museum worker tend to a statue of Ukrainian philosopher Hryhoriy Skovoroda, which was saved from destruction. (photo: Konstantin Chernichkin)

In 1933, motivated by ideological and sociopolitical developments, including in Nazi Germany, Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin defined two terms to describe these crimes of destruction. The first, “acts of barbarism,” referred to the premeditated extermination of a people; the second, “acts of vandalism,” referred to the premeditated destruction of cultural heritage.

He later coined the term “genocide” in his book “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe,” published in 1944. Two years later, the United Nations incorporated Mr. Lemkin’s “acts of barbarism” into the official definition of genocide when declaring it a crime and codifying it at the 1948 Genocide Convention. Yet, “acts of vandalism” were not incorporated. While the current definition of genocide does not include cultural heritage crimes, this form of violence is still considered a war crime.

“It’s inevitable that cultural heritage sites … are going to become casualties of this war.”

The International Criminal Court held its first trial pertaining to cultural heritage crimes in 2016 for attacks on mausoleums and a mosque in Timbuktu, Mali, about which Fatou Bensouda, then the court’s chief prosecutor, said: “Let us be clear: What is at stake here is not just walls and stones. The destroyed mausoleums were important, from a religious point of view, from a historical point of view, and from an identity point of view.”

“Walls and stones” often belong to a much bigger story, and are not simply structures or raw materials, but memory preserved. 

Conflict in the Caucasus, first in the waning years of the Soviet Union (1988-94), and most recently in 2020, pitted Azerbaijan against its neighbor Armenia over disputed territory with shared histories, resulting in the destruction of Armenian monuments, mainly Christian, in the Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhichevan regions. 

Armenia is an ancient Christian nation with deep roots in these historically diverse regions, and Christian sites and symbols were quick targets easily identifiable as “Armenian.” In this conflict, Azerbaijani military systematically demolished churches, cemeteries and “khachkars,” uniquely carved Armenian cross stones.

Azerbaijan has gone one step further and denies these sites ever existed, says Armenian-born Simon Maghakyan, a researcher and doctoral candidate in heritage crime at Cranfield University in Bedford, England.

According to Mr. Maghakyan, the goal of Azerbaijan’s denial is to erase Armenia’s history in Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhichevan and to destroy any evidence that could identify these regions as having been Armenian. He attributes this tactic to “political elite and authoritarian thinking” that claims its legitimacy by punishing and oppressing “an enemy … until their last gravestone becomes dust.”

Khachkars are distinct Armenian cultural symbols systematically destroyed in the conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhichevan regions. (photo: Michael J.L. La Civita)

In 2019, he and historian Sarah Pickman prepared a report that compares data on Armenian sites in Nakhichevan from 1964 to 1987 with data from 2005 to 2008. Earlier records identify close to 28,000 Armenian khachkars, other headstones, flat tombstones and churches. The later data indicates none.

All identifiable Armenian monuments in Nakhichevan were destroyed by 2006. But Nagorno-Karabakh, where several Armenian cultural and religious sites remain, is an area of continued concern for Armenian cultural heritage as conflict continues in the disputed region.

Despite provisional orders from the International Court of Justice in 2021 to “punish acts of vandalism and desecration affecting Armenian cultural heritage,” Azerbaijan announced in February 2022 its establishment of a working group to identify “falsified” Armenian monuments in Azerbaijani-occupied territories of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Mr. Maghakyan explains Azerbaijan’s announcement really means “Armenian churches would have their Armenian inscriptions polished out,” which is “a very direct violation” of the court order.

Amr al Azm is an archeologist and co-founder of The Day After, a nonprofit organization working to support a “democratic transition in Syria” after 12 years of civil war. He coordinates The Heritage Protection Initiative, an affiliated nonprofit focused on the protection of Syrian cultural heritage. 

He says in conflicts that involve sectarian, nationalist or extremist ideological aspects, one side or both sides in the conflict “will want to incorporate the ‘purity’ or the ‘exclusivity’ of their identity at the expense of others.”

“That often will translate into the extermination, not just of the physical other, but also of the historical existence of the other.”

From 1999 to 2004, Mr. Al Azm worked at the Scientific and Conservation Laboratories, which he founded within the Syrian government’s General Department of Antiquities and Museums. He left Syria in 2006 to accept a university position in the United States. He recalls how five years later, after the Arab Spring, conflict spread rapidly across Syria, and “every village, every hamlet, every city became a battlefield.” 

Unauthorized excavations, looting and bombings plunged Syria into a cultural preservation crisis.

“And because Syria is so rich in cultural heritage, you could almost say that every Syrian lives either on top of an archeological site, right next door to an archeological site, or within a stone’s throw of an archeological site,” says Mr. Al Azm. “It’s inevitable that cultural heritage sites … are going to become casualties of this war as well.”

Unauthorized excavations, looting and bombings plunged Syria into a cultural preservation crisis. All six Syrian UNESCO World Heritage Sites are on the agency’s endangered list including: the old cities of Aleppo, Bosra and Damascus; the site of Palmyra; Krak des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din; and the Byzantine-era villages of northern Syria.

An icon of Mary in a Melkite Greek Catholic church in Yabroud, Syria, was defaced by extremist rebels.
An icon of Mary in a Melkite Greek Catholic church in Yabroud, Syria, was defaced by extremist rebels. (photo: Jesuit Refugee Service)

Looting is the greatest threat to Syrian heritage, more than bombings or the smashing of icons, says Mr. Al Azm. After the Arab Spring and the start of ISIS occupation, ancient cities with great cultural and archeological significance became prime sites for antiquities trafficking.

When ISIS arrived in Iraq in 2014, heritage sites were targeted and destroyed. The tomb of the prophet Jonah in Mosul, a significant site for the three Abrahamic religions, was blown up, bulldozed and had salt sown into the soil to “extirpate heresy,” explains Mr. Al Azm, and ancient statues in the Mosul Museum were smashed.

“It is an obliteration of our past and an effacement of our identity,” said Omar al Taweel, the site coordinator for UNESCO’s “Revive the Spirit of Mosul” initiative, who spoke of the archeological destruction in Mosul at a U.N. Arria-formula meeting on 2 May.

Other religious sites in the ancient city, like Al Aghwat Mosque and Al Tahira Church, are still undergoing restoration and reconstruction for damages that occurred during the ISIS occupation. 

Sviatohirsk Monastery of the Caves in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, was shelled within weeks of Russia’s invasion and then again in May and June 2022. Shelling in the first five days of June 2022 destroyed churches and buildings, killing five monastics and three lay monastery employees, according to the monastery website. At the time, the monastery was functioning as a shelter for some 450-500 refugees.

“One got the impression that the fire on the territory of the Lavra, starting from 1 June, was carried out purposefully and accurately from various types of artillery weapons,” the website reads, also referencing “shelling from both sides.”

A toppled dome lies amid the ruins of the Virgin Skete of Sviatohirsk Lavra in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine. The hermitage was destroyed by missile attacks in May 2022. (photo: Konstantin Chernichkin)

Church structures in the complex — including Dormition Cathedral and its dependency, All Saints Skete — faced serious damage or complete destruction from the heavy shelling. The wooden skete of All Saints, which dates to 1912 and included two churches, burned to the ground on 4 June. Ukrainian officials place responsibility for the destruction of the buildings squarely on the Russians as a targeted attack.

A monument at Sviatohirsk Monastery in Donetsk Oblast is covered in sandbags to protect it from destruction. (photo: Konstantin Chernichkin)

However, damage to some Ukrainian cultural institutions has also come from their proximity to targeted areas.

Valentyna Myzgina says the windows of the Kharkiv Art Museum, where she is director, were broken when a nearby building was heavily bombed in March 2022.

“A half-century of history of the museum passed before my eyes,” says Ms. Myzgina, who has worked at the 103-year-old museum for 53 years. “This is when I cried for the first time [since the war began].”

This museum’s 75,000-piece collection prior to World War II dropped to 5,000 pieces by the war’s end and was rebuilt to 25,000 pieces by February 2022. Ms. Myzgina describes it as “one of the best, richest museums in Ukraine.”

The current collection made it out of the bombing relatively unscathed. Only two paintings were damaged. The museum’s library, however, suffered water damage, resulting in the partial damage or complete loss of the books and manuscripts.

“Walls and stones” often belong to a much bigger story, and are not simply structures or raw materials, but memory preserved.

The preservation of the collection became top priority after the shelling. The director worked with a team of women to evacuate the exhibits and the building was repaired, including the roof and windows, and a heating system was installed.

“A painting is like a small child,” says Ms. Myzgina. “It doesn’t like drafts.” 

“Everyone [in this war] has their own front,” she continues. “We had a front here, and I think the women who did all this are heroines.”

Looting and the trafficking of Ukrainian cultural artifacts started as early as 2014, primarily by “paramilitary non-state actors,” says Mr. Al Azm, who tracks antiquities trafficking through the Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research Project, which he also cofounded.

This changed, however, when Russian President Vladimir Putin declared martial law last October in four then-occupied regions of Ukraine — Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk — giving Russian forces official clearance to loot Ukrainian art and artifacts.

By early November, members of the Russian Federal Security Service, who had been occupying Kherson Regional Art Museum since July, began emptying it of its collections, says Alina Dotsenko, the museum director. They had obtained the museum’s digital database from a former employee. Of the museum’s 14,000 items, 10,000 were transported to Crimea, she says.

Russian soldiers emptied the Kherson Art Museum of 10,000 artworks in November. Ihor Rusol, a museum employee, stands amid the emptied storage racks. (photo: Konstantin Chernichkin)

“Ukraine’s losses are unimaginable. It is impossible to compare with [World War II]. Now the losses are worse,” says Ms. Dotsenko. “Who was stealing then? Simple soldiers. Maybe officers.

“Now it was well organized. … It was done at the level of their country, their state.”

Khrystyna Hayovyshyn, deputy permanent representative of Ukraine at the U.N., addressed the crime of state-sponsored looting at a U.N. Arria-formula meeting on 2 May, saying more attention should be paid to cultural heritage crimes committed by states. She described Russia’s “looting of cultural property” as a means of “negative cultural appropriation” and “neo-colonialism” intended to erase the distinct nationhood of Ukraine.

“Cultural looting is supposed to underpin the Russian narrative about Russians and Ukrainians as ‘the same people,’ ” she said, referencing a claim made by President Putin that is rejected by Ukraine. 

Hanna Skrypka says she witnessed this Russian narrative in action when she was forcibly held by Russian military at the Kherson Regional Art Museum on 1-2 November and was made to type lists of the items the Russians were removing.

“I have the impression that they need to take all the tangible evidence, that is, material heritage, documents and works of art that identify [Ukraine] as a separate nation,” says Ms. Skrypka, a museum employee. “They want to create such a general notion that everything is theirs.”

Once freed from the museum, she contacted Ms. Dotsenko, and they succeeded in tracing the art to the Central Museum of Tavrida in Crimea.

The storage rooms at the museum in Kherson are now full of frames, emptied of the works of renowned Ukrainian artists, including Shovkunenko, Pymonenko, Skadovsky and Aivazovsky.

“In artistic works, there is an imprint that Ukraine has its own history — our Scythian roots, the strengthening of the Cossacks. This is something of our own … and it could be shown as proof of our uniqueness, of our Ukrainian identity. They are taking all of this away little by little,” says Ms. Skrypka.

“They need to take every last thing. Even the memory, the one that we could pass on to our children and grandchildren, in the form of works of art.”

Read this article in our digital print format here.

Since the article was filed on 17 May, the number of damaged cultural sites in Ukraine documented by UNESCO on 23 July increased from 254 to 270, including six additional religious sites and five museums.

The CNEWA Connection

As a global agency, CNEWA frequently engages with cultures that are at risk of disappearing — a phenomenon that is prevalent in persecuted minority communities — either due to war or other tragic social, political or environmental circumstances. Through its programming, CNEWA offers support to communities at their most vulnerable, including in Ukraine, Armenia, Syria, Iraq, Ethiopia, India, Israel and beyond. While many cultural heritage sites and objects are irreplaceable, the preservation of a community’s cultural identity by way of its people is essential. CNEWA is committed to being present to persecuted and suffering peoples, to help rebuild and to share their community’s culture and history.

To support CNEWA’s work, call 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada) or visit cnewa.org/donate.

Konstantin Chernichkin, a video journalist in Ukraine, and Mariana Karapinka in Philadelphia contributed to this report.

About the Author: Olivia Poust

Olivia Poust is assistant editor of ONE.

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