History Repeating Itself: Russia’s Mission to Eliminate Ukrainian Cultural Identity
About the Author: Eleanor Iris Gartstein is a first year law student at Berkeley Law with a passion for art history and its intersections with international law. Eleanor's particular interests lie in topics surrounding cultural heritage and art repatriation.
“Cultural heritage must be safeguarded as a testimony of the past, but also as a catalyst for peace and cohesion in the future, which the international community has a duty to protect and preserve”
-Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General
Russia's Mission Targeting Ukrainian Cultural Identity
In April of this year, NBC released an article revealing the mounting evidence that Russian forces have been systematically stealing art and cultural artifacts from Ukraine on a scale reminiscent of the looting during World War II.
Substantiating his core declaration that the idea of a separate Ukrainian national identity is illusory, Vladimir Putin has instituted an organized campaign of looting and destruction which specifically targets sites and monuments that epitomize Ukrainian identity. Since Russia’s initial February 24, 2022 invasion of Ukraine, UNESCO has verified damage to 1,702 objects of cultural infrastructure and 295 cultural sites (124 religious sites, 110 buildings of historical or artistic interest, 28 museums, 19 monuments, 13 libraries and one archive).
When Putin declared martial law in annexed Ukrainian territories in October of 2022, he effectively legalized the looting of Ukraine’s cultural property. Pursuant to Russian mandate, the decree of martial law grants Russian military forces the power to evacuate items of economic, social, and cultural significance in the name of “preservation.” Eliminating the physical markers of Ukraine’s culture would be synonymous to wiping out their history, conforming to Russian leadership’s view that there is no Ukrainian culture or “real statehood.”
This is not the first time large-scale cultural destruction has been used as a military strategy in efforts to weaken community foundations. Art restitution lawyer Chris Marinello analogized this tactic to historical precedents, stating “they are trying to erase Ukrainian identity, just the way the Nazis did.”
International Implications: Timeline
In response to World War II’s widespread cultural destruction, the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was created as the most comprehensive treaty dedicated exclusively to the protection of cultural heritage. The Convention, to which the Russian Federation is a signatory, requires states to “refrain from any act of hostility” directed against movable and immovable property of great importance to its place of birth. Moreover, it decrees any state occupying another state’s territories to preserve and safeguard the cultural valuables within its occupation.
The Convention seeks to respect cultural property as the common heritage of humankind. Russia’s military actions have strongly contradicted this principle. Accordingly, the destruction of cultural heritage promulgated by Russian forces has been labeled as a violation of the 1954 Hague Convention and a potential war crime.
February 2022: Ukraine’s Response
Ukraine’s Culture Minister, Oleksandr Tkachenko, is amongst the many who have equated the mass removal of cultural property from Ukraine by Russian occupiers to the looting of museums by Nazi Germany during World War II. Citing the Hague Convention, Tkachenko declared Russia’s actions to be in blatant violation of international policy, calling for Russia’s war crimes to be subject to prosecution. His statement concluded by appealing to UNESCO to prevent further actions by Russian forces.
July 2023: UNESCO’s Stance
Following Russia’s attack on Odesa, home to a World Heritage Site, UNESCO’s Director-General Audrey Azoulay released a statement claiming “this outrageous destruction marks an escalation of violence against cultural heritage of Ukraine. I strongly condemn this attack against culture, and I urge the Russian Federation to take meaningful action to comply with its obligations under international law, including the 1954 Hague Convention.” With this statement, UNESCO clarified its point of view on the matter, standing behind Ukraine in the fight to protect its cultural property.
September 2023: Arrest Warrant Issued
Not long after Azoulay’s statement, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an international arrest warrant for Putin, urging him to stand trial for his alleged war crimes. A briefing report prepared by the NGO Blue Shield International (BSI) made the assertion that the Russian regime has “premeditatively, systematically, and provably” targeted heritage sites in Ukraine.
The briefing, titled Assessment of Damage/Destruction of Cultural Heritage Sites in Ukraine, November 22 - August 23, claims there are at least two instances with firm evidence that certain sites have been specifically and intentionally targeted. The first involves a historical museum in Kyiv strongly linked to Ukrainian identity and the second involves a literary museum hit by a missile strike during the Battle of Kharkiv. In both instances, the cultural infrastructure stood far from any nearby fighting and the surrounding buildings remained unharmed, thus providing a strong indication of the deliberate nature behind Russia’s attack on heritage. The briefing goes on to reference thousands of pieces of artworks removed by the Russian secret service in the Kherson region.
The report’s claims of war crimes by the Russian Federation remain tentative, however, as a definite determination of the intention behind Putin’s actions and the degree of cultural damage would necessitate further assessment. Simply put, more evidence is needed for the claims to stand up in an international court. If the report is eventually able to withstand judicial scrutiny, it could play a pivotal role in bridging the evidentiary gap to prosecute Putin.
In the interim, as evidentiary support continues to be gathered, the cultural damage to Ukraine continues to rise. Russia’s totalitarian turn in international policy and tribalist regime policies have continued to exacerbate feelings of nationalism in societies across Central and Eastern Europe. With Ukraine’s entire identity under persistent threat as a result, UNESCO and the ICC have pleaded for an end to this decimation of culture.