In Ukraine, museums, art galleries targeted by Russian forces
The world has seen the horrific images from Ukraine showing people fleeing their homes after towns and villages were mercilessly bombarded by Russian forces.
While it appears on our television screens that missile and rocket attacks are random, people who work in museums in the besieged country say there is an underlying target in the invasion launched by the president Russian Vladimir Putin: Ukrainian culture.
This includes many of the country’s historic buildings, sacred spaces, memorials and public art installations, many of which have been erected since Ukraine gained independence in 1991.
“Putin wants to deny our existence, the existence of Ukraine, Ukraine as a country, as a culture,” says Tamara Ivanochko-Havey, administrator of the Ontario branch of the Ukrainian Museum of Canada, one of many Canadian museums that support their Ukrainian counterparts.
“Museums are scrambling to hide their stuff or protect it as best they can. There are photographs of Kyiv and Lviv and some of the other big cities where there are sandbags all along the monuments for protect them from harm,” she says.
Perhaps the most recognizable of these attacks is the March 1 bombing of the Babyn Yar memorial near kyiv. The park commemorates the murder of Jews by the Nazis during the Holocaust and is the site of one of the largest mass graves discovered in Europe at the end of World War II.
“From the first days of the war, we understood that there are no rules,” said Kateryna Chuyeva, Ukraine’s deputy minister of culture and information policy, during a recent Zoom webinar hosted by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. “(There are) no rules regarding cultural heritage and human rights in this war.”
Chuyeva said Russian troops looted museums in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Mariupol and Melitopol; the loot will either be transported to Russia or sold online.
“It is part of a long process that began at least 300 years ago when the first Ukrainian attempts to be an independent state began,” she said, adding that more than 250 institutions or cultural objects were damaged in the attacks.
The attacks go further and are more insidious than the simple destruction of buildings and the threat to artifacts and works of art held in museums.
In 1942, Winnipeg staged If Day, a simulation of what life might be like if Nazi Germany invaded and occupied the city. The event included a military parade, mock bombings, the organized imprisonment of politicians and book burnings, and the issuance of counterfeit German currency, all designed to publicize Canada’s efforts during the war; the daylong protest raised more than $3 million in war bonds and brought the city to worldwide attention.
Imagine another military incursion 80 years later, again with Winnipeg as the target. If day 2022 could mean the leveling of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly, the destruction of Portage and Main and damage to the Red River Floodway, mirroring the colossal damage Ukraine is sustaining.
But behind the scenes, hackers were hitting, threatening government records, museum computers and digitized history like photographs, birth certificates and other vital documents – all disappearing at the touch of a button.
It’s hard to imagine that nightmare happening here, but that’s the situation Ukrainian officials are facing right now, with museum workers on the virtual frontline to protect the data the rest of the world is taking. so easily for granted.
“We also have targeted database reports,” said Christophe Rivet, president of ICOMOS Canada, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, in an interview. “These databases include thousands of hours of narration and songs which are now permanently erased. There is a group led by specialists from Stanford (University) and Canadians as well, who are rapidly copying as many databases as they can to maintain this heritage.
The council does some of its work in conflict zones, and Rivet says the Paris-based organization has helped repair sixth-century Buddhist statues in Afghanistan that were damaged by the Taliban, and led the reconstruction of ‘a 16th century bridge in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was destroyed in 1993 during the Bosnian War.
It also organizes a coalition of museums and organizations in Canada and around the world to preserve now and rebuild later.
“It’s one thing for these casualties to be collateral damage. It’s another when they’re specifically targeted,” Rivet said. “Ideology, a certain worldview, will lead these forces to target cultural heritage to make a statement and affect the stability of opposing peoples.”
Alan Small has been a Free Press reporter for over 22 years in a variety of roles, most recently as a reporter in the Arts and Life section.
Read the full biography