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  • Emma Louise Alvarez

Culture, Identity, and History: Fighting for Ukraine’s Future

© Illustration by INJECTION - Laura Holtslag-Alvarez

“If we lose our culture, we lose our identity,” what will be left of Ukraine’s cultural memory?

From cloaking statues with fire-resistant coverings to protecting the stained-glass windows of cathedrals with steel plates, all around Ukraine, construction workers, museum staff, and civilian volunteers have committed to protecting symbols of national importance.

As of September 21st, UNESCO has verified damage to 192 cultural sites: 81 religious sites, 13 museums, 37 historic buildings, 35 buildings dedicated to cultural activities, 17 monuments, and 10 libraries. This destruction goes beyond the material damage to Ukrainian architecture.

On the first of March, a missile strike aimed at a TV tower in Kyiv instead hit the Babi Yar Holocaust memorial site. Babi Yar commemorates one of the largest mass killings of Jews during World War Two, and its value for education and remembrance is irreplaceable.

The monuments, memorials, and museums of Ukraine are its history: telling the story of the past for future generations. Inscribed and constructed, generations of history can be read from Ukraine’s landmarks. The intentional destruction of these cultural sites is an attack on identity.

An erasure of identity

In an article published in 2022 in the Journal of Genocide Research, Maria Mälksoo examines “The Postcolonial Moment In Russia’s War Against Ukraine” and comments that “the question of postcoloniality of former Russian imperial subjects […] remains fraught and contested in scholarship,” where not enough academic attention has been paid to Russian imperialism and colonialism in the studies of international conflicts.

Russia’s war against Ukraine must be considered through a postcolonial lens. Ukraine’s struggle for self-determination is not a new fight.

This allows us to understand the targeting and destruction of symbols of cultural identity in a new light: an intentional erasure of identity itself. And it is a clear and measured attempt at subjugation and oppression: a dismissal of Ukrainian independence and autonomy.

Lviv museum director Olha Honchar makes the following observation: “They tried to make everything the same. They had one kind of monument and one kind of artistic style with socialist realism. Moscow wants to eradicate Ukrainian culture. It’s what defines us and our identity. It’s a memory of who we are.”

“We must safeguard this cultural heritage, as a testimony of the past but also as a vector of peace for the future.” - Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director General

The role of technology in the preservation of culture and history

The internet is not an intangible digital space: it has physical servers that anchor it to our reality. Developing technology ensures that our information is backed up and that even deleted things are never really lost, but what happens to data and information saved on a hard drive? Archives that are only stored and accessed in one location?

On March 1st, an initiative was launched to preserve the data and technology of Ukraine’s cultural institutions. Organized and run by volunteers, this initiative is called the Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online (SUCHO) initiative.

Quinn Dombrowski, an academic technology specialist at Stanford University and co-organizer of the project, comments that “people forget that the internet is made up of physical things. There are physical servers that are located in the real world that need power, cooling, and maintenance.”

Just hours after SUCHO volunteers captured the State Archives of Kharkiv’s 105 gigabytes of data, including scans of rare books and scientific records, the whole website went down.

Technology may still have a very important role in the digital preservation of Ukrainian culture and history.

Impacts on post-war healing

In the port city of Odessa, the famous neoclassical Monument to Duc de Richelieu is surrounded by a mountain of sandbags. It encapsulates the fight for the protection of monuments and culture.

But is it enough?

Kyrylo Lipatov, deputy director for research and exhibitions at Odessa’s National Art Museums, told Bloomberg CityLab that while the initiative boosted local morale, the sandbags are unlikely to protect the monument from a direct hit.

Alexandra Xanthaki, Special Rapporteur on cultural rights, comments that the devastating impact of the extent of the cultural destruction will reverberate for years.

“We often do not measure how devastating violations of cultural rights can be for peace. Attempts against academic and artistic freedoms, linguistic rights, falsification and distortion of historical facts, denigration of identities, and denial of the right to self-determination result to further degeneration and fueling of open conflict.”

Alexandra goes on to say that culture and cultural rights “must be visible and visibly push for humanity, empathy, and peaceful co-existence.” That in culture, there is hope. In art, there is power. The defense and advocacy of cultural rights is, in itself, a resistance.

“As the battles rage on, we are not completely powerless. Beyond recalling that the rules of international humanitarian and human rights law should be scrupulously applied by all parties to the conflict, we must ensure that culture helps us maintain our dignity and is not used as a means to pursue and fuel the war.”

To ensure that culture endures.


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