Culture as a target: Why Russian attacks specifically aim to erase Ukrainian identity
Russian troops in Ukraine are deliberately attacking the country’s museums, libraries and other cultural institutions, according to a report issued on December 2 by the U.S. and Ukrainian chapters of the international writers’ organization PEN.
“Culture is not collateral damage in the war against Ukraine; it’s a target, a central pillar of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justification for the war,” the report stated. “Putin has repeatedly claimed that Ukrainian culture and language simply don’t exist. By targeting art museums, music halls, libraries, theaters and historical sites, he attempts to make it so.”
PEN cited Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture as saying that 529 “cultural heritage and cultural institutions” have been destroyed or damaged since the war started on February 24. The figure includes both sites of national importance and cultural venues in towns and villages, the report said.
The list includes one of the war’s most notorious incidents – the bombing in March of the main drama theater in the city of Mariupol, where hundreds of people were sheltering from the city’s siege. Some 600 people died in the attack, according to investigations.
Two large inscriptions reading “children” on the ground adjacent to the theater indicated that Russian forces knew civilians were inside and “it seems likely that the theater was targeted for its cultural significance,” the report said.
The PEN report said Russian soldiers also have seized and destroyed Ukrainian literature and Ukrainian-language books from public libraries in occupied regions.
The report acknowledged that “it is not always possible to determine if the bombings of cultural sites are deliberate or the result of Russia’s indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas.”
Russian attacks on Ukrainian culture and the language predate the start of the war and began in 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and supported separatist fighters in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces of eastern Ukraine, PEN said.
PEN Ukraine said it has documented 31 civilian writers, artists and other cultural workers killed in Russian attacks this year, and that some other cultural figures have died while fighting with Ukrainian forces.
American author and publisher Dave Eggers, part of the PEN delegation that presented the report, said he thinks the attacks have backfired internationally.
“The irony of Putin’s attempts to erase the culture and heritage of Ukraine (is it) has only enriched their culture and made the world pay attention and be far more interested in Ukrainian writers and traditions,” Eggers said at a news conference.