Russia’s war on Ukraine risks ‘cultural genocide’, experts warn

Two weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the Ukrainian city of Kherson one of Russia’s “four new regions”, satellite photographs captured two Russian trucks carrying around 10,000 artifacts from the Kherson Regional Art Museum.

While Putin may have said he was taking what was his, Smithsonian Emeritus Scholar and Goodwill Ambassador Richard Kurin called it a “war crime.” The act, he claimed during a panel on “The Protection of Cultural Heritage in Conflict Zones,” is part of a broader campaign to erase Ukrainian culture.

Kurin added that nearly 1,700 other cases of probable damage to museums, archives and libraries have been reported.

“Especially in Ukraine, culture, identity and history are being targeted,” Kurin said at the event, which was part of the Meridian Culturefix 2023 conversations. “It’s not collateral damage.”

Moderator Deborah Lehr, CEO and Managing Partner of Edelman Global Advisory, added that such forms of cultural genocide are often used in conflict.

Kurin shared an example when he was recently in Iraq to help rehabilitate the museum in Mosul, which was previously targeted by ISIS.

“The erasure of history and culture, the denial of people’s identity, this has gone through history. It’s not something new, but the technology to do it is,” Kurin said. “We have already spent many years trying to piece together what ISIS detonated in seconds for a few hundred dollars.”

“In Ukraine… a missile, a bomb causes so much destruction [that] it’s going to take years and years and billions of dollars to pick up,” he added.

As their Ukrainian “cultural colleagues” began the work of restoring and storing cultural artifacts that might be targeted, First Secretary of the Ukrainian Embassy in the United States, Kateryna Smagliy, spoke about the importance of international collaboration in the reconstruction of Ukrainian heritage, without which it does not I do not believe they will succeed.

Such reconstruction, she said, begins with understanding the history of Ukrainian culture.

“To this day, we still see a lack of expertise in American universities and around the world because for many years the nation of 40 million people was considered insignificant, unimportant and undeserving of its place. in galleries, museums and public places,” Smagly said.

“Fortunately – if there is anything good that has come out of Putin’s actions – Ukraine is finally on the map,” she added.

Although the conflict actually began in 2014, Kurin said, this renewed attention has translated into international support from the private and public sectors, which have provided money, training and ideas on how to preserve the Ukrainian culture. We will have to continue to take a village, he says, to lead this fight.

He then compared the task at hand with rebuilding the bridge in Mostar, which former UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova said was destroyed during the Bosnian war to symbolize that there could be no agreement between the two parties.

“This bridge connected the communities that were then at war and building this bridge was not just building bricks and mortar, it was building community and social fabric,” Kurin said. “That’s the thing in front of us.”

“It’s not just destruction, it’s how to rebuild after that?” He continued. “That’s the challenge.”

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