The Other Victims of the Russian Invasion: Ukrainian Art and Cultural Heritage

Several rallies in support of Ukraine took place during King’s ParadeTobia Nava/University

It has now been more than eight months since Russia first invaded Ukraine. The loss of life has been devastating, the destruction of homes has displaced millions, and the demolition of Ukrainian art and heritage poses the threat of permanent cultural obliteration. In times of conflict, attempts to assess cultural demolition can be seen as misplaced and open up moral debates: yet cultural erasure is nonetheless a serious impact of war.

The Russian occupation of Ukraine also represents an attempt to erase Ukrainian identity

According to Oleksandr Tkachenko, Ukrainian Minister of Culture, almost 40 Ukrainian museums have been looted, representing millions of euros in damage and the inestimable loss of historical sites and national art. With the outbreak of the war, curators and archivists from nearly every cultural institution in Kyiv dismantled exhibits in an attempt to house over 4,000 works of art. This has left cultural spaces empty of their essence, and perhaps more importantly, of an audience. In a context of long-lasting violence and destruction, the sustainability of Ukrainian cultural identity through the preservation of national sites and valuable artefacts becomes crucial.

A sense of collective national identity and common history rests on these national symbols and artifacts, the erasure of which inevitably leads to the potential loss of Ukrainian culture. In times of war, the looting of archives and attacks on national institutions, such as museums; Art Galeries; or libraries, are tactics used to achieve a form of cultural domination and can be considered a form of ethnic cleansing. Conflict-related destruction of cultural heritage is inextricably linked to national security issues. It leads to the loss of collective memory as well as the delegitimization of cultural identity. Besides the incomprehensible threat to life, the Russian occupation of Ukraine also represents an attempt to erase Ukrainian identity. The preservation of artifacts that document and symbolize feelings of Ukrainian nationality and history becomes an urgent issue. In such a context, the role and work of archivists; preservatives; artists; and other workers in the cultural sector becomes indispensable.

Sunbach urges us to consider war beyond what is captured in mainstream media

Elena Subach is a Ukrainian photographer born in the mining town of Chervonograd in western Ukraine. Drawing on memories; iconography; and rituals, the artist visualizes and reinvents the identity of Ukraine, attempting to define the nation beyond the imagery of war. The persistent stream of war photographs and violent images of Ukraine risks equating the country with a site of relentless violence and its victims with anonymized statistics. Through her photography, Sunbach invites us to consider war beyond what is captured in mainstream media. She zooms in and exposes more intimate individual experiences, turning her lens to what those fleeing the country have left behind, rather than portraying them as anonymous victims. Her work has recently been exhibited at the Dobbin Mews Gallery in New York with her “In Ukraine” series, as well as at the Deichtorhallen Gallery in Hamburg. His new photography book “Hidden” launched on October 15 at Biblioteka Kyiv documents the daily civilian effort to preserve the monuments around the city of Lviv in the advent of war.

‘Hidden’ depicts volunteers and workers from medieval Lviv rushing to the rescue of statues in city squares and churches. You can see them wrapping the statues in plastic sheeting and transporting them to safe spaces, hiding them underground for safety. In one photograph, a group of people are seen dismantling a sculpture, while another shows a masked man sheltering a statue in his arms as he carries it. Through the use of direct flash photography, the images document the act of hiding statues as the war in Ukraine continues. They have an almost clinical quality, evoking a strange sense of tension and urgency. One of the personal insights the book gives into life in the city at this time of emergency. By confronting the viewer in this way, this book of photographs highlights the more personal consequences of war that often get lost in mainstream media.

More than ever, it is essential to support Ukrainian artists and educate us about their rich cultural history, in order to contribute to the process of preserving Ukrainian culture.

James C. Tibbs