Defending Ukraine’s art and culture from destruction
The Ukrainian people and their supporters worldwide are working to preserve Ukraine’s culture and to document the damage Russia’s military has caused.
For its part, the U.S. Department of State announced February 23 that its Ukraine Cultural Heritage Response Initiative will invest $7 million to support Ukrainian efforts to protect Ukraine’s cultural heritage.
Working with experts in Ukraine and international partners, the funds will help:
- Document damaged sites and collections.
- Protect works and sites from damage and theft.
- Stabilize damaged sites.
- Provide specialized training.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture reports that Russia’s forces have damaged more than 550 sites and objects important to Ukraine’s history and cultural identity.
Since the start of the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion last February, Russia’s forces have looted paintings, icons and sculptures from several museums. A December 2022 report from the Conflict Observatory, an independent research initiative supported by the U.S. government, used satellite imagery to document the looting in Kherson. By one count, occupiers stole 15,000 paintings from the Oleksii Shovkunenko Art Museum in Kherson.
The Ukrainian Institute in Kyiv has published online “Postcards from Ukraine,” a series featuring photos and historical sketches of cultural facilities to record and demonstrate the damage Vladimir Putin’s invasion has caused to Ukrainian culture.
“Destroying our culture is the purpose of everything the Russians are doing,” said Marjana Varchuk, communications director at the Khanenko Museum, in 2022. “That’s why the Russians are shelling our monuments, our museums, and our history.”
Global efforts underway
While Ukrainians act to protect their cultural heritage, private and public organizations in the United States and around the world have also rallied to this cause.
Among initiatives to protect Ukraine’s culture:
- PEN America, a nonprofit in New York, created a $2.2 million fund to aid visual artists in Ukraine.
- The J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles pledged $1 million to preserve museums, libraries and archives.
- Google created a digital archive, Ukraine Is Here, showcasing more than 1,800 artifacts, 40 curated exhibitions with audio, 100 street views and several virtual immersive galleries.
- The World Monuments Fund, a nonprofit organization based in New York, launched an initiative to preserve vulnerable sites.
- The European Commission is providing 5 million Euros to national culture organizations and Ukrainian artists outside their country.
- The international alliance for the protection of heritage in conflict areas, ALIPH, in Switzerland has invested nearly $4 million to support over 260 cultural organizations preserving Ukrainian culture.
Since 2001, the United States has provided $1.7 million to support 18 cultural preservation projects in Ukraine through the State Department’s Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation. Some examples include helping to restore the Old Academic Building in Kyiv and the Lviv Historical Museum.
Reflecting on how Russia’s attacks on culture have galvanized Ukrainians’ spirit and global solidarity, Ukrainian writer Yuri Andrukhovych said, “It’s quite ironic that each attempt Russia has made to destroy Ukrainian culture has had the opposite effect.”
Invaluable items at risk
The International Council of Museums published a “red list” of 53 invaluable cultural objects in Ukraine that are at risk of being stolen, looted or traded illegally. The council hopes that by publishing the list, it will discourage individuals and collectors from taking items without researching their origins.
Categories of cultural heritage on the list include:
- Rare books or manuscripts dating back to the 13th century.
- Icons in wood or canvas of religious imagery.
- Paintings or drawings from the 19th and 20th centuries.
- Textiles and folk costumes.
On the one-year mark of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “Putin’s first objective was to erase Ukraine from the map, to erase its identity, to absorb it into Russia. That has failed and will never succeed.”