Arts and Culture

This is why it’s crucial to track and preserve Ukraine’s cultural heritage

The efforts underway to pilfer and destroy Ukrainian cultural heritage are egregious.

The efforts underway to pilfer and destroy Ukrainian cultural heritage are egregious. Image: REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • Efforts are underway to monitor the looting and destruction of cultural objects during Russia's invasion.
  • These objects are seen as key to Ukrainian identity and independence.
  • Such pillaging should be prevented by a 68-year-old international treaty.

When Ukrainian troops recently liberated Kherson after an eight-month Russian occupation of the city, something deeply symbolic was missing.

True, by then many things had vanished. Works by renowned Ukrainian painters like Ivan Pokhitonov, stolen from the art museum. And artefacts looted from the history museum. But Russian troops had also carted away the bones of Prince Potemkin, a legendary confidant of Czarina Catherine the Great – removing an emblem of historic ties to Russia from a country now trying to square that history with its need to move forward on its own.

The efforts underway to pilfer and destroy Ukrainian cultural heritage are egregious. And they underline the importance of an international treaty on safeguarding monuments and works of art during conflict, sealed not long after the systematic plunder of World War II.

As of 21 November, UNESCO had verified damage to 218 cultural sites in Ukraine since Russia’s onslaught began, including museums and monuments. Another tally of cultural destruction, including everything from mosaics to lighthouses to church libraries, is nearing 530.

There’s also some accounting of what’s been saved; one initiative says it’s managed to preserve 150 collections of Ukrainian folk art, icons, and artefacts. The fate of other objects is less certain.

In Melitopol, east of Kherson, Russian troops reportedly looted priceless relics of the Scythian empire that once ruled the region. In Mariupol, further east, thousands of pieces of art were allegedly stripped from local museums.

Assaulting a nation’s cultural heritage can have far-reaching impacts.
A 19th-century painting by Ivan Pokhitonov reportedly looted in Kherson. Assaulting a nation’s cultural heritage can have far-reaching impacts. Image: Kherson Regional Art Museum

Assaulting a nation’s cultural heritage can have far-reaching impacts. It’s been equated with attacking freedom of thought, conscience, and religion – and described as a critical component of genocide.

When ISIS militants detonated temples in the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria several years ago, or the Taliban destroyed ancient buddha statues in Afghanistan many years before that, much more was at stake than just tourism revenue.

That’s because carving a statue, building a temple, or painting on a canvas is a means to reach out across historical eras – and attempt to explain to whomever happens to be unearthing these things who you were, and what you valued.

In Ukraine, there are fears that escalating cultural heritage destruction is part of a strategy to undermine not just the country’s desperate bid to remain wholly independent, but also Ukrainian identity itself.

In Ukraine, there are fears that escalating cultural heritage destruction is part of a strategy to undermine the Ukrainian identity itself.
In Ukraine, there are fears that escalating cultural heritage destruction is part of a strategy to undermine the Ukrainian identity itself. Image: REUTERS/Oleksandr Ratushniak

What’s happening in Ukraine adds to a long history of looting and cultural destruction that’s caused lasting damage.

Europeans have committed such state-sponsored plunder overseas, in places like China and Africa. It’s also been commonplace closer to home.

One example: in 1648, after invading Swedish soldiers ran into a stalemate on a bridge that’s now mostly besieged by tourists in the Czech Republic, they left for home with booty including a prized, 6th-century “Silver Bible.”

The book remains in Sweden.

Setting global rules for cultural heritage protection

As was the case with other issues, World War II served as a catalyst to address cultural heritage protection with a set of international rules.

The war had unleashed a sweeping campaign of Nazi plunder, which helped pay to bolster domestic support for the regime while financing further aggression abroad. In Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, Nazi looting targeted cultural items including museum art in Kherson and silver ritual objects owned by the city’s Jewish community.

Art stolen from Jewish families during the war, in Ukraine and beyond, continues to be restituted; the heirs of a Jewish cabaret star in Austria who was murdered in a concentration camp recently recovered a pair of Egon Schiele drawings he’d owned. They put them up for sale to fund a foundation for performing artists.

World War II served as a catalyst to address cultural heritage protection with a set of international rules.
World War II served as a catalyst to address cultural heritage protection with a set of international rules. Image: World Economic Forum

Ukraine’s culture minister said last month that Russian troops had looted artefacts from about 40 different museums in the country – including a 1,500-year-old golden crown believed to be one of the most valuable existing remnants of the rule of Attila the Hun. He likened the raids to a war crime.

Pursuing restitution and justice once hostilities cease may prove difficult, however. Documenting the pillage as thoroughly as possible will be key.

Hundreds of countries have ratified the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, signed in 1954, including Russia and Ukraine. The treaty specifies that occupying countries have an obligation to work with authorities to protect and restore cultural property; targeting cultural sites can only be justified for reasons of “imperative military necessity.”

It might be hard to justify stealing Potemkin’s bones as a military necessity.

True, conserving the final resting place of a Russian prince who advocated for spreading Russian rule across what’s now southern Ukraine might seem like an odd fit for Ukraine under the present circumstances.

But Potemkin, who played an integral role in the history of Kherson and the surrounding region, is part of what is now a sovereign Ukraine’s heritage. And it’s Ukraine’s prerogative to honor and interpret his complicated legacy as it pleases – and to assume no one will be allowed to simply take his remains from them at gunpoint.

More reading on the arts and cultural heritage

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • “Most items were allegedly sold to tourists for a penny or two.” Looting in Uzbekistan has cost the country more than 3,000 rare artifacts treasured as cultural heritage, according to this report. (The Diplomat)
  • Sometimes cultural treasures go missing for more banal reasons. A “gory masterpiece” by Rubens vanished for centuries before a French family realized it was sitting in their collection; according to this piece it may now sell for as much as $35 million. (Smithsonian Magazine)
  • “The Rosetta stone was a form of propaganda.” This deep dive on an emblem of shared cultural heritage explores why it was made and how it was deployed. (JSTOR Daily)
  • Don’t fear the artwork of the future – this piece explores the recent flurry of interest in art created via artificial intelligence, and why it inspires both awe and anxiety. (The Atlantic)
  • The West must return Africa’s looted assets and artefacts now – Nigeria’s president weighs in on the “slow” progress to date repatriating looted cultural heritage due to technicalities. (New African Magazine)
  • When a key part of your cultural heritage is trees – this piece explores an effort in Canada, home to the maple leaf flag and prized maple syrup, to plant two billion more trees during this decade. (Inside Climate News)
  • “The inscription is very human.” Scientists recently translated the oldest sentence written in the world’s first alphabet, according to this piece, and its meaning is still pretty relatable. (Smithsonian Magazine)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Arts and Culture, Global Governance and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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