Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Culture: Rebuilding Ukraine must continue, even as the war rages on

Visitors queue in front of the Ukraine House during the World Economic Forum (WEF) 2023, in the Alpine resort of Davos, Switzerland, January 16, 2023. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

Visitors queue in front of the Ukraine House during the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2023. Image: REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

Lisa Chamberlain
Communication Lead, Urban Transformation, World Economic Forum
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This article is part of: Centre for Urban Transformation
  • Even in the face of an ongoing large-scale war, Ukraine's government and people remain focused on the future and building back better.
  • The country's Deputy Minister of Culture Anastasia Bondar tells the World Economic Forum that the rebuild has already started.
  • The Ministry of Culture is already working around the clock on projects ranging from digitalizing artefacts to convincing citizens abroad to come home and participate in the rebuild.

The war in Ukraine escalated in late December 2023 when Russia launched numerous missile attacks on cities across the country. The interview for this Q&A with the Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Culture and Information, Anastasia Bondar, had to be delayed several times as she and her family scrambled to stay safe.

But Deputy Minister Bondar insisted on going forward with it even as the attacks continued, just as she has continued her work gathering information about heritage sites, and the massive job of digitalizing 12 million artefacts from museums across the country — all the while working with the Davos Baukultur Alliance to lay the groundwork for rebuilding efforts.

The Baukultur Alliance, an initiative of the Swiss Government and the World Economic Forum, launched at the Annual Meeting in 2023. The Alliance is comprised of 30+ European ministers of Culture, Planning and Environment, as well as private-sector partners of the World Economic Forum and civil society organizations involved in city building.

We want to be a big step ahead by the end of the war, not to wait until the war is over.

Anastasia Bondar, Deputy Minister of Culture, Ukraine

You said in a Davos Baukultur Alliance meeting before the most recent attacks that rebuilding while the war is ongoing is important. Do you still feel the same way?

Deputy Minister Anastasia Bondar: I absolutely stand on the same ground. After the initial outbreak of the war, there was general shock in the early stages, but after that in regions around the capital, reconstruction and rebuilding started almost immediately. Most people have already come back to the Kyiv area, and they began rebuilding their houses, the roads, and bridges and so on. So obviously, these things are constantly happening at the same time in less threatened territories.

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There are immediate needs, of course, but there are also medium- and long-term considerations. How do you plan for these different timelines?

AB: The idea is to build back better. We will be competing for those people who fled to come back. And this is something that we must be focusing on when we talk about the future. We need to get those people back and we want them back. We have to provide something that is more attractive compared to what we had before and to those countries where people are staying. Then there are the historical sites, and we don’t want to push that very fast because it’s about living through it and understanding what happened.

Right, you don’t want to completely erase what happened because that is now part of the historical record.

AB: Absolutely. Discussions are already ongoing with the local authorities because we have a decentralized process. The immediate reaction is to want it to be built back the same way because it gives this feeling of security. But with time, local communities may feel that a historical site has a completely different meaning now.

That gets to one of the things you’ve said in Davos Baukultur Alliance meetings as well as in other interviews: culture is what holds the nation together. And it’s the people that create the culture, so returning to rebuild is critical to both the past and the future of Ukraine.

AB: I still insist that culture is the glue of the nation, and basically that without culture and history and language, we are just part of another territory. All the Russian propaganda says that the Ukrainian nation does not exist, that it's minor, the language is not there and so on. That’s how you know education is of vital importance in our lives, and it is why we try to keep everything open and working as much as possible — to keep the budget for all the governmental establishments for education, for theatres, for museums and for all the institutional networks. I’m not talking about occupied territories, that is clear.

You’ve undertaken a massive digitalization effort to ensure you have a record of all the historical sites and artefacts.

AB: Digital transformation is one of the strongest fields in our country. I joined the Ministry [of Culture and Information Policy] just before the war. So, we already started doing an electronic inventory of cultural heritage from territories that were occupied in 2014, Luhansk and Crimea. So we continued to create this electronic system for the whole country. This is being done for the 12 million items in all the museums across the country.

The Ministry of Reconstruction and Development, they have developed a big platform called Dream, and they are finishing it right now. The digital platform will collect all the rebuilding projects in one system. So, each of the local authorities will be able to connect to this system and upload as many projects as they have and ask for what they need, such as planners or engineers for the bigger projects. There are certain conditions. They need to have a budget and document the damage, and things like that. This has never been done while a war is still going on.

What are you hoping the Davos Baukultur Alliance can do for Ukraine?

AB: In a high-risk situation it's hard to talk a lot about cultural integration into the construction and rebuilding process. We have a general vision of the country to build back better, and this has been adopted by all the ministries. We do accept that green energy and sustainability are important. But there is a need for capacity building. And this is okay. This is a normal way of development in every country. It is not something unique to a war situation.

Earlier you were asking if we should be rebuilding right now, and this is why we continue working, because we want by the end of the war to be a big step ahead, not waiting until the war is over.

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