Getting out from the closed circle of losses
The occupiers fired at the Oleksiy Shovkunenko Art Museum in Kherson (Photo:Юрій Соболевський/Telegram)
Against the background of large-scale destruction, maintaining a new culture is now an absolutely urgent and at the same time fundamental task for the government
The text was published in a special edition of NV magazine The World Ahead 2023 under the exclusive license from The Economist. Reproduction is prohibited
Since the invasion, the Russians have destroyed or stolen vast amounts of cultural artifacts — from buildings and urban environments to museum collections and books — and killed many people associated with culture. This will have consequences.
The Russian attack on Ukrainian cultural heritage has made the essence of this war obvious. It is colonial. And the peculiarity is to deprive the conquered territories of their subjectivity and to effectively subjugate their societies. This subjugation occurs economically, politically, and symbolically. That is, everyone in a colony should know their inferior position and recognize that their customs, language, texts, and education are worthless and worth being ashamed of.
That is why books should be eliminated and the local museums crushed or looted and their collections handed over to specialists from the metropole for study. This is something like re-education in a totalitarian utopia: keep the form, but change the content. However, we live in a transparent world with an unprecedented level of information penetration: reports from the scene of the crime spread so quickly that the aggressor cannot hide this intention. Therefore, the destruction of the Ukrainian symbolic world not only does not help it achieve its goal of erasing identity and "re-education", but also shamelessly demonstrates the essence of aggression to the whole world. This is an old Russian strategy that has suddenly backfired in the modern world.
We will not be able to return and restore everything
For example, Ukrainians themselves are increasingly aware of the value of destroyed culture, and this is turning into a cultural protest. The simplest gesture of resistance here is switching to the Ukrainian language in the public space. This is clearly visible in social networks and on the streets of Kyiv, and it will also have its effect in the future: greater independence to formulate, think, and create.
And although the loss of heritage in itself is very painful, it is not a new experience for Ukrainians. Ukrainian society has been experiencing a series of similar losses since the First World War until now. The current tribulation will deepen the existing trauma, rather than become something unprecedented. This is nothing positive for us, but we know that even such destruction could not wipe our culture to dust.
However, we will not be able to return and restore everything. No restoration, let alone reconstruction, is equal to the original building or manuscript, so the maxim: "We will rebuild everything!" does not apply here. Many things will not be rebuilt, the murdered writers and conductors will not be returned, some losses are irreparable. Even the museum items, archives, and old prints exported to Russia will be as difficult to return as delivering the biggest war criminals to The Hague. And since this process of theft has been going on for more than a century, it is perhaps even more difficult.
A good way out from this vicious circle of losses would be increased attention to the production of modern culture. It is important to start developing a new cultural infrastructure now: to reform the educational system, to plan the proper financing of cultural institutions, to carry out real measures to protect our heritage. This is also necessitated by the mass migration of Ukrainians: in many localities, the needs of communities have changed, the institutions there have to perform completely different functions — what existed only for a tick has become more relevant than ever. Think, for example, of libraries in small towns and villages. All this makes the so-called basic network of culture a potential resource for the resilience of communities.
Against the background of large-scale destruction, maintaining a new culture is an absolutely urgent and at the same time fundamental task for the government now. Churchill did not say this phrase, but in our case it is more appropriate than anywhere else: because then, what are we fighting for?
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