Recently, Russian forces shot a monument to Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in the head. Tim Le Berre, the French Army’s cultural property protection officer in Ukraine, has been tracking destruction of Ukrainian cultural artifacts on Twitter. On April 5, he posted a photo of the damage to the memorial near an apartment building ruined by shelling in the central square in Borodyanka, Ukraine. He quoted Shevchenko’s poem, “My Testament.”
“Oh bury me, then rise ye up/ And break your heavy chains/ And water with the tyrants’ blood/ The freedom you have gained./ And in the great new family,/ The family of the free,/ With softly spoken, kindly word Remember also me.”
As of March 30, UNESCO had confirmed at least 53 damaged cultural sites in Ukraine since the Russian invasion began, NPR reported. The Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Information Policy (Google will translate the website from Ukrainian to English) had recorded 135 acts of violence against such sites.
Deliberately destroying cultural heritage sites or property is much more than collateral damage: It constitutes a war crime.
“Erasing people’s identity, you’re able to control them further, and to control the narrative,” said Kristin Parker, Boston Public Library’s lead curator and manager of the arts. “In times of war, it’s a tactic.”
Parker is a lead trainer in an international volunteer network of what she calls “cultural heritage first responders” organized by the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) and the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative.
Her volunteer work with the network is not part of her job at the Boston Public Library.
Parker’s fascination with rescuing cultural property stems from her curatorial work and growing up in Needham in a military family. “My dad was a soldier, deployed to Vietnam,” she said. “When I learned how ‘monuments men’ recovered art during wartime, I thought, ‘Can I put my knowledge of war and heritage together?’” In 2016, she trained with ICCROM and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
“It’s all about crisis communication and organizing teams,” she said. “We built an extraordinary network. This is all about building relationships that transcend politics.”
Parker has since focused her efforts on the impact of cultural losses to Syrians in war-torn Aleppo, and the threat to Armenian cultural heritage posed by Azerbaijan. Lately, she has been devoting her free time to tracking the situation in Ukraine and lending what support she can to the librarians, museum professionals, archivists, and others scrambling to safeguard art and other artifacts under bombardment. Museum workers are moving important works to bunkers. Citizens are sandbagging statues.
Ukraine, which has seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, is a trove of cultural treasures. But its history is a litany of invasions, with occupiers including the Russian empire, the Polish empire, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. Its national identity has been carved out against a backdrop of colonialist erasure. As the war unfolds, the threat to the material culture that defines what it means to be Ukrainian is dire.
Working with the Smithsonian’s First Aid to Cultural Heritage in Times of Crisis program, Parker is keeping tabs on the situation through Ihor Poshyvailo, director general of Kyiv’s Maidan Museum, also known as the National Memorial Complex of the Heroes of the Heavenly Hundred — Museum of the Revolution of Dignity. Founded in the wake of the 2014 uprising that forced the ouster of Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych, the museum fosters and documents the history of Ukrainians’ struggle for national and personal freedom.
Poshyvailo is boots on the ground for the First Aid to Cultural Heritage in Times of Crisis program in Ukraine. With Parker, he is part of an international network providing first aid to cultural heritage sites. He regularly posts updates about damage to Ukrainian cultural property on Facebook. He and other Ukrainians set up the Heritage Emergency Response Initiative, a non-governmental organization to support the preservation of Ukrainian culture.
Volunteers outside Ukraine, like Parker, implement the support systems.
“We ask, do they need supplies, do they need salaries?” Parker said. “We organize supplies to go from Poland. We follow aerial documentation to track damage right away. We’ve activated Interpol, let them know looting is a possibility. Things may leave the country.”
The Heritage Emergency Response Initiative provides institutions with needs assessment forms, but has not yet set up a donation page for staff salaries, instead prioritizing physical site needs. Helpful supplies include archival packing materials, polyethylene bags and wrap, cardboard boxes, twine, and tape.
Technology and social media have made it easier for Parker’s team to follow new developments. Facebook posts from Poshyvailo and the Heritage Emergency Response Initiative, and Twitter posts from LeBerre, keep the world apprised of the destruction.
Such records are one source of evidence should alleged war criminals be brought before an international tribunal.
“The Hague Convention [of 1954] aims to protect heritage in times of war, but it’s meant to be used when the dust settles as a way to address war crimes in general in tribunal courts,” Parker said. “In order for something to be considered a war crime, it has to be determined if it was targeted or incidental.”
“Bellingcat technicians can analyze the authenticity of images and videos and authenticate posts that come up online,” Parker said.
Other cultural workers have been feverishly preserving Ukrainian digital records. In February, Anna E. Kijas, head of the Lilly Music Library at Tufts University, cofounded Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online (SUCHO).
“I was prepping for a music library conference after the invasion, and I thought, ‘What could a group of music librarians do to preserve what’s available digitally?’” said Kijas, whose volunteer work is also apart from her job.
Kijas put the word out on Twitter, and more than 1,000 people volunteered the first week. There are currently around 20 volunteers with SUCHO in the Boston area.
“Whether we’re talking about text and images on the website of a small library, or an entire museum collection online, the files sit on servers, which are physical equipment that can be damaged or destroyed,” Kijas said.
The SUCHO team crawls Ukrainian cultural institutions’ websites, grabbing the data to place in secure storage on the Internet Archive, which Kijas describes as “an enormous public library where other institutions have digitized music and books so other people can enjoy them.”
Those are the easily downloadable files. Bigger ones get condensed and uploaded to secure storage donated by Amazon’s web services according to Kijas. So far, she said, SUCHO has stored roughly 15,000 pages of music scores, rare manuscripts, and images of artworks in the Internet Archive, and close to 15 terabytes of data.
“If the Ukraine institutions reopen and their servers are still running and we never need access to this content,” Kijas said, “it’s not a bad thing.”
What matters is that the content survives. It’s important not just for those who remain in Ukraine when the war ends, but for Ukrainians who have fled. More than 4 million Ukrainians are now refugees.
Parker points to András Riedlmayer, who retired last year from his post as a bibliographer in Islamic art and architecture at Harvard’s Fine Arts Library, as a personal inspiration. He documented heritage destruction in Bosnia by Serbian nationalists, including damage to mosques, churches, books, and property records, and has testified in nine international trials about the erasure of cultural artifacts in the Balkans.
“I was going through Bosnia eight or nine years after the war. There were still refugees living in tents,” Riedlmayer said. “The first thing they’d rebuilt was schools and houses of worship. The things that gave them cultural security and a sense of the future.”
“People look to heritage as their wayfinding sign after being disoriented after the crisis of war,” said Parker, who is doing independent research with the Ronin Institute about the role cultural heritage plays in helping refugees. The day after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, Parker posted on Ronin Institute’s blog.
“I’m often asked, ‘How is it possible to think of artifacts, monuments, or works of art when human lives are at stake?’ Of course human lives come first,” she wrote. “We also have to give people something to live for.”