The statue of Hryhoriy Skovoroda looked upwards from the ruins of the museum. On the night of May 6, an institution dedicated to the work of the late Ukrainian poet was hit by a Russian shell, local officials said. The walls and the roof were reduced to rubble.
Would Russia deliberately target this small institution near Kharkiv? Many Ukrainians believed that to be the case and viewed the attack as part of a systematic effort to destroy Ukraine’s identity. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky cited the incident in a speech a few days later. The Russians, he said, “believe that their missiles can destroy our philosophy”.
In the Ukraine-Russia conflict, cultural sites have become a front in their own right. With its offensive, Russia calls into question the very existence of a Ukrainian culture and nation. But even before the conflict, Ukrainians debated how to think about their own history and Soviet-era buildings. Today, some historic places in Ukraine face immediate threats and an uncertain future.
At the end of June, a report by the United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO, revealed that Russian forces had damaged or destroyed more than 150 sites of cultural significance. The largest numbers of them are found in Donetsk, Kharkiv and Kyiv. “These repeated attacks on Ukrainian cultural sites must stop. Cultural heritage, in all its forms, should in no way be targeted,” UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said in a statement.
Historical buildings and other places are of great importance in this conflict, says Ievgeniia Gubkina, editor-in-chief of the online Encyclopedia of Ukrainian Architecture. “When you see the consequences of attacks – phosphorus bombs, for example, on people’s lives – then you might ask, who cares about buildings?” she says. “Well, in times like these, morale is important and heritage becomes most critical.”
Ms. Gubkina, a Ukrainian architect and historian raised in Kharkiv, is currently in exile in Paris. She noted a clear pattern of Russian forces deliberately targeting places of cultural significance. The most infamous example is the bombing of a theater in Mariupol in March, which killed around 600 people.
She suggests that Russian forces deliberately avoided targeting churches. Russian President Vladimir Putin has close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, to which many Ukrainian churches are affiliated.
But Ms Gubkina worries about the buildings that are her specialty: those from the Soviet period, spanning from 1922 to 1991. She cites the 1920s Derzhprom tower complex in central Kharkiv, which is associated with the movement constructivist, an early and radical movement. current of modernism in architecture.
“It’s our masterpiece,” Ms Gubkina said of the complex, which was built to house the new government of Soviet Ukraine.
And yet, she points out, UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, has not yet placed the Derzhprom on its list of world heritage sites. Ms. Gubkina argues that the site should be recognized by UNESCO, which would give it some protection, as its destruction would then amount to a war crime under international law.
Meanwhile, Russian forces have targeted hundreds of lesser-known sites that it says have their own cultural value. This includes the “panelka”, Soviet-era apartment towers made of precast concrete panels that house large numbers of Ukrainians. Many have been damaged or destroyed by Russian strikes – including in southern Kharkiv, where Ms Gubkina grew up. This tendency to deliberately target residential neighborhoods, she says, destroys places that have shaped the country’s social life.
“Sometimes heritage is pretty much where you lived, where you first kissed a girl,” she said.
His remarks capture a tension in the world of heritage preservation. Increasingly, places associated with ordinary citizens – not just the homes and workplaces of the elite – are seen by professionals as worthy of commemoration. And yet, Ukraine’s difficult relationship with its 20th century history adds a layer of ambiguity. Mass housing like panelka “is difficult and strange [as] heritage,” Ms. Gubkina said. “The gray concrete might look ugly to people…it’s not like a nice old house people think of when you say ‘heritage’.”
Indeed, the panelka and other Soviet-era buildings have been the subject of controversy in Ukraine. The national government, after the 2014 revolution, passed “decommunization” laws that called for the removal of Soviet monuments and art. For Ms Gubkina, these rules were applied — or misapplied — to destroy Soviet-era public art and architecture. This period, which constitutes an important part of Ukrainian history, has been the subject of academic and political debate over the past decade. Ms. Gubkina is among a group of young Ukrainian scholars and activists who consider this period worthy of commemoration.
Another is Dmytro Solovyov, an activist and photographer who has run the Ukrainian Modernism Instagram account since 2017. Since the start of the conflict, he has documented the destruction of airports and train stations, university buildings and cultural complexes, all at the start of the conflict. soviet era.
But he says his defense of such buildings is not welcomed by all Ukrainians. “There are bad memories from the Soviet period, and there is anti-Russian rhetoric pushed by some Ukrainians,” he said. “I’ve heard people call Putin a communist, which is ridiculous. But people who are constantly bombarded don’t have time for nuances.
As The Globe’s Mark MacKinnon recently reported, anti-Russian sentiment is now directed at statues and street names associated with pre-Soviet Russia, and even in the relatively pro-Russian eastern part of Ukraine. In the west, says Mr. Solovyov, anti-Russian sentiment is much stronger.
This leaves some sites at risk from both Russian attacks and internal nationalism.
This raises difficult questions for the future of Ukraine. Once the conflict is over, what ideas will shape the process of reconstruction? Will this effort succeed in erasing the past?
“There is a feeling of completely rebuilding damaged areas or buildings instead of renovating them,” Mr Soloviov said. “Officials often want to build something new, instead of renovating and preserving the cityscape.”
In a sense, Ms. Gubkina suggests, this would complement the Russian intention to damage the very idea of a Ukrainian culture.
“This war is an imperial war,” he said. “But not the way we think of that word in the West. The Russians don’t need our resources; they don’t need our people. They don’t need new colonies. They need us to be torn down.
Ukrainian monuments caught in the crossfire
Ukraine has seven UNESCO-designated World Heritage Sites; none of these have yet been seriously damaged. However, hundreds of other culturally significant sites were damaged or destroyed.
Mariupol Train Station
Mariupol, a strategic port city and rising cultural capital, was devastated by Russian bombing before the city fell in May. Along with the destruction of its drama theatre, the city also lost its train station. The station was largely destroyed by fire, which consumed at least one of the Soviet-era decorative mosaics inside.
Admiral Makarov National University
This university in the southern city of Mykolaiv trains engineers in shipbuilding. Although obscure, its 1971 establishment was, according to Dmytro Solovyov, “one of the finest gems of brutalist architecture” in this city. It was badly damaged by Russian strikes in July.
Palace of Culture in Lyman
Russian forces have targeted several “palaces of culture,” which are cultural and community centers serving individual towns. The one in the Donetsk region, originally built in 1929, was destroyed in May.
This constructivist complex in the central square of Kharkiv was built in 1928 as the seat of government of Soviet Ukraine. Its three groups of towers, ten storeys high, are connected by bridges. British critic Owen Hatherley called it “one of the most interesting and least known Modernist buildings” of its day. He has not yet been targeted by Russian forces; however, Russian missiles and rockets hit adjacent Freedom Square and a nearby local government office.
The Saltivka district, in the suburbs of Kharkiv, was the scene of intense shelling at the start of the war. “This type of mass housing is typical of many places in Ukraine,” says historian and architect Ievgeniia Gubkina, “housing several thousand ordinary people.”
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