VSCulture has long been a proxy for asserting the power of one people over another. Recent egregious examples include the Chinese government’s attempt to suppress Uyghur religion, literature, music and even food, and the destruction of ancient monuments by the Islamic State. In times of war, culture is a second front. In their most extreme form, wars are about completely eradicating a people’s cultural memory, wiping it off the slate as if it never existed.
That Vladimir Putin had to precede his invasion with a speech wrongly characterizing Ukraine as essentially Russian is on the one hand a false justification for the invasion, and on the other hand an attempt to capture, simplify and appropriate a complex historical narrative about the two intertwined but distinct. nations.
However, Mr Putin was foiled by his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The former comedian, who had never held office before his election in 2019, was remarkably a persuasive rhetorician and a warlord. On the other hand, an acting career may be exactly what he needed to step so convincingly into this new role.
He is not the only one to make such a leap. A powerful symbol of Ukraine’s shift from plowshares to swords is the fact that ballet dancers from the Kyiv National Opera have joined the fight. Elsewhere, symbols of Ukraine’s resistance – the sunflower and the blue and yellow of the national flag – were unfurled internationally to stirring effect. And acts of brotherhood – making Ukrainian food, for example, as part of the UK-based Cook for Ukraine humanitarian fundraising effort – have their own simple and practical power.
“If we lose our culture, we lose our identity,” Lilya Onyshchenko, head of the Lviv City Council’s heritage protection office, told the Guardian. Ms. Onyshchenko went on to point out that the city in western Ukraine has always been multicultural. It is unclear what precisely Mr. Putin’s intentions are regarding Ukraine’s assertion of its own identity. But the understandable fear is that Russian expansion seeks to colonize minds as well as places.
In some ways, intentions are less important than effects in the messy reality of war. A missile strike in Kyiv that reportedly killed five people was apparently aimed at the television tower, but it is near Babyn Yar, the site of the massacre of 150,000 people during World War II, including 30,000 Jews – a great irony given the attitude of Mr. Putin. the stated ambition of “denazifying” Ukraine. An attack on the town of Ivankiv, 80 km northwest of Kiev, burned down the city’s history and local history museum, destroying valuable works by 20th-century folk artist Maria Prymachenko. The artist is an important symbol of Ukrainian art – and Ukrainian hope.
Three decades ago, the war in the former Yugoslavia targeted sacred and beautiful places such as Dubrovnik or the Mostar Bridge and the Old Town, sometimes with the intention of erasing evidence that people of a another religion or ethnicity had once lived there. Whether or not sites like Babyn Yar and the Ivankiv Museum were collateral damage rather than actual targets, the cultural front in war is never trivial. This is a conflict, like so many others, that is not just about controlling territory – but about owning a narrative.