A Dove Has Spread Her Wings and Asks for Peace: Ukrainian Cultural Heritage at Risk

A Dove Has Spread Her Wings and Asks for Peace: Ukrainian Cultural Heritage at Risk

Claire WortsmanClaire Wortsman is an IPilogue Senior Editor and a 2L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

On February 25, invading Russian forces burned the Ivankiv Historical and Local Museum, and the many culturally and historically significant pieces it housed, to the ground. The Museum’s collection included roughly 25 paintings by Maria Prymachenko, the celebrated Ukrainian artist world-famous for her colourful folk art style. Prymachenko’s great-granddaughter reported that a local man ran into the burning building and was able to save some of the precious works. Yet many more pieces were lost, and millions of artworks and monuments remain at risk from Russia’s military onslaught. These include those dating back to the Byzantine and Baroque periods, as well as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Ukrainian Minister of Culture Olexandr Tkachenko has requested that Russia lose its UNESCO membership. The destruction of Ukrainian cultural heritage at the hands of Russia is not a novel occurrence -  the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the conflicts in Donetsk and Luhansk led to the loss of dozens of archaeological, historical, and artistic collections. James Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust, released a statement condemning the cultural atrocities taking place in Ukraine alongside the unfathomable human and environmental losses. Cuno identifies that cultural heritage has the power to unite us, and is critical for achieving peace, making it a common target in war; a means of destroying a society by erasing its memory. Officials say preserving and protecting cultural legacies in times of conflict has the power to bind local people and foster peace, once the shooting stops.

The importance of safeguarding cultural property extends beyond the borders of Ukraine. The preamble of the 1954 Hague Convention recognizes that “… any damage to cultural property, irrespective of the people it belongs to, is a damage to the cultural property of all humanity, because every people contributes to the world’s culture.” Putin’s continued violation of international law is a blow to the international legal order – one that Yale Law School’s Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro explain must be met with an aggressive and resolute response.

Uncertainty and crisis in Ukraine have left many fleeing their homes, while some museum employees remain behind to look out for their collections in whatever way they can – whether by standing guard, hiding art in basements, or (for those farther away from the war zones) transforming into a place of temporary respite for those who have fled. Fedir Androshchuk, the director of the National Museum of the History of Ukraine, is standing alongside two colleagues in an effort to safeguard the museum from attack or looting. He reports that “the museum is located in the middle of a rich cultural heritage area near three fine churches, but also close to some possible targets (the Ukrainian security service and border forces).” This proximity to potential military targets is significant from an international law perspective, both customary and codified[1], as the 1954 Hague Convention carves a “military necessity” exception out of its protections for cultural property. As explained by Captain Joshua E. Kastenberg, “Where a defender state harbors items of military value… in or near cultural property, the property loses its legal protections.”[2]

Androshchuk also reported, “there is no guarantee that the Ukrainian cultural heritage will not be plundered and transferred to Russian museums, especially given that Kyiv has a special place in Putin’s interpretation of Russian history and its roots.” The destruction of Ukraine’s cultural heritage serves the narrative of Vladimir Putin, who denies that Ukraine is a nation and that Ukrainians are a people. Perpetrators of the intentional destruction of cultural heritage often seek to destroy the communities for which the heritage is perceived as an essential element of their own life, cultural identity, and distinctiveness.[3] Yet Putin’s assault has backfired – unifying Ukraine itself, unifying the West against Russia, and proliferating images of Prymachenko’s uniquely Ukrainian style around the world.

[1] Captain Joshua E. Kastenberg, “The Legal Regime for Protecting Cultural Property During Armed Conflict,” Air Force Law Review 42 A.F.L Rev. (1997)

[2] Ibid

[3] Federico Lenzerini, “Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage,” The Oxford Handbook of International Cultural Heritage Law (2020)