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A curator was kidnapped and thousands of objects seized by Russian forces during their occupation of the Ukrainian cities of Mariupol and Melitopol, according to local reports.
The caretaker of the Museum of Local Lore in Melitopol, Leila Ibrahimova, told the New York Times that Russian troops bearing machine guns had stolen 198 items from the institution, including several 2,300-year-old gold pieces dating from the Scythian empire. The Mariupol City Council alleges that some two thousand objects are missing from the city’s museums.
Invading Russian soldiers are said to have made off with thousands of works of art and historical treasures from arts institutions across Ukraine. Over 100 cultural sites are estimated to have been looted since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February.
Russia’s illegal attack on Ukraine has led to significant cultural destruction. Museums that have been damaged or destroyed include the Ivankiv Museum in the Kyiv region, the Regional Art Museum in Chernihiv and the Kharkiv National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre.
UNESCO has verified damage to 120 sites since 24th February – 51 religious sites, ten museums, 24 historic buildings, 13 buildings dedicated to cultural activities, fifteen monuments and seven libraries.
On one level, the destruction may be considered to be a by-product of the cavalier bombardment to which Russia has subjected Ukraine, as unconcerned about cultural damage as it is about civilian casualties.
Equally the looting of cultural artefacts may also be part of a more general pattern of theft. Clothes, food, computers and a vast range of personal property have been stolen from civilians in the country by invading Russian troops. Even hazardous materials from Chernobyl are believed to have been looted.
But arguably, a more sinister motive is involved. Cultural destruction may appear to be less important that the killing of civilians but it is often aimed at erasing the collective identity of a people.
It was the deliberate policy of US forces in Iraq, who permitted the looting of treasures in the early days of the Western occupation. A total of 15,000 invaluable Mesopotamian artefacts disappeared from the national museum.
The US used ancient historic archaeological sites as military bases, such as Ur, capital of the 3,000 old Sumerian civilisation, and Babylon where 300,000 square metres of the site were flattened – including 2,600 year old paving stones, by US tanks.
It is also a policy practised by the Israeli state against Palestinians. Despite having no military significance, cultural institutions such as libraries in Palestinian territory are frequently targeted. Cultural appropriation and destruction are a central ingredient of conflict and colonialism: erasing a culture is an important element of dispossession and denial of identity.
Cultural erasure was systematised by the imperial powers in their 19th century colonisation of Africa. How much easier it is to pretend that those being colonised and subjugated are ‘savages’ if their culture has been destroyed or removed.
Recent research has highlighted the role played by occupying armies, the Church and European museums in erasing the culture of Benin, for example. In his book, The Brutish Museums: the Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution (Pluto 2020), Dan Hicks points out that the razing of Benin was not an act of retaliation, as museum information boards often maintain, but a well-planned piece of organised looting.
The destruction of the ancient site was undertaken in the name of Christianity against pagan worship. Up to 10,000 bronzes, ivories and other objects were looted from the city. The British built a golf course on the remains.
Hicks describes it as “an attack on human life, on culture, on belief, on art, and on sovereignty… a crime against humanity.” Its indiscriminate killing, purposeful destruction of a cultural and religious site and looting of artworks were violations that would be written into the Hague Convention two years later.
The dehumanisation of a people is a preparation for their physical extermination. The denial, destruction and dispossession of a people’s culture are a critical part of that process.
This is why cultural genocide was proposed by the international lawyer Raphael Lemkin as a component of genocide in 1944, in preparation for the trial of Nazi leaders after World War Two. The whole concept of genocide was new at the time, but has been vital to understanding the full nature of the rationale behind the Nazis’ crimes against humanity.
The specific idea of cultural genocide remains contested – it was excluded from the 1948 Genocide Convention, perhaps to suppress the idea that democratic countries might have practised cultural genocide towards their minorities or in their colonies. But Lemkin saw it as central to the idea of genocide, which could not be reduced simply to mass murder. As one recent assessment put it: “For Lemkin, therefore, the essence of genocide was cultural – a systematic attack on a group of people and its cultural identity; a crime directed against difference itself.”
Beyond the racial theories of the Nazi era and the legacy of European colonisation, we see the same processes at work in the destruction and forced assimilation of indigenous peoples in the Americas and elsewhere, including Australia.
Cultural erasure has been a central part of every modern conflict. Following the Francoist victory in the Spanish Civil War, books in Catalan were systematically destroyed. The Catalan language was proscribed, along with Catalan birth names for children, all cultural institutions in Catalonia, the Catalan flag, its national hymn and the national dance, the sardana.
In the Bosnian War between 1992 1995, during the Siege of Sarajevo, cultural genocide was committed by Bosnian Serb forces. The National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina was specifically targeted: the National Library was completely destroyed in the fire, along with 80 percent of its contents.
Such crimes provide an insight into the motivation and ideology of the aggressor or coloniser. The 19th century German poet Heinrich Heine was prescient when he wrote: “Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people.”
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