On March 6th, protestors gathered in San Francisco to rally for peace in Ukraine. On the pavement beneath them, they painted this image- a blue and white dove, wings outstretched, surrounded by vibrant orange flowers. It’s a copy of a 1982 painting called “A Dove Has Spread Her Wings and Asks for Peace” by Ukrainian artist Maria Prymachenko- a self-taught painter known for her colorful, joyous scenes incorporating themes from Ukrainian folk traditions. Picasso once called it an “artistic miracle.”
The week prior, posts on social media showed a small museum that housed her paintings burning to the ground. The fire destroyed, by some accounts, up to 25 major works. Satellite images show that none of the surrounding structures were damaged indicating an intentional, targeted attack by Russian forces. It was one of the first examples of what experts fear will be devastating damage to Ukraine's physical culture. It is one thing to try and destroy the intellectual and emotional part of culture but it's another thing to destroy the actual physical representations of that. All the things that define a community, as a country, as a nation- that's what is at stake, it is believed.
It’s a fight that’s played out countless times around the world. Across history people have risked their lives to save art like this from war zones. So how do they do it? What do we stand to lose if they fail?
World War II was a turning point in the history of cultural heritage preservation. Systematic Nazi looting, book and art burning and the sheer destructive force of modern weaponry put the world’s artistic treasures at unprecedented risk which prompted an unprecedented response. Britain's national gallery whisked their collection away to a Welsh mine. American art historians formed a roving military unit to essentially re-steal art from Nazis. And all over Europe, soldiers and volunteers worked to shield masterpieces using bricks, sandbags, and scaffolds- which worked pretty well. Da Vinci’s "Last Supper" survived an accidental bombing in Milan. Thanks to the scaffolding that bolstered the wall it’s painted on. And the sandbags and wood that absorbed some of the blast. But direct attacks are another story. Like in the German city of Dresden. Targeted Allied bombing wiped out 90% of the city’s historic center. After the war, to try to prevent future damage, the international community signed the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict which requires them to protect cultural property in the event of armed conflict. It includes provisions or articles that require them not to target cultural heritage. Under the 1954 Convention, “damage to cultural property means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind”- so attacks on cultural heritage are a considered war crime.
But treaties can only do so much. In the years since, conflicts around the world have rendered immeasurable damage to cultural heritage. A lot of it was intentional. Like the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan buddhas. And ISIS’ attacks on ancient sites all over Syria. That cultural heritage is not only impacted, but in many ways it's implicated and central to armed conflict. These are things that people point to that are unifying factors for their society- they are tangible reflections of their identity. And Putin has made it clear that identity is at the ideological center of Russia's invasion. “I would like to emphasize again that Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us.
It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space.”
The first step in protecting cultural heritage is identifying what needs protecting. The 1954 Hague Convention requires that each country keep an inventory of their cultural heritage sites. But, that’s a big ask. Even the U.S. does not have a list like that. The country is home to 7 UNESCO world heritage sites including the entire historical center of Lviv and the Saint Sophia's Cathedral, Saint Sophia Square, one of the most beautiful places in Ukraine. Ukraine is proud to have Baroque, modernism, neoclassical and
all on the same street. It all works together and it creates this beautiful visual mosaic of all the different Ukraines that have existed. Historically significant buildings, archaeological sites, monuments and, of course, museums. Featuring works by Ukrainian artists like Kazimir Malevich- an array of traditional Ukrainian folk art and troves of scythian gold, ancient jewelry from what is now Crimea. Russia has an established history of attempting to loot. Though, the international community has ruled they rightfully belong to Ukraine.
After everything is cataloged, it has to be secured. The 1954 Convention also requires that each country have a group dedicated to safeguarding cultural heritage. It is very much a constellation of government agencies, militaries, NGOs, academics, museum institutions that are honestly working collaboratively to collectively do this type of work.
When the invasion began museums had to scramble to make their own inventories, secure their buildings, and move items to safety. Even in cities under siege, volunteers and workers return day after day to safeguard Ukraine's treasures. Days before the country was invaded, the ministry of culture sent out private guidance to museums. And has since asked that the international community withhold information about the whereabouts of their collections. If history is any indication, collections have moved underground or outside of major cities or out of the country entirely.
And for some of Ukraine’s immovable treasures, history is repeating itself more directly. In Odesa, guards once again stand watch over the Opera House backed by sandbags and roadblocks. And in Lviv, volunteers are covering stained glass windows with metal panels and roving the city wrapping statues with tarps, insulation, duct tape, whatever materials they can muster. In the hopes that, like before, it’ll be enough. The starting place for all of this work is knowing that cultural heritage will be lost. Early on, the Ukrainian cultural ministry launched a site to collect evidence of crimes against cultural heritage, organizing it all in a timeline.To use as evidence for potentially prosecuting war crimes. And as a way to organize future efforts to secure and restore whatever is damaged. After the war ends, Ukranians don't want to be looking around at empty walls. They want to be seeing themselves reflected in ancestral material wealth and art.