Safe Havens?

Simon O'CorraMay 27, 2022

The material cultural legacy of the world is our common heritage, the identity and inspiration for all humanity. Cultural heritage has the power to unite us and is critical for achieving peace. It is also too often the target of war, another way to destroy and overtake a society by erasing its memory.

Getty Museum President James Cuno.

Sovereign Nations are usually a safe haven for its citizens and for its own internal cultures, but through no fault of its own the Ukraine has become unsafe, despite its valiant defense of all it holds dear. It is even finding it increasingly difficult to protect its cultural heritage from damage and destruction as Russia once again renews its attacks and begins another advance. What makes this terrible situation unbearable is the insidious wiping out of Ukrainian culture in order, in Russia's eyes, to all the better be able to subsume Ukraine and the Ukrainian people back into Russia.

They know that even if Ukraine wins, but Ukrainian culture loses and Ukrainian language disappears, there will be no Ukraine.

Yuri Shevchuk, a lexicographer and lecturer of Ukrainian language at Columbia University.

It is now widely believed that Russia is striking purposefully at Ukraine's identity, despite publicly remaining committed to the 1954 Hague Convention. Such rhetoric is easy when you are country which brooks no deviance from the publicly held positions of its leadership and undertakes an overt aggression against a sovereign state.

The vast expanse that is the Kharkiv State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre in March suffered a concerted Russian attack leaving only rubble in its wake. and recent figures indicate that almost 200 such cultural sites have been damaged or destroyed.

Kharkiv State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre

Melitopol's mayor has declared that Russian agents have already begun to ransack a local museum and remove large quantities of Scythian empire gold. Almost 200 pieces dating from some time around 800 B.C.E. have been taken by Russian agents, following a visit from an ‘art expert' from the Crimea coming as it did after a previous kidnapping of several members of the Museum management and staff.

A Scythian necklace, detail

Once again under similar circumstances at a cultural institution in Mariupol more Russian agents also stole cultural artefacts of inestimable worth. Close to my heart and as an artist myself, I have been particularly shocked by the Russian bombing of the Ivankiv Local History Museum north of Kyiv.

This targeted bombing and the complete destruction of the 25 Naive Art works of Maria Primachenko (1907-1997), an autodidact, once hailed by no less a person than Pablo Picasso, is cruel in the extreme.

Our Army, Our Protectors, Maria Primachenko, 1978

This image of Our Army, Our Protectors, has become part of an online initiative to support Ukrainian Artists (AAW, Artists Against War) and ‘Come Back Alive', a foundation to support Ukraine's Armed Forces in purely defensive initiatives. Russia unlike the Ukraine is an aggressive nation with plenty of form in destroying cultural sites, not just in the Ukraine but elsewhere. As a major power it has been and is involved in a range of conflicts around the world. It's policy of indiscriminate bombing and obvious disregard for cultural heritage particularly in the war in Syria.

The 2015 bombing by Russian Jets, of Shanshrah, one of the Forgotten Cities in Syria,
which is a World Heritage Site

These atrocities led to the ratifying of The Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act in 2016 in particular relation to its destruction of cultural sites there. As a result of this Act the Cultural Heritage Coordinating Committee was set up and is in fact monitoring what is happening on the ground in the Ukraine.

The CHCC coordinates the activities of participating agencies and institutions and its three working groups to advance principal U.S. interests to achieve the following goals: protect and preserve international cultural property; prevent and disrupt looting and trafficking of antiquities, especially when linked to terrorist and criminal organisations; protect sites of cultural and archaeological significance; provide for the lawful exchange of international cultural property; and strengthen the ability of the executive branch to protect and preserve cultural property at risk from instability, conflict, natural disasters or other threats. cultural-heritage-coordinating-committee

The invasion we are witnessing now is not the first time Russia has looted the Ukraine for its artefacts. For example it has been steadily removing historically and culturally important objects in the Crimea for display in Russian museums since it annexed that part of the country in 2014. The cultural appropriation by Russia amounts to 10% of all cultural environments in the Ukraine. It is also engaging in illegal and unprofessional archaeological works which contravenes the Hague Convention. Also in their rush to excavate many sites for raw materials for motorways many priceless artefacts are being lost.

As there is no sign of any such Ukraine specific Act being implemented by the United States, the workings of the previously mentioned committee begs a question. How can the remote monitoring of the cultural devastation being wrought by Russia on Ukraine be effective? Especially with so few, if any independent observers being made available on the ground in this war torn country. What can we do to protect precious artefacts? We need to safeguard them from being looted by ordinary opportunists or stolen by professional thieves to the order of a small yet financially powerful group of art collectors or even by the Russian State Machine? 

These acts of wanton annihilation are robbing the world every day of its collective culture. The very heart of the Ukraine is being ripped out.


Simon O'Corra has been a creative since childhood, working in theatre and film and also as a designer and artist. He now combines all these skills to write monologues, duologues, short and feature films and plays. He also has experience in the following: copywriting, research, mind mapping and brainstorming, script editing and mentoring. Simon is a people's person and is a great networker. He currently has a range of short and feature films in development and plays also awaiting production dates post-Covid.

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