Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Bucha Must Be Remembered

As Ukraine seeks accountability for the perpetrators of civilian killings, it must also process its collective trauma.

By , a fellow in the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Ukrainian relatives mourn at a funeral of a family member killed in Bucha, Ukraine.
Ukrainian relatives mourn at a funeral of a family member killed in Bucha, Ukraine.
Ukrainian relatives mourn at a funeral of a family member killed in Bucha, Ukraine, on April 15. Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Since Russian forces withdrew from the suburbs of Kyiv, the city of Bucha has become synonymous with horror. Images of mass graves and streets littered with the bodies of civilians refocused attention on the barbarity of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. In the wake of the deliberate killing of at least 300 civilians in Bucha—and potentially more in areas not yet liberated—it is vital for Ukraine not only to hold the perpetrators accountable but also to process the tragedy through collective memory.

The images from Bucha are visceral indicators of war crimes in Ukraine. In the early days of the conflict, indiscriminate shelling of populated areas and the targeting of civilian infrastructure demonstrated Russia’s disregard for international law. However, the revelation of the Bucha massacre feels different. Bodies were abandoned in the street, as if those lives were worth nothing. How some of the victims were killed makes it especially shocking; to bind people’s hands and execute them with a bullet to the head is an intimate act. Above all, it makes it makes it impossible to characterize these deaths as collateral damage.

Russia has maintained a proxy war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and occupied Crimea for eight years. But the reaction to Bucha in Ukraine has been far stronger than to any event since 2014; previous violence against civilians was never so brutal or intentional. The targeting of Ukrainian civilians has drawn comparison to the mass killing of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys by Serbian forces at Srebrenica in 1995. Others have weighed Bucha against tragedies in Ukraine’s own history: the Holodomor, the Ukrainian name for the man-made Soviet famine of 1932-33; and the Babyn Yar massacre, in which Nazi forces murdered tens of thousands of Jews in Kyiv over a two-day period in 1941.

Since Russian forces withdrew from the suburbs of Kyiv, the city of Bucha has become synonymous with horror. Images of mass graves and streets littered with the bodies of civilians refocused attention on the barbarity of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. In the wake of the deliberate killing of at least 300 civilians in Bucha—and potentially more in areas not yet liberated—it is vital for Ukraine not only to hold the perpetrators accountable but also to process the tragedy through collective memory.

The images from Bucha are visceral indicators of war crimes in Ukraine. In the early days of the conflict, indiscriminate shelling of populated areas and the targeting of civilian infrastructure demonstrated Russia’s disregard for international law. However, the revelation of the Bucha massacre feels different. Bodies were abandoned in the street, as if those lives were worth nothing. How some of the victims were killed makes it especially shocking; to bind people’s hands and execute them with a bullet to the head is an intimate act. Above all, it makes it makes it impossible to characterize these deaths as collateral damage.

Russia has maintained a proxy war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and occupied Crimea for eight years. But the reaction to Bucha in Ukraine has been far stronger than to any event since 2014; previous violence against civilians was never so brutal or intentional. The targeting of Ukrainian civilians has drawn comparison to the mass killing of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys by Serbian forces at Srebrenica in 1995. Others have weighed Bucha against tragedies in Ukraine’s own history: the Holodomor, the Ukrainian name for the man-made Soviet famine of 1932-33; and the Babyn Yar massacre, in which Nazi forces murdered tens of thousands of Jews in Kyiv over a two-day period in 1941.

Such comparisons emphasize that shared trauma can shape identity and collective memory over generations. The Holodomor is central to Ukraine’s idea of itself as a country that defies Russian domination and a potent counterargument to Putin’s claim that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people.” Although Soviet authorities attempted to suppress information about the famine, the act of remembering the suffering intentionally inflicted on Ukrainians eventually became a core feature of national identity, both under Soviet rule and after Ukraine’s independence.

The killings in Bucha seem destined to occupy a similarly important space for future generations. It is therefore important for Ukraine to act now to preserve information, artifacts, and testimony related to the event and to consider how to memorialize the victims of the tragedy. The war is still in its first months, and there may be more horrific discoveries in other areas as Ukraine reestablishes control over places once occupied by Russian forces or where fighting still continues, such as the southern port of Mariupol. The possibility of additional atrocities deepens the psychological wound of Russia’s invasion; Bucha nonetheless remains the most vivid act of inhumanity.

Russia’s alleged crimes in Ukraine have triggered calls for accountability in international courts. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is investigating Russian actions in Ukraine and will invariably focus on the atrocities in Bucha. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has also signaled the creation of a special mechanism to supplement any cases brought before an international tribunal that would hold all perpetrators accountable. Democracies around the world should support Ukraine’s quest for accountability though national and international processes. Like the evidence presented at the Nuremberg trials, information gathered during war crimes investigations in Ukraine may contribute to the construction of national memory as well as to immediate accountability for the perpetrators and their backers.

However, further efforts are necessary to construct meaning from this collective trauma. Although Ukraine still faces an existential threat from Russia’s invasion, it is critical to collect and catalogue images, testimony, and items from Bucha and elsewhere to preserve the memory of those who were killed and foster a collective understanding of the crimes. Research suggests that collective trauma can lead to the construction of narratives, identities, and values that protect the victim group in the long run. In other words, a society that comes to terms with past trauma can grow stronger because of it.

As Ukraine embarks on this endeavor, it should incorporate lessons from ongoing yet flawed efforts to memorialize other tragedies. The development of a memorial complex at Babyn Yar, intended to be on par with sites in Israel and the United States, was marred by the involvement of Russian financial backers and a design criticized for failing to honor victims’ dignity. Another plan seeks to honor the more than 100 people who died amid Ukrainian state-sponsored violence during the 2013-14 revolution. The failure of the judiciary to hold perpetrators accountable has upended construction efforts; developing the site threatens to get in the way of gathering further evidence. Both projects have exacerbated cynicism among Ukrainians. National memory stakeholders should avoid similar obstacles that could undermine efforts to mark the legacy of the Bucha massacre.

Although Ukraine must process its collective trauma on its own, external actors can still play a role. Additional support from public memory institutions and partner governments around the world could help ease the burden on archivists engaged in the costly and time-consuming task of documenting atrocities in Ukraine. Experienced researchers should offer trainings to Ukrainians on information management and material preservation. Western governments should consider declassifying satellite imagery, intercepted communications, and other intelligence and making it available for Ukrainian researchers. To manage the process, the Ukrainian government should prioritize developing a methodology for data collection and preservation.

Finally, the preservation of memory is important not only for Ukrainians but also for Russian citizens currently living within a tightly controlled information environment. State-sponsored media in Russia have saturated the airwaves with misinformation, including that the Bucha killings were part of a “false-flag operation” or that the victims were paid crisis actors. One day, they may be able to acknowledge the crimes perpetrated by their compatriots and engage in the complex question of their own responsibility.

In time, the sacrifices of those killed by Russian forces in Bucha may help consolidate the very Ukrainian identity that Russia wishes to extinguish. They deserve to be remembered.

Andrew Lohsen is a fellow in the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Between 2016 and 2021, he worked as a monitoring officer and political analyst for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine. Twitter: @andrewlohsen

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A propaganda poster from the 1960s shows Chinese leader Mao Zedong.
A propaganda poster from the 1960s shows Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

Xi’s Great Leap Backward

Beijing is running out of recipes for its looming jobs crisis—and reviving Mao-era policies.

A textile worker at the Maxport factory in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2021.
A textile worker at the Maxport factory in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2021.

Companies Are Fleeing China for Friendlier Shores

“Friendshoring” is the new trend as geopolitics bites.

German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.
German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.

Why Superpower Crises Are a Good Thing

A new era of tensions will focus minds and break logjams, as Cold War history shows.

Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.
Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.

The Mediterranean as We Know It Is Vanishing

From Saint-Tropez to Amalfi, the region’s most attractive tourist destinations are also its most vulnerable.