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How to Help Ukraine Fight Cultural Erasure

Russia is seeking to destroy Ukrainian culture. The West must help those working to preserve it.

By , the CEO of PEN America.
A bullet hole is seen through the bust of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in the main square of Borodianka, Ukraine on May 15.
A bullet hole is seen through the bust of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in the main square of Borodianka, Ukraine on May 15.
A bullet hole is seen through the bust of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in the main square of Borodianka, Ukraine on May 15. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Russia’s war against Ukraine is being waged with tanks, shells, trenches, and terror. It is also being prosecuted through propaganda, intimidation, false narratives, and a campaign of cultural annihilation. For Ukrainians, the drive to hold fast to a national identity, history, and culture is at the heart of a tenacious resistance.

In an era in which international conflicts implicate questions of ethnicity, national identity, language, and history, culture is not just caught in the crossfire. It is itself a battleground. Russian President Vladimir Putin has targeted his campaign against Ukraine not just to seize territory or subdue resistance but to subsume Ukraine culturally, linguistically, and territorially into Russia, denying its existence as a sovereign, independent nation.

In a televised address launching the war, Putin denied that Ukraine had ever enjoyed “real statehood” and claimed the country as part of Russia’s “own history, culture, spiritual space.” Although the histories of Russia and Ukraine are indeed intertwined, their societies, traditions, and artistic forms have distinct and unique threads that have endured over time and have grown stronger during Ukraine’s independence since 1991.

Russia’s war against Ukraine is being waged with tanks, shells, trenches, and terror. It is also being prosecuted through propaganda, intimidation, false narratives, and a campaign of cultural annihilation. For Ukrainians, the drive to hold fast to a national identity, history, and culture is at the heart of a tenacious resistance.

In an era in which international conflicts implicate questions of ethnicity, national identity, language, and history, culture is not just caught in the crossfire. It is itself a battleground. Russian President Vladimir Putin has targeted his campaign against Ukraine not just to seize territory or subdue resistance but to subsume Ukraine culturally, linguistically, and territorially into Russia, denying its existence as a sovereign, independent nation.

In a televised address launching the war, Putin denied that Ukraine had ever enjoyed “real statehood” and claimed the country as part of Russia’s “own history, culture, spiritual space.” Although the histories of Russia and Ukraine are indeed intertwined, their societies, traditions, and artistic forms have distinct and unique threads that have endured over time and have grown stronger during Ukraine’s independence since 1991.

In contrast with Russia’s near one-party state—where Putin has reigned since 2000—Ukraine has, at last count, 349 separate registered political entities vying for influence and has had five different presidents over the last 20 years. Putin’s attacks on culture have included targeting the statues, monuments, archives, theaters, libraries, and schools that represent Ukraine’s distinct historical and contemporary identity.

Putin is not the only authoritarian who has put culture in his crosshairs.

While Putin’s effort to cloak expansionism in the guise of national cohesion has fallen flat in the West and met with ardent resistance in Ukraine, it has been better received elsewhere. His propaganda offensive has helped keep many Latin American, African, and Asian nations on the sidelines of the conflict, feeding into their predisposition to blame the United States and the West for global turmoil.

These countries’ collective reticence has weakened the international sanctions targeting Russia’s economy and provided cover for Beijing to remain in Putin’s corner. Most importantly, Putin’s narrative has held sway inside Russia. Promoted relentlessly by state-controlled media outlets, Putin’s account has helped to sell the costly war at home; polls (to the degree they can be relied upon given the risks Russians face for expressing their opinions) show overwhelming Russian public support for the foundering military incursion.

By shuttering independent media outlets, tarring dissidents as foreign agents, and banning civil society organizations, Putin is setting his version of geopolitical events in concrete as a foundation to sustain the Ukraine war. Many of those who would disagree have simply left the country, including journalists, writers, and artists.

Putin is not the only authoritarian who has put culture in his crosshairs. The Chinese government has waged a long-standing campaign to stamp out Uyghur cultural and national identity, aiming to quell a restive region and preserve territorial hegemony. Alongside the mass detention of Uyghur citizens in reeducation camps, which seek to instill Chinese national dogma and pride, Beijing has targeted Uyghur writers, scholars, and artists.

Culture has been criminalized; those writing about Uyghur traditions, values, and communities are charged with stoking ethnic hatred or advocating separatism. Beijing’s long-standing campaign of “Sinicization” in Tibet likewise seeks to extinguish the region’s language and religion, including by forcing children into Chinese boarding schools.

In Hong Kong, too, China seeks to snuff out the embers of democracy with an aggressive assault on the island’s culture. Beijing is replacing the Cantonese language with Mandarin through mandated instruction in schools. Hong Kong’s arts institutions, publishers, and universities—all proud emblems of the territory’s vibrant, cosmopolitan culture—are all coming under Beijing’s tightening grip, with paintings and sculptures being removed from public view and academic and press freedom withering. Just last week, authorities arrested a 90-year-old Roman Catholic cardinal, a singer, and a scholar on charges of colluding with foreign forces to endanger China’s national security. The portents for a possible future conflict over Taiwan are obvious and ominous.

And so it goes elsewhere around the globe: In Afghanistan, the Taliban are stamping out the vestiges of the fledgling lively society that had taken root after they were overthrown two decades before as access to education expanded, artistic expression blossomed, and scholars and writers had the freedom to take risks. Amid the stampede of desperate Afghans fleeing the country last year were hundreds of writers, intellectuals, and artists who were directly targeted as the Taliban advanced, forced into exile or hiding.

In Myanmar, too, a decade of artistic and cultural flowering that accompanied the end of junta rule has given way to a new repression in which cultural luminaries have fled, or faced detention, imprisonment, or—in a few instances—state-sanctioned torture and killing.


Traditional approaches to cultural preservation in wartime have focused mostly on tangible, physical manifestations of culture—protecting works of art or artifacts. During World War II, the “Monuments Men”—curators, art historians, librarians, and artists—joined forces to save cultural treasures threatened by the Nazi onslaught. In recent years, UNESCO has worked to protect antiquities in Mali, Syria, and Yemen. The U.S. State Department’s Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation safeguards objects, artworks, and manuscripts endangered by natural disasters, conflict, or neglect.

This kind of work remains vital, including in Ukraine, where Russian forces bombed the memorial of the 1941 Babi Yar massacre while targeting a nearby television tower. Since the Ukraine war began, the Kharkiv State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater has been reduced to rubble, as have 120 other cultural sites, according to UNESCO, including museums, historic buildings, libraries, and religious institutions.

But international responses to cultural erasure as a weapon of war must evolve to keep up with the world’s autocrats. One route is the digital preservation of historical and cultural treasures. Since the 2013-2014 Maidan protests that ousted Moscow-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine has been releasing troves of documents dealing with Soviet repression. Early in the war, historians and archivists spirited some of the papers to safety, and several small projects sprang up to digitally scan vulnerable archival documents.

The Russians have reportedly torched the archives of the Ukrainian Security Service, which housed records dating back to the Nazi period and covering extensive KGB activities in Ukraine.

The Russians have reportedly torched the Chernihiv archives of the Ukrainian Security Service, which housed records dating back to the Nazi period and covering extensive KGB activities in Ukraine. The United States and its allies, along with UNESCO and private funders, should digitize cultural archives that are vulnerable to destruction amid conflict. Once archived, copies of materials should be housed securely overseas so that their outright destruction cannot be achieved. Securing these cultural artifacts for posterity would help obstruct and even disincentivize efforts at cultural erasure.

Culture comprises much more than just relics and records from the past. Contemporary cultural voices—scholars, entertainers, authors, filmmakers, artists, and even social media performers—provide up-to-the-minute accounts of daily life, popular perspectives, and ideas that can help fortify a targeted people, win international support, and rebut propaganda. The sophistication of Putin’s well-resourced and globally tailored information war reveals the central role of communication and cultural projection as tools of modern warfare.

Global cultural institutions have tried spontaneously to meet this challenge, programming Ukrainian performers and showcasing works. When nations under assault are offered intelligence and material support, they should also receive resources to assist with cultural protection and their own information warfare.

Such efforts should not rely simply on government messaging but should include identifying authentic, independent voices whose work and messages can be amplified and disseminated. Investing in translation, video and audio production, and international travel for cultural figures to visit foreign capitals and engage with media can help counter disinformation by attesting to the cultural integrity of beleaguered peoples and nations.

Cultural influencers are most potent when they can remain in-country. Nearly all of the 140 writers in PEN Ukraine have managed to stay within the country’s borders throughout the conflict; some are fighting on the front lines, while others have relocated.

The fortification of cultural sectors cannot wait until the bombs stop falling.

These writers recognized that going into exile would risk forfeiting some of their potency as chroniclers of the conflict, positioned to frame the invasion and the resistance in the eyes of the world. Writers inside Ukraine have seen their normal sources of income from public speaking and writing dry up. They, as well as those who have been displaced or forced to leave, will need the resources to continue their creative expression. For writers, artists, and dissidents in exile, resettlement assistance from universities, arts institutions, or cultural organizations can mean the difference between continued influence and having to reinvent their lives entirely, sometimes as Uber drivers or restaurant workers.

Support for organizations that coordinate and sustain creative communities amid conflict can be an important form of resistance. Grants and fellowships can help sustain the dislocated and foster their eventual return home. The surging ranks of exiled writers, artists, thinkers, and activists from Afghanistan, Hong Kong, Myanmar, Belarus, and now both Ukraine and Russia make this an opportune time for Western governments and nongovernmental institutions to build up new vehicles for helping the dispersed—both as spokespeople for beleaguered cultures and as catalysts for imagining new futures.

The fortification of cultural sectors cannot wait until the bombs stop falling. By investing in cultural institutions while the conflict is still raging, by fostering links between vulnerable cultural sectors and partners around the world, and by spotlighting and protesting the repression of cultural figures, Western countries, arts institutions, and foundations can lay the groundwork for cultural survival.

Putin is learning the hard way in Ukraine that men, machinery, and machismo may not be enough to win a war. At the same time, traditional tools of democracy promotion and defense are faltering in the face of authoritarian expansionism. While a strong culture is not a proxy for national fortitude, it can be a key source of inspiration, faith, and vision for a brighter future. What Ukrainians are fighting for is not just survival or dominance, but identities, ways of life, autonomy, and tradition.

As Russia and China become more zealous in using culture as a weapon, the West and those who believe in open societies must become more adept in mobilizing culture as a wellspring of defense.

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America and a member of Facebook's oversight board. She was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department. Twitter: @SuzanneNossel

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