Argument

Russia’s Imperial Arrogance Is Destroying Ukrainian Heritage

The Kremlin believes it’s the true heir of classical civilization—and is poised to replicate its pillage of Syria in Ukraine under the guise of cultural preservation.

A man walks through Mariupol, Ukraine.
A man walks through Mariupol, Ukraine.
A man walks through the destroyed historic city center of Mariupol, Ukraine, on April 12. Maximilian Clarke/LightRocket via Getty Images
By , an academic at the Monterey Initiative in Russian Studies , and , on the faculty of sociology at the University of Virginia, where she co-directs the CURIA Lab.

Country-404: a reference to the internet’s “404 Page Not Found” error—is what pro-war Russians have dubbed Ukraine. The ghoulish joviality of this nickname is a startling representation of a broader insistence among Russian politicians and propagandists that Ukraine has no right to exist.

In his statement on Ukraine on Feb. 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin asserted that Ukraine is an illegitimate country that exists on land that’s historically and rightfully Russian: “Ukraine actually never had stable traditions of real statehood,” Putin claimed. Such comments built on a 2021 essay, where Putin described Ukraine in its legally recognized borders as an “anti-Russia project” and denied Ukrainians’ existence as an independent people. The Russian military promptly included this essay on their list of mandatory works to study.

Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, some analysts still believe the world can end Russia’s war on Ukraine by agreeing to territorial concessions or constitutional amendments. This is naive at best. Russian political leaders have made it perfectly clear that their aim is to destroy the very idea of Ukraine as an independent and sovereign entity with its own identity. That is why they are targeting important cultural sites as well as slaughtering innocent civilians.

A man walks through Mariupol, Ukraine.

A man walks through the destroyed historic city center of Mariupol, Ukraine, on April 12.Maximilian Clarke/LightRocket via Getty Images

Country-404: a reference to the internet’s “404 Page Not Found” error—is what pro-war Russians have dubbed Ukraine. The ghoulish joviality of this nickname is a startling representation of a broader insistence among Russian politicians and propagandists that Ukraine has no right to exist.

In his statement on Ukraine on Feb. 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin asserted that Ukraine is an illegitimate country that exists on land that’s historically and rightfully Russian: “Ukraine actually never had stable traditions of real statehood,” Putin claimed. Such comments built on a 2021 essay, where Putin described Ukraine in its legally recognized borders as an “anti-Russia project” and denied Ukrainians’ existence as an independent people. The Russian military promptly included this essay on their list of mandatory works to study.

Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, some analysts still believe the world can end Russia’s war on Ukraine by agreeing to territorial concessions or constitutional amendments. This is naive at best. Russian political leaders have made it perfectly clear that their aim is to destroy the very idea of Ukraine as an independent and sovereign entity with its own identity. That is why they are targeting important cultural sites as well as slaughtering innocent civilians.

Maria Prymachenko was a much-loved 20th-century Ukrainian folk artist. After capturing the town of Ivankiv, to the northwest of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, on Feb. 27, Russian troops destroyed the museum there that housed her works. Much farther east, the Russian army shelled numerous cultural buildings in Kharkiv, known as Ukraine’s university city because it boasts some 42 institutes of higher education. The Russians heavily damaged the Kharkiv National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre and the Kharkiv Philharmonic Society, located in Freedom Square. Nearby, Russian missiles smashed out the windows of Kharkiv’s famous Korolenko State Scientific Library, one of Europe’s largest, and damaged a grand piano that Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff once played.

As the final anecdote suggests, it is somewhat paradoxical that Russia should target cultural icons in those parts of Ukraine it shares so much cultural history with. Putin’s argument that Ukrainians are not a separate people rests on the premise that both Russians and Ukrainians descend from Kyivan Rus and are bound together by a historical language and Orthodox faith. In his 2021 essay, Putin even cites the prophet Oleg, calling Kyiv “the mother of all Russian cities.” Why then would Russia destroy what it deems to be the cradle of its own civilization?

The Kremlin has had relatively little hesitation in destroying Ukrainian cultural treasures because there is a long-standing imperial arrogance among Russian elites that manifests itself as a sense of ownership over other cultures and as having the right to rebuild or reconstruct these cultures in its own image.

Putin has steadily invested in a vision that goes back 2,000 years and more in a sweep of geography and culture that posits Russia as the one true heir to Europe’s classical civilizations.

This ownership is based on an aggrieved and messianic sense of history that has bequeathed Russia the moral right to defend what it sees as historical truth. The most obvious source for this dispensation stems, in the Russian perspective, from the Soviet victory over Nazism in World War II, but it expands much further than that. Thomas Bagger, a high-ranking foreign-policy advisor for the German government, put it this way in an interview with the New York Times: “We did not realize that Putin had spun himself into a historical mythology and was thinking in categories of a 1,000-year empire.”

One thousand years might be an understatement: Arguably, Putin has steadily invested in a vision that goes back 2,000 years and more in a sweep of geography and culture that posits Russia as the one true heir to Europe’s classical civilizations. Nowhere is this more striking than in Syria, where, among the ruins, one can trace a painful picture of what awaits Ukraine.


Russian conductor Valery Gergiev leads a concert.

Russian conductor Valery Gergiev leads a concert in the amphitheater of the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria on May 5, 2016.VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP via Getty Images

With Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unwilling or unable to rebuild his country and the international community busy elsewhere, Russia anointed itself Syria’s savior. In some ways, this position continues the close Soviet-Syria relationship from the 1980s. But the current iteration has notable differences; for example, Putin’s government has played an intense and specific role in taking control of Syria’s physical cultural assets. In this way, Russia declares itself an imperial guardian in much the same way that European colonial powers once took thousands of artifacts from Asia and Africa for preservation in European museums.

Russian cultural experts insist that the damage in Syria was so extensive that ancient structures can only be rebuilt by incorporating significant portions of new materials. That diagnosis has gone unchallenged by the international community—as has the Russian goal of rebuilding.

With reconstruction the main (or only) agenda for postwar Syria, Russian officials can clear the old rubble to make room for the new. Much of that rubble goes to Russia, ostensibly for restoration but also for display. The physical presence of columns and statuary is offered as evidence that Russia is the new custodian of the Greco-Roman legacy. This is modern spolia, or “spoils,” the practice of reusing architectural and decorative materials for new structures. Russian spolia is a display of captive treasure that boasts of the country’s military and civilizational power and reach.

The standout example is Palmyra, once a cosmopolitan city on the Euphrates and celebrated for its Greco-Roman art and architecture. Palmyra and the adjacent modern city of Tadmur, Syria, suffered heavy losses during the Syrian war. The Islamic State damaged or destroyed artifacts that it deemed heretical. Russian and Syrian airstrikes brought further devastation. Russian officials insisted that their airstrikes targeted Islamic State fighters, but local residents described indiscriminate bombardment that killed civilians, leveled hospitals and schools, and damaged ancient structures.

Russia painted itself as central to the Palmyra’s liberation, forgetting to also tell its audiences at home and in the West about how Russian airstrikes played a key role in city’s destruction.

In 2016, Russia celebrated its victory over the Islamic State in Tadmur with a classical music concert in the ancient amphitheater in Palmyra, on the same stage where Islamic State militants executed Syrian soldiers in a gruesome public performance the previous year. Unsurprisingly, Russia painted itself as central to the city’s liberation, forgetting to also tell its audiences at home and in the West about how Russian airstrikes played a key role in Palmyra’s destruction.

Since then, Russia has claimed to be the leading figure in Palmyra’s reconstruction, taking every opportunity to laud its moral superiority and decry the West’s failure to contribute to these efforts. But some Syrians have noted that Russia is merely repairing what it destroyed—and only a small part of that.

In 2019, Russia announced a partnership with Syrian authorities to rebuild the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Palmyra. It created a blockbuster exhibition at the State Hermitage Museum—Russia’s largest and most famous museum, which happens to be in Putin’s hometown. The “Two Palmyras” show conflates the cities of St. Petersburg, Russia, and Palmyra through the past and present, making the case that St. Petersburg’s history is intimately bound up with the glories of classical Palmyra.

Historical analogies like the Two Palmyras permeated Russian state-aligned media’s coverage of the Syrian conflict from the very beginning, when the military intervention was described primarily in geopolitical terms. State television celebrated military success in Syria as evidence that Russia was a global power once again, reprising its lost Soviet superpower status. Russian audiences were told repeatedly that Russia had retaken its seat at the top table, where it was offering a new geopolitical vision, one that built on Soviet soft power but prioritized traditional values, authoritarian models of government, and so-called sovereignty rather than communism.

The importance of restoring and protecting culture to Russia’s aggrandizing self-perception unites its behavior in Ukraine and Syria. For example, another Palmyrene monument, the Arch of Triumph, continues to attract considerable Russian interest. In the early phases of what Russia dubbed its “special military operation” in Ukraine, one way the media distracted from the obvious failure to take Kyiv in three days was by focusing on a group of St. Petersburg specialists who were rebuilding Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph. It also drew attention away from Russian atrocities in cities like Mariupol, Ukraine.


A photographer holds his photo of the Arch of Triumph.

A photographer holds his photo of the Arch of Triumph from March 14, 2014, in front of the remains of the historic monument after it was destroyed by the Islamic State in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra on March 31, 2016.JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images

At the end of March, major Russian news channels covered in minute and self-congratulatory detail the work of the St. Petersburg team in returning “to humanity” the lost symbol of the arch, destroyed by the Islamic State. The news correspondents emphasized the specialists’ close attention to detail and tireless efforts, underscoring Russian benevolence in defending heritage for all humankind. Palmyra is not just a distraction, however, but also a model: Russian authorities later announced the twinning of Mariupol with St. Petersburg, declaring the latter would be responsible for the reconstruction of what now remains of the Ukrainian port city.

Russian state media use these projects to emphasize Russia’s moral correctness, but there is also an unmistakably chauvinistic undertone, as the presenters say that only Russia is developed enough to possess the expertise and technology required to perform the work—unlike Syria and its neighbors. There are parallels in this rhetoric to the language used by British and European Union museums to present themselves as better equipped than non-Western museums to conserve and display artifacts.

Such coverage also fits into a larger narrative, where Russia is the defender of the past. In this binary view of the world, Russia is the protector of heritage and culture and those against it are also against history—whether they be terrorists, Ukraine, or the West. For example, in Ukraine, Russian media has long argued it is fighting those who rewrite history and wish Nazis had won World War II. There is a long-standing Russian political obsession that others are trying to falsify, destroy, or revise history. Such preoccupations extend into the highest reaches of Russia’s political elites, as reflected in government doctrine. The Kremlin’s 2021 National Security Strategy mentions history and memory alone almost 30 times, highlighting the existential importance placed on Russia’s need to control historical narratives.

In many ways, this need to be the victor taking the cultural spoils or the winner writing so-called kind histories is central to the Kremlin’s vision of Russia and its rights to a sphere of influence—even when it entails invading and destroying other countries. Ideas and emotions have been overlooked as driving forces of Russian behavior in favor of discussions on NATO expansion or unmet security guarantees. Prior to the war in Ukraine, experts even explained Russia’s interest in Syrian antiquities as the Kremlin’s effort to normalize relations with the West.

Now, we know better. Russia isn’t interested in normalizing relations with the West. It wants to bypass the necessity of those relations and establish its own historical trajectory.

This vision of Russia is intended as a stark contrast to the supposedly amoral and generic Americanized culture that has (allegedly) taken over modern Europe’s moral compass and identity. From 2015 to 2016, Russian media and politicians depicted the West as hypocritical, secretly supporting the Islamic State, undermining brave Russian soldiers, and neglecting their moral duty to Christians. Palmyra was central to this argument, with the cultural heritage site woven into a narrative combining Islamic State barbarity, Western absence, and Russian cultural superiority.

This narrative is now being deftly folded into Russia’s war on Ukraine. Amid the massacres in Bucha and Mariupol these claims to the historical and moral high ground sound obscene to most foreigners but not to many Russians domestically—and for several reasons. First, this self-aggrandizing narrative is an act of propaganda and disinformation that distracts from Russian damage in Syria and Ukraine, reinforcing the notion that Russia only ever does good and casting doubt on accusations of atrocities.

Second, by portraying itself as the savior of Palmyra, Russia can argue it is defending universal values, even as it wages a campaign against them at home and abroad, using the broken artifacts of deeply damaged communities as a staging ground for its geopolitical ambitions. Third, the Kremlin’s own claims to legitimacy rely heavily on tracing the right historical antecedents, as there is little to nothing it can offer its people in the present or future. As such, it needs to be able to seize control of history as much as possible to better feed it into the Kremlin’s own narratorial grinder.

There are important lessons here relating to the Russian government’s skill in declaring itself the savior of the very cultures it has destroyed before rebuilding the artifacts in such a way as to enhance its own greatness and diminish or even conceal the original culture. Although the Kremlin may mimic the language of cultural preservation, its efforts are better read as propaganda at best and a disguise for cultural destruction at worst.

Jade McGlynn is an academic at the Monterey Initiative in Russian Studies specializing in Russian memory politics and the author of the forthcoming book The Kremlin’s Memory Makers. Twitter: @DrJadeMcGlynn

Fiona Greenland is on the faculty of sociology at the University of Virginia, where she co-directs the CURIA Lab. She studies cultural heritage and restitution. She is the author of Ruling Culture: Art Police, Tomb Robbers, and the Rise of Cultural Power in Italy.

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