From the start of Russia’s aggressive war in Ukraine, the importance of protecting the country’s cultural heritage was obvious to the international community.
“We must safeguard the cultural heritage in Ukraine, as a testimony of the past but also as a catalyst for peace and cohesion for the future,” Audrey Azoulay, the Director-General of UNESCO, the UN’s cultural protection agency, said at the start of the conflict.
Nearly a year onwards, international organizations and most prominently Aliph, Blue shield and CER have tried hard, yet the challenges and the devastating effects of war continue unabated. Recently, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted after a phone call with the Ecumenical Patriarch, the first among equals of the Eastern Orthodox Church, that more than 200 churches have so far been destroyed by Russia since the beginning of the invasion.
Why is it that with so much being lost, Zelenskyy -himself a member of Ukraine’s Jewish community- is forcefully pointing out the wilful destruction of Ukraine’s religious sites?
Heritage, be it in the form of monuments, customs, stories, songs, old photos or other, constitutes an important part of our identity, who we think we are, our language, the groups we associate ourselves with, whom we consider kin, friend or foe. Our sensation that we share views about heritage with others gives us the feeling that we have a shared identity, makes us feel we belong somewhere. It is for that reason that heritage is the cornerstone of who we are, how we feel about ourselves, and our affiliations.
Heritage that is purportedly shared with others gains in importance and influence. If a society is a group of people that is conscious of having at least one thing in common, then a society that identifies itself as a group because of its shared heritage would consider that heritage as crucial for its existence. Historically, nations do that; they refer to a shared heritage, be it imagined or real, that defines them as a group. And that national heritage becomes a crucial reference point for all members of that nation. In the 19th century and many times since, heritage has been used to define, but also to exclude. So heritage, be it the exploits of Alexander, the Crescent and the Star, the city of Kiev, the 1389 battle of Kosovo, and so on has not only been used to define people and make them proud, it has also been used to exclude others, despite the fact that it did not have to.
Religion, like the nation, refers to a belief system that people are consciously sharing; they are therefore defined by it as individuals or as members of social groups. A religion and its key figures are figures that are greater than the self. They are therefore crucial risk adaptation mechanisms. God will always be there irrespective of the calamity that has befallen a society. Calamities indeed often are explained through religion, but, more important, the days that follow a calamity are often managed through religion. A religious site is a site that a particular religious belief system considers as important. It usually is a site that concentrates people, either because it is a site where regular religious rituals take place; because it is a pilgrimage site, a site where people are moving through or towards in order to fulfill a religious purpose; or because it is a site that is significant in the narrative of that religion (or all of the above). These sites are often vested with great importance, because they are significant in that belief system. And in case of a disaster, religious sites are sites of refuge, sites where people can find peace, where they can plan their next day, gather and continue the thread of society. There is a significant body of research, especially in the scholarship on aphasia, Alzheimer’s and storytelling, that shows how material objects, buildings or other, are great focusing points for storytelling.* In religious belief systems, religious sites are important nodes for storytelling, they are gathering sites that reconfirm social structures and norms, they are important places to connect with something that is greater than the individual, that also confirms the identity of that individual as a part of society (as that is defined here as a group of people that is conscious of having at least one thing in common).
The destruction of a site of national importance or of a site that has religious importance is not only an attack on humanity’s treasures. It is not only an affront to the international community, the treasures of human genius as some organizations would like to put it or, ultimately, our self-indulgence. It is an irreparable damage to the social groups that are defined by these sites. It is a destruction of the very foundations of their identity and therefore of their being. This often happens in times of war; climatic disasters can bring this about, too.
This is tantamount to what is called cultural genocide, attempting to eradicate from the face of this planet the testimony of a people, of a religious group. What I am arguing here, however, is that this is not about testimony. It is not about memory. It is about identity. Imagine for instance ourselves, in what we call the West, who have been raised as appreciating as a cornerstone of our existence, our civil liberties. Imagine a world with no civil liberties. We have already been given elements of a taste of that. Now imagine these civil liberties to be taken away forever and our never having the opportunity to rebuild them. What sort of world would we give to our children? What would life be like? Now imagine groups of people whose religious sites have been taken away, have been demolished, or given to another religion irrevocably. Imagine people destroying your gods. Who will protect you in times of danger, how will you teach your children how things used to be, how will a new normal come about in times of crisis? This is not about social diversity, human genius, the education of our children: this destruction is a severe, irrevocable blow to the foundations of who people are, what they live for, how they want to raise their families. Destroying heritage does that.
Finally, given that heritage sites often live for thousands of years, the systematic destruction of heritage that some parties follow through the course of decades is something that must be on the one hand seen in its totality (like the effects of hundreds of years of natural erosion on a building is seen altogether) but also be recognized as a conscious, systematic attack against the principles at the foundations of humanity (of every regime). It is a crime that most instances of genocide pale against. It is not only wiping people from the face of the earth. It is making sure they never come back. It is making sure that not even shadows exist in the underworld. Unfortunately, this last most hideous of crimes goes unnoticed and, even worse, unpunished.
Dr. Evangelos Kyriakidis is the founding Director of the Heritage Management Organization.
* Zeisel, J. I’m Still Here: A New Philosophy of Alzheimer’s Care (2009)
*This article was first published in St. John’s University School of Law’s Law and Religion Forum and was slightly adapted to address recent development following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February ‘22.