Ukraine’s toll in lives lost and worlds destroyed is unimaginable. The idea that these same people could lose irreplaceable pieces of their history only compounds this unfathomable tragedy.
As a historian, my research and writing builds on the efforts of previous generations to record their present and preserve the relics of their past. That historical records have survived Eastern Europe’s long history of turmoil is nothing short of a miracle. The archives, like the inhabitants of the region, have been repeatedly moved and destroyed. Russia’s current war against Ukraine is another example of this long history of invasions and conquests.
This monument of Byzantine architecture survived the Mongol invasion, the Russian Revolution and the artillery fire and bombardment of World War II, among other cataclysms. Artifacts and documents that have gone through so much to reach us in the present are once again at risk of disappearing without a trace, especially since Ukraine lacks the resources to protect them from destruction through technologies such as large-scale digitization of historical archives.
To destroy churches, artifacts or archives is also to inflict new violence on those who have been silenced, abused, wronged in the past. Vladimir Putin has already tried to impose a related form of abuse on him.
Last year, the renowned international rights group Memorial
who kept lists of political prisoners including victims of “unproven accusations based on fabricated evidence due to their religious affiliation
was unceremoniously closed in Russia. While this archive was not physically destroyed, Putin’s actions represent a profound effort to erase the stories of human experience and, more specifically, suffering.
Like most places in the world, Ukraine has had a complicated, not always heroic history. Generations of people of multiple ethnicities – Jews, Ukrainians, Poles – have lived on the territory of today’s Ukraine, participating in its history as perpetrators and victims. Poles and Ukrainians quarreling over the territorial claims of the two inhabited groups massacred each other on several occasions.
Millions of Ukrainians, mostly peasants, lost their lives in the Great Famine that followed Stalin’s collectivization campaign in the 1930s. Some Ukrainians made a pact with the devil during World War II: nearly than 100,000 of them enlisted in the Waffen-SS
as volunteers, helping Nazi Germany purge the region of Jews.
One of the places that best reflects this complicated history is Babyn Yar,
the site of a Holocaust massacre on the outskirts of kyiv, which earlier this month was badly damaged by a russian missile
who seemed target
a relative television tower
In 1941, more than 34,000 Jews (mostly women and children) were shot and buried there by the two SS troops and local collaborators
. Their murder was later denied by the Nazis and the Soviets. It took until 1991
for a Holocaust memorial to be erected at the site even though, as Jewish historian Jeffrey Veidlinger writes, different stakeholders have also “stepped forward to erect their own memorials to other ethnic, religious, political and demographic assassinated in Babi Yar”, which makes the place “as controversial as the war itself.
“As kyiv falls under artillery fire, the bones of the dead at Babyn Yar may end up burning again.
Ukraine is a place where evidence of past crimes, acts of heroism and daily life requires extraordinary efforts to preserve. In this region, burying the past has always been politically expedient, as has digging it up and handling it appropriately. Local people and the governments that ruled them engaged with the past in complicated ways – and their efforts to hide or reveal elements of the region’s history left a deep imprint on the cultural landscape and records of the region. Ukraine.
History, we have been told repeatedly in recent weeks, will judge Putin harshly for his shares in Ukraine
. Those who find solace in these words, I fear, confuse the story with a divine arbiter who is otherwise painfully absent. History alone does not judge, punish or forgive – not if the records of the past must perish. Without them, alternative ways of life and government will become difficult to imagine, and the present will appear as an inevitable outcome of the past. In a world that has no access to its history, nothing will stand in the way of men who feel both omnipotent and immortal.
Efforts to evacuate and preserve cultural heritage and historical artifacts are already underway in Ukraine. In Lviv, employees of the local museum built scaffolding around the altarpieces
in the medieval and Renaissance churches of the city. kyiv curators have barricaded themselves in basements with the works of art they saved from missile strikes. In Ivankiv, a man ran into the local museum to pull the artwork out of the flames
Elsewhere, residents work around the clock to clad the stained-glass windows with plywood and aluminum, and to barricade statues with sandbags.
These people are making heroic efforts, but they are doing it with limited means and in an improvised way. In Lviv, priceless cultural artifacts have been packed into boxes once used to carry bananas, and locals are packing statues with materials purchased from home improvement stores.
At the same time, several international organizations (from the European Commission to the Polish Committee for Aid to Museums in Ukraine
to the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Laboratory at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville)
mobilized to support these efforts. Just one more thousand international volunteers
formed a Safeguarding Ukrainian cultural heritage online
group to “identify and archive sites, digital content and data at risk in Ukrainian cultural heritage institutions while the country is under attack”.
These initiatives are reminiscent of World War II campaigns to save European works of art from wartime destruction, such as the famous Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) programme, also known as “Men’s Monuments
.” Established in 1943, the organization has tracked down more than 5 million looted cultural objects.
Apart from this, there were also lesser known grassroots initiatives to record daily life and document crimes against civilians during WWII in Europe. Perhaps the greatest of these is Polish-Jewish historian Emanuel Ringelblum’s effort to document life inside the Warsaw ghetto by collecting diaries and documents, and charging other residents from the ghetto to write about their experiences. These documents were stored in milk cans and hidden in cellars all over the world. Warsaw Ghetto
where they were rediscovered in 1946.
The destruction of written documents does not always evoke the same emotional reaction as the loss of a beautiful medieval church or an 11th century statue of Christ. Yet these are no less important traces of a people’s past,
Anyone who has ever worked in an archive can confirm that documents tell powerful stories, not just through text, but also through how they feel, look and smell. They remind the historian of both the fragility of human life and the tremendous power of memory.
This is why it is so crucial that archival collections be evacuated from besieged areas in Ukraine. In many places, especially in western Ukraine, it may not be too late to digitize archival documents. However, even in peacetime, archivists in Ukraine lacked resources.
As the battle for their homeland continues, we cannot expect them to save Ukraine’s historical archives on their own, without substantial outside financial support. Their efforts are indeed heroic. But they are, in the end, only humans.