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The invasion of Ukraine is the greatest tragedy of the twenty-first century so far. More than 2000 civilians have died this year at the hands of Russia’s dominant military power. Russia has attempted to take the land and soul of Ukraine, destroying landmarks along with lives. On the fourth day of the Russian invasion, videos of flames engulfing a small museum circulated online. Later, the Ukraine Foreign Ministry tweeted that the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum was burned and several of Maria Prymachenko’s paintings had been destroyed. The loss of this art matters greatly in a crisis like this because Prymachenko’s work has for decades served as a symbol of the country. By destroying this museum, Russia is not only invading the country but also waging war against Ukrainian identity. The former has invaded and ruled over the latter for various periods of time, arguably causing great torment. Culture has allowed Ukrainians to be themselves throughout war and occupation. Without it, they wouldn’t be able to maintain identity and Russia may succeed in making Ukraine a satellite state.
The loss of Maria Prymachenko’s works is especially tragic because of the strong impact they had on art in Ukraine. As a folk artist, she depicted mythological animals and other representations of Ukrainian culture, strongly upholding the country’s traditions. This brought her to fame, earning her recognition both locally and internationally, in addition to praise by the likes of Pablo Picasso. She became one of the most notable Ukrainian artists whose work has been exhibited internationally and featured in national postage stamps and coins. Furthermore, many of Prymachenko’s artworks directly addressed the themes of peace and world solidarity. She was born before the Soviet Union was established, and died several years after Ukraine regained independence. She lived through the good and bad times of her country, which is reflected in her artworks such as “Flowers for peace”, “May that nuclear war be cursed” and “A dove has spread her wings and asks for peace.” Her opposition to war makes the destruction of the museum all the more tragic.
Furthermore, an attack on art and culture is not only the destruction of heritage; it is a dehumanization of the communities who identify themselves with this heritage. It demoralizes and disprits the people who are already devastated by the grueling military assault on their land. American Genocide Museum defines ‘cultural genocide’ as an “act undertaken to destroy nations or ethnic groups’ culture through spirited national and cultural destruction”. In fact, part of Vladimir Putin’s rationale for invading Ukraine is that it belongs to Russia and does not have its own sovereignty or identity. The denial of any type of Ukrainian independence not only
attempts to rewrite history but also erases the existence of their society. If this incident indeed was a deliberate targeted attack on the museum and its artworks, then it can be called an act of cultural genocide. It is a crime against humanity which must be condemned by the international community.
Whether the burning of the museum was intentional or not, though, is uncertain. Some may say that this whole story was propaganda, to make Russia look like destructive villains in this story. In war, people will try to justify their cause and garner sympathy for their own side by distorting information, making their adversary look worse. By claiming that these art pieces were destroyed, Ukraine has managed to gain the support of many people around the world. However, later reports claim that the pieces weren’t actually destroyed, as some villagers risked their own lives and ran into the burning museum to save the paintings, most of which escaped the fire. In war, it is hard to distinguish between truth and lies. Hence, it is very difficult to verify whether the Ukrainian government is being honest or not. We do not know if the fire was intentional or not. Nonetheless, the fire was the result of the invasion, and Russia is therefore at fault.
No matter the circumstances, the news on the destruction of the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum spread quickly in this world of high-speed media. It has sparked debate on the importance of art as the essence of cultural identity, and gained support among artists and activists all over the world. Prymachenko’s artwork was showcased in places like San Francisco and Oakland, California with overwhelming support by the people who show solidarity for Ukraine. Her art has become a universal symbol of hope and peace. It is also an important symbol for her country’s identity specifically, which is all the more valuable right now. It is difficult to ascertain truth from lies and propaganda from objective commentary. However, the root cause of the fire that destroyed the museum was the invasion. Therefore, the Russian military is still accountable for the attack on Ukrainian identity. In its invasion, Russia has threatened not just lives but also the souls of the citizens in order to exterminate any sign of Ukrainian independence. The world has a duty to recognize Ukrainian independence and support them through this crisis.