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Assassins of the Mind: How Russia Is Trying to Destroy Ukrainian Culture

This is a guest piece by Anastasiia MarushevskaUkrainian communication & content consultant, writer, speaker, and former director of communications at Reface.

Throughout history, there are many examples of dictatorships, terrorists, and war criminals attacking sites of cultural heritage in an attempt to more quickly conquer societies and erase their cultural identities. For example, the deliberate ethnic cleansing and destruction of libraries and museums during the Bosnian war; the Taliban destroying Buddhist heritage artifacts of Afghanistan; ISIS attacking major religious sites and monuments in Syria and Iraq. Each of these is an effort to erase a unique cultural heritage and demolish any signs of multiculturalism.

“In many instances, those who fetishize holy objects or sacred places are the very ones who exhibit the most depraved indifference to human life.”

Christopher Hitchens

Russian forces in Ukraine are currently employing a similar tactic — they are destroying museums and theaters by calling them “military bases of Azov.” This not new. In Ukraine, we’ve seen both savage attacks on cultural heritage, and deliberate cultural cleansing. For centuries, our intellectuals have been persecuted and assaulted, and our sites of cultural history have been attacked and destroyed by Russia under different rulers. There can be no conversation about Ukraine and Russia being brotherhood nations because we, Ukrainians, have been repeatedly reviving our culture from the ruins of Russian invasions and persecutions.

Holocaust Memorial in Babyi Yar, Kyiv, before and after the Russian invasion in 2022. Photo: BBC.

I was born in the central part of Ukraine in September 1991, a month after we gained independence. My entire family spoke Ukrainian; I never switched to Russian, except in cases where there was no other method of communication. Not because of hatred, but because the Russian language and culture has never been native to me.

I grew up in an environment where education mattered the most. I started to read when I was three, by the age of nine I switched from a public school to what we call a gymnasium — a special (but still free) school where you were expected to excel. And I did excel. My main subjects were Ukrainian language and literature, history, world literature, English, and German. We even had a separate subject called “the literature of the Ukrainian diaspora” that helped us dive deep into the exile of the Ukrainian elite.

The VAPLITE, 1926. Mykola Khvylovy is seated second from left. Photo: Wikipedia.

I came to learn that exile was not the worst scenario. More horrifying were the mass executions of writers, artists, composers, as well as their suicides. One of the most prominent modernist writers of the 1920s and 1930s, Mykola Khvylovy, killed himself in May of 1933 before communists could execute him. He was one of the founders and leaders of the VAPLITE — a literature organization that was among the centers of the Ukrainian renaissance in the 1920s. The main idea of the VAPLITE was the revival of a Ukrainian literature tradition and our nation in general, distancing Ukraine from Russian influence and acquiring the European approach to culture and philosophy.

“It is the psychological Europe that we must focus on. It is Europe that will lead our young art to a great and joyful path to the world goal.”

Mykola Khvylovyy

When you walk through the center of Kyiv, just up from Maidan Square on Institutska Street, you see the beautiful October Palace. In modern Ukraine, we go there to listen to international and Ukrainian music, but during Stalin’s repressive regime, dozens of Ukrainian cultural figures were tortured and killed in its basements. The first ones were the colleagues of Khvylovy from VAPLITE, who were followed by other Ukrainian writers, artists, philosophers, translators, musicians, and performers. Their names go through my head every time I’m near the October Palace: Hryhorii Kosynka, Mykhailo Semenko, Mykola Ivasyuk, Mike Johansen, Ivan and Taras Krushelnytsky. They were supposed to be our Kafkas, Camuses, and Hemingways. Our Dalis, Picassos, and Pollocks. But all that remains is a short period of the active revival of Ukrainian culture — their letters and their crucial ideas that I grew up with.

A few years ago, my friends and I went to an exceptional exhibition in the Ukrainian National Museum. It was dedicated to the Ukrainian composers and artists of the 1960s, who were dissidents — called shistdesyatnyky in Ukrainian. Strolling through the museum’s old corridors with high ceilings, we were exposed to the fascinating works of forgotten Ukrainian artists while listening to the music from the same period. Every new room of the museum was dedicated to a unique topic. In one room, you could hear kitchen-recorded music with voices of people. In another, there was a little orchestra playing various arrangements, many of which were played in Ukraine for the first time in decades. Even though there was no possibility for dissidents to work together and create a real cultural polemic, the themes of their work were aligned with the world’s trends.

Vasyl Stus. Image courtesy of Vasyl Stus Museum and StusCentre

Most of the dissidents survived by hiding their works or by fleeing the Soviet Union. Some of them were in a constant fight with the regime. The poet Vasyl Stus was one of these dissidents. He died in a Russian prison in 1985, never knowing that he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature. Stus has been a symbol of Ukrainian resistance and willpower for several decades now.

“This pain — the alcohol of agony, this sorrow, crystalline and stiff. Try to retype all of your curses, try to rewrite the grief.”

Vasyl Stus

The work of these Ukrainian dissidents continues in independent Ukraine. Prominent writers, musicians, and artists are joining the world’s cultural scene, but with the constant attacks from Russia, it’s hard to sustain.

The Russian invasion of Crimea and Donbas was followed by the attempt at demolishing Ukrainian cultural identity in those regions. The most famous story concerns Izolyatsiia, a former art center and cultural fund, transformed into a prison after the invasion. Ukrainians have been tortured and killed in its walls since the Russian occupation.

Isolyatsiia, Donetsk. On the left — before the Russian invasion of Donbas in 2014. On the right — after the invasion when it was transformed into a prison and concentration camp. Photos: BBS, Ukrainska Pravda

“Assassins of the mind” is a term coined in an essay by Christopher Hitchens, where he described the cultural war that started when Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa on novelist Salman Rushdie. This war continues. After the full-scale Russian invasion into Ukraine this February, Ukrainian movie productions, book publishing, art exhibitions, concerts, competitions, awards, cultural grants, and financial support have mostly stopped. We’ll need years, if not decades, to restart our cultural engine again. Yet I still hear the world fetishizing Russian culture instead of talking about the one that is actually under threat.

I have spent my entire life building a national and cultural identity that is unbreakable. Along with other Ukrainians, we fight against the barbaric methods of the Russian Federation who use the destructive weapons of war in an attempt to destroy our homes and our identity. We are saving our Ukrainian museums and works of art under the shelling of Russian bombs. We cry over ruined theaters and historical buildings. We will never question whether our culture has a right to exist, but somehow, it seems the world keeps questioning whether we should exist at all.

The war with Russia didn’t start in 2022 — it didn’t even start in 2014. Ukraine has been fighting with these assassins of our minds for centuries. Assassins who have never managed to destroy their target, and who never will.