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NIAS Europe Studies
Russia’s imperial ambitions: Suppressing Ukraine’s Culture

  Akshaya S

Ukraine’s culture, music, dance, folklore and national clothes are distinct and unique from that of Russia.

What happened?
Russia has a long history of suppressing and undermining the Ukrainian language and culture, and its recent materialisation into a textual medium at the hands of Putin is crucial towards understanding the motives behind the war. Putin’s essay titled On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians (2021), not only revealed imperial ambitions but also outlined the historical basis for the oneness of Russians and Ukrainians. In the essay, Putin firmly asserts that a separate Ukrainian identity is nothing but an artificial invention which is being increasingly used by the West to weaken Russia. He questions the legitimacy of Ukraine’s present-day borders. To Putin, Ukraine is an integral part of Russian culture and ‘Kievan Rus’ which drifted afar over time towards the West and he insists on wresting it back into Russia’s orbit.

Such a primordial position about culture ignores reality and creates a sort of ‘historical fiction.’ Ukraine’s culture, music, dance, folklore and national clothes are distinct and unique from that of Russia.

To assert Russian preponderance symbolically, Russian flags were installed along the highways leading to Mariupol and even the large sign which announces the city’s name was repainted with the colours red, white and blue of the Russian flag. As of August 2022, more than 450 cultural sites have been damaged and reduced to rubble since the invasion, and among them include places of cultural importance like religious sites, museums, historic buildings, cultural facilities, monuments, statues and libraries (US Embassy Tbilisi, 2022). Russian forces have also looted museums in Mariupol and Melitopol, having stolen more than 2,000 works of art and valuable gold objects respectively (US Embassy Tbilisi, 2022).

Major issues for 2023
The following five issues could be identified for 2023.

1. Increasing assertions by Ukraine over identity and culture
According to an opinion poll published by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), an unprecedented 85 per cent of Ukrainians identified themselves as citizens of Ukraine and did not associate themselves with other identifiers such as place of residence, ethnic group, religion, language, etc (Palikot, 2022). A clear majority of respondents refused to identify themselves with Russia and the Russian culture, albeit the older generations seemed to retain more connections as a result of having lived during the Soviet era. Sentiments of disentanglement from the Russian culture are not restricted to the Ukrainian people alone since many ethnic Russians in the areas now controlled by Moscow have begun to speak in the Ukrainian language as a sign of personal protest and disgust towards the devastating and unnecessary war. The Ukrainian society is also being reshaped from a religious perspective as the possibility for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to sever and break its ties altogether with the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church has become increasingly feasible. Comments by Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, have angered the populace of Ukraine since he depicted the war as ‘an apocalyptic battle against evil forces determined to break the God-given unity of Holy Russia’ (Dettmer, 2022). As a result, a schism between the two religious institutions has manifested resulting in more than 150 parishes defecting from the larger Moscow Patriarchate to a smaller Kyiv-based Orthodox Church. There have been reports of groups of Ukrainian people ripping apart hundreds of Russian books, including the works of Tolstoy, Mayakovski and Dostoevsky, and other Russian literature (The Economist, 2023). Thus, in the face of an existential enemy who threatens to decimate the entire state, feelings of national identity and unity have witnessed a historic rise in Ukraine. Such events cement the argument that Ukraine’s identity will definitely outlive the war and forge a renewed sense of Ukrainian nationalism.

2. Increasing sense of nationalism leading to positive consequences in the Ukraine War.
As witnessed at the very initial stages of the invasion, the Ukrainian forces refused to back down or be intimidated by the Russian armed soldiers even though they were outgunned, underequipped and outnumbered. Such high levels of patriotism and national unity could play a significant role in enhancing motivation and morale among the Ukrainian combatants to defend their country against hostile forces. Coupled with financial aid, defense systems, armoured tanks and weapons from Ukraine’s Western allies, the country will indubitably possess an edge over the unmotivated Russian forces on the protracted battlefield.

3. Russia will be unable annex Ukraine
Moscow’s gross misevaluation regarding the prevalence of pro-Russian sentiments and the level of support a Russian invasion would receive from the citizens of Ukraine has cost them enormously and continues to tarnish their reputation in the international system. Putin failed to accept and view Ukraine for what it represents—a progressive country which espouses democratic values, principles of freedom from invasion and integrity of nation-state borders— political values very different from its own.

4. New legislations by Ukraine
Akin to the flurry of laws which were passed after the forceful annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in 2014, the Ukrainian government could actively pass laws which strongly consolidate Ukrainian identity as a distinct and independent entity and resist aggression after the end of the war (Levchenko, 2022). Such laws are vital towards facilitating a process of healing, peacebuilding and strengthening destroyed human relationships. Towards this end, the government can develop a state policy of national unity which guarantees the involvement of Ukrainian citizens of varying ethnic backgrounds and identities (Levchenko, 2022). This can fasten the process of community peacebuilding and efforts towards rebuilding the country which has been at the brunt of large-scale destruction due to Russia’s incessant assault.

5. Securing and preserving Ukraine’s heritage
Numerous efforts by the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine and teams of Ukrainian preservation experts have been underway since the onset of the war to trace monuments with 3-D scanners and store a virtual record, should there be any need to recreate them in the future (Farago, 2022). An example of such an initiative is Backup Ukraine, a joint effort which was launched by UNESCO and Blue Shield Denmark. Despite the presence of international conventions like the 1954 Hague Convention and the 1972 UNESCO Convention concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage—both emphasising the need to safeguard and preserve cultural heritage and traditions for future generations—this war makes it very clear that Putin is willing to ignore them deliberately in order to erase any remnant of a separate Ukrainian identity.. Thus, such recreation and preservation efforts will be of extreme importance for the Ukrainians whose culture is increasingly under siege by Russian forces.

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