The cost to Ukraine in lives lost and worlds destroyed is unimaginable. The idea that these same people may be losing irreplaceable parts of their history only compounds this unfathomable tragedy.
As a historian, my research and writing build on the efforts of previous generations to record their present and preserve the relics of their past. That any historical record has survived Eastern Europe’s long history of turmoil is nothing short of a miracle. The archives, like the people in the region, have been repeatedly displaced and destroyed. Russia’s current war against Ukraine is yet another example of this long history of invasions and conquests.
The destruction of archives in the current war in Ukraine is especially painful to contemplate, given the difficult history these records have already endured. Consider the documents related to the Great Famine of 1932-33 (Holodomor), stored in the Ukrainian state archives in kyiv, which have survived both the repressive regime of Stalin and the damage during the Nazi encirclement of the city during the First Battle of kyiv in 1941. If the city passes into Russian hands, the only place in the former Soviet Union where investigators could freely access the records of the Soviet special services (KGB) will disappear.
Also at risk are relics of the past, such as the splendid Saint Sophia Cathedral in kyiv, founded in the 11th century, at the dawn of the medieval Kievan Rus’ principality, in which both Ukraine and Russia have since traced their origins.
This monument of Byzantine architecture survived the Mongol invasion, the Russian revolution and the artillery fire and bombing of World War II, among other cataclysms. The artifacts and records that have suffered so much to reach us in the present are at risk of disappearing without a trace, especially since Ukraine has lacked the necessary resources to protect them from destruction through technologies such as extensive digitization of historical archives.
To destroy churches, artifacts, or records is also to inflict new violence on those who were silenced, abused, or mistreated in the past. Vladimir Putin has already tried to impose a related form of abuse at home.
Last year, the notorious international rights group Memorial, which maintained lists of political prisoners that included victims of “unproven charges based on fabricated evidence due to their religious affiliation,” was unceremoniously shut down in Russia. While these records have not been physically destroyed, Putin’s actions amount to a profound effort to erase the histories of human experience and, more specifically, suffering.
Like most places in the world, Ukraine has had a complicated history, not always a heroic one. Generations of people of multiple ethnicities (Jews, Ukrainians, Poles) have lived in the territory of present-day Ukraine, participating in its history as perpetrators and victims. Poles and Ukrainians who disputed the lands inhabited by both groups killed 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 deals with the devil in World War II: almost 100,000 of them signed up 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 that appeared to be targeting a nearby television tower.
In 1941, SS troops and local collaborators shot and buried more than 34,000 Jews (mostly women and children) there. Subsequently, both the Nazis and the Soviets denied his murder. It took until 1991 for a Holocaust memorial to be erected on the site although, as Jewish historian Jeffrey Veidlinger writes, different stakeholders have also come forward “to erect their own memorials to other ethnic, religious, political, and demographic groups.” killed at Babi Yar, making the site “as contentious as the war itself.” As Kyiv comes under artillery fire, the bones of those killed at Babyn Yar could end up burning again.
Ukraine is a place where evidence of past crimes, acts of heroism and everyday life requires extraordinary efforts to be preserved. In this region, burying the past has always been politically expedient, as has it been unearthing it and manipulating it accordingly. Both local populations and the governments that governed them have engaged with the past in complicated ways, and their efforts to hide or reveal elements of the region’s history have left a deep imprint on Ukraine’s cultural landscape and archives.
History, we have been repeatedly told in recent weeks, will judge Putin harshly for his actions in Ukraine. Those who take solace in these words, I fear, confuse history with a divine arbiter who is otherwise sorely absent. History alone does not judge, punish or forgive, not if the records of the past are allowed to perish. Without them, alternative ways of living and governing will be hard to imagine, and the present will appear as an inevitable culmination of the past. In a world that has no access to its history, nothing will stand in the way of men who feel omnipotent and immortal.
Efforts to evacuate and preserve cultural heritage and historical artifacts are already underway in Ukraine. In Lviv, workers from the local museum have built scaffolding around altarpieces in the city’s medieval and Renaissance churches. Curators in kyiv have barricaded themselves inside cellars along with works of art they salvaged from missile strikes. In Ivankiv, a man ran into the local museum to pull artwork out of the flames.
Elsewhere, locals are working around the clock to cover stained glass windows with plywood and aluminum, and to protect statues with sandbags. These people are making heroic efforts, but they are doing so with limited resources and in an improvised manner. In Lviv, priceless cultural artifacts have been packed inside cartons formerly used to transport bananas, and locals are wrapping statues with materials bought from home improvement stores.
Meanwhile, various international organizations (from the European Commission to the Polish Committee for Aid to Ukrainian Museums, to the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Laboratory at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville) have mobilized to support these efforts. More than a thousand international volunteers have formed a group Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online to “identify and archive at-risk sites, digital content and data 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 destruction during the war, such as the famous Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) program, also known as “the Monuments Men.” Established in 1943, the organization tracked down more than 5 million looted cultural objects.
Aside from this, there were also lesser-known grassroots initiatives to record everyday life and document crimes against civilians in WWII Europe. Perhaps the greatest of these was Polish-Jewish historian Emanuel Ringelblum’s effort to document life inside the Warsaw ghetto by compiling diaries and documents, and commissioning other ghetto residents to write about his experiences. These documents were stored inside milk cans and hidden in basements throughout the Warsaw Ghetto, where they were rediscovered in 1946.
The destruction of written records may not always elicit the same emotional response as the loss of a beautiful medieval church or an 11th-century statue of Christ. However, they are no less important traces of the past of a people,
Anyone who has ever worked in an archive can confirm that documents tell powerful stories, not only through the text but also through the way they feel, look and smell. They remind the historian of both the fragility of human life and the tremendous power of memory.
That is why it is so crucial that archive collections be evacuated from besieged areas in Ukraine. In many places, especially in western Ukraine, it may not be too late to digitize archival materials. However, even in peacetime, the archivists in the Ukraine lacked resources.
As the battle for their homeland continues, we cannot expect them to save Ukraine’s historical records on their own, without substantial financial support from abroad. Their efforts are certainly heroic. But they are, at the end of the day, only human.