When Cultural Heritage Becomes a Battlefront

When he first saw the ruined cathedral in 1918, the young writer Georges Bataille hardly knew what he was looking at. He had come home to Reims, whose cathedral had been the site of French coronations for a thousand years. As a boy he had stood in awe of the High Gothic cathedral, its massive rose window, its imposing gallery of kings. Now Bataille was 21, discharged from a brief stint in the French Army, and trying to recognize a cathedral whose roof was gone and whose nave was choked with debris.

Reims Cathedral stood hard by the Western Front, and amid the fathomless violence of World War I, beyond the trenches and away from the gas, the repeated shelling of the cathedral became one of the elemental symbols of its barbarity. French newspapers invoked Reims as proof of German inhumanity. German propaganda blamed France for bringing the destruction on itself.

In recent years I’ve thought too often of Reims’s admonition — a centuries-old monument exploded in minutes, the present betraying the past — when looking at the new cultural ruins of this century. In Afghanistan and Iraq. In Syria, in Armenia, in Ethiopia. Now, up close, in Ukraine.

“Corpses themselves did not mirror death more than did a shattered church,” the young Bataille first thought after seeing the ruins of Reims Cathedral. He might as well have been writing about the Monastery of the Caves, which has stood for centuries in the eastern Ukrainian town of Sviatohirsk — which endured airstrikes, shelling and sniper fire this spring, leaving marble statues shattered and wooden spires burned to the nails.

The shelling of Reims Cathedral became a symbol of the barbarity of World War I.Credit…Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Yet after that first shock, amid the rubble of a century ago, Bataille made an observation about violence and culture that applies as much to Sviatohirsk as to Reims: that rubble can serve as the soil of cultural rebirth. Faith and doubt went together for him, and even the greatest abandonment had a fecundity that defied war. “One should not seek among her stones something belonging to the past and to death,” Bataille came to believe. “In her awful silence flickers a light that transfigures her vision: That light is hope.”

Every army attacks people. A few attack time as well. Over the past six months, with my extraordinary and dogged colleagues from The New York Times’s Visual Investigations team, I’ve been absorbed in the toll of cultural destruction brought on by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We identified 339 buildings, monuments and other cultural sites that the war has partially or totally destroyed. We paid closest attention to four in the Donbas: the industrial, largely Russian-speaking region of eastern Ukraine where a war has been ongoing since 2014. The Sviatohirsk monastery is the most famous and beautiful of them, but we also investigated a Soviet-era cultural center, a bilingual community library and a contemporary military commemoration, all now lost.

“They aim at the most important things: museums, libraries, the things on which we build our authenticity,” said Svitlana Moiseeva, a librarian we spoke to who had fled west from the Donbas.

Some of the cultural sites we documented were destroyed with intent — above all Ukrainian monuments, which have been smashed or dismantled on camera in several Russian-occupied regions. (Targeting cultural sites for destruction is a war crime, per the 1954 Hague Convention of the United Nations, to which both Russia and Ukraine are parties.) Others appeared to be collateral damage. Most of Ukraine’s ravaged cultural sites are like the shelled Reims Cathedral: perhaps not directly targeted, but destroyed with ruthless unconcern.

Over the summer, I’d traveled to liberated towns outside Kyiv. I walked through the wreckage of the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum, which burned down to the studs, and the house of culture in Borodianka, whose tattered theater had once hosted a thriving local arts program. The destruction is even more intense in the east of the country. Working with colleagues to document its scale, watching loop after loop of burning churches and battered archives, one matter became clear: The damage to arts and heritage were the inevitable products of a Russian invasion meant to extinguish a national culture.

A Culture in the Cross Hairs

Russia’s invasion has systematically destroyed Ukrainian cultural sites. A Times investigation has identified 339 that sustained substantial damage this year.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is prosecuting this war to inscribe Ukraine into a “Russian world.” He makes no secret of this. “We are one people,” Mr. Putin wrote in his notorious 2021 essay that negated Ukrainian nationhood and cast Ukrainian art and literature as Russian patrimony. This June, at an exhibition in Moscow, the Russian president explicitly analogized his war to the 18th-century imperial conquests of Peter the Great. Just this past Sunday, in a Russian television interview, he accused foreign adversaries of “aiming to tear apart Russia, the historical Russia.” The point of invading Ukraine, Mr. Putin reiterated, was “to unite the Russian people.”

Language, religion, historical memory: These, as much as territory, are the war’s contemporary battlefields. Against its appalling human cost, its cultural toll may feel insignificant, or luxurious — but culture is in every way a front of this imperial war, and the fate of more nations than one hangs on its defense.

What sort of culture can blossom out of charred ground? Some will have a nationalist, even propagandistic tenor, which is no sin amid a war of aggression. (By the time I got to the house of culture in Irpin in July, the musical group Kalush Orchestra had already filmed its video for “Stefania” — which was this year’s Eurovision Song Contest winner and has become an unofficial war anthem — in the crushed remains of its music hall.)

Ukraine, though, already has an incredible generation of artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians who came of age after the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Maidan revolution: writers like Serhiy Zhadan and Yevgenia Belorusets, artists like Mykola Ridnyi and Anna Scherbyna, who were already forging a new, postcolonial Ukrainian culture from the Donbas’s postindustrial landscape. They are in the vanguard of what we must hope, when this war ends, will be a new cultural settlement that succeeds the imperial violence of the past.

More than Bataille, this coming Ukrainian generation has kept me in mind of another author of humanity in extremes who lived in northern France after a global conflagration. Samuel Beckett, after spending World War II aiding the French Resistance, went to work in a ruined town in Normandy in 1945: a town called Saint-Lô, whose parish church, like Reims Cathedral before it, had crumbled beneath the bombs.

The ruins of Saint-Lô, in World War II.Credit…Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images

Beckett served there as a storekeeper and interpreter at a provisional hospital set up by the Irish Red Cross — and yet, as Beckett wrote in the wreckage, “‘Provisional’ is not the term it was, in this universe become provisional.”

It was in that martyr city, among hollowed houses and numberless casualties, where Beckett’s subtractive vision began to crystallize into a new art of bleak hope. Civilization seemed abandoned. Humanity appeared futureless. Yet somehow, in a wiped-out corner of Normandy, horror and sympathy fused into the existentialism of “Waiting for Godot” and, later, culminated in the black optimism of “Happy Days.”

In our century too — forgive my romanticism, but I really do believe it — there will be a new generation, Ukrainian and not only, to reinitiate our culture in the rubble of war. They will discover in the martyred city of Mariupol what Beckett discovered in Saint-Lô: “a time-honored conception of humanity in ruins, and perhaps even an inkling of the terms in which our condition is to be thought again.”

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