Artists and Museums Can Help Ukraine Deny Putin Victory

  • National Newswatch

A month ago, even as the world was struggling to right itself from a pandemic that has already claimed six million lives, Russian president Vladimir Putin decided it was a good time to rain fire on the people of Ukraine.To say that the strongman of St. Petersburg miscalculated is an understatement. Russia's economy is on the verge of collapse, its military has suffered losses that have exposed its soft (non-nuclear) underbelly, and the country's leadership, along with many of its institutions, are now global pariahs.Having been denied the quick victory his intelligence services had promised, Putin, like a desperate gambler playing with house money, instructed his generals to double down on their attacks on civilians.Now, in addition to missile strikes against hospitals, schools, shelters, and residential buildings, we are seeing Russian forces deliberately targeting Ukrainian museums, historic sites, and other houses of culture.Russian attacks on Ukraine's cultural institutions give us a clear line of sight on Putin's plans for the country.  If more evidence was needed, they put to rest the myth of a “special operation” to protect ethnic Russians or that of a just war of “denazification”.In fact, anyone tempted to accept Russian claims that these are accidents or false flag operations, should consider how well they support Putin's elaborate efforts to create a new version of history, one in which Ukraine is not a nation and has no claim to statehood.Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta, the director of the Mystetskyi Arsenal National Art and Culture Museum Complex in Kyiv, put it this way in a recent CBC interview:"The very existence of Ukraine poses a huge problem for a Russian empire, because there is a lot of Ukrainian heritage in the heart of that empire," she said."[The] existence of Ukraine and its culture poses the question: What is Russia, then?”To attack cultural institutions and collections is to strike at the nation's heart. Efforts to destroy Ukraine's cultural treasures and institutions are part of larger, concerted campaign to deny its history and erase the foundations of its national identity and existence.Museums, art galleries, libraries and archives are the repositories and guardians of a people's stories. They remind all of us of who we are and where we came from. To destroy a nation, a conqueror must first eliminate its collective memory and the artifacts that support that memory - this is what Putin is trying to do.This is why artists as well as cultural institutions and their leadership must step up, not only to lend their voice to the growing global chorus condemning the war, but to find ways to celebrate and protect Ukrainian culture and its defenders.Across Ukraine, museum staff and volunteers are scrambling to protect its rich collection of historic art. The rush to save books, paintings and other artifacts has left little time for specialized packing materials or temperature and humidity-controlled storage.When moving collections for safeguarding becomes impossible, a recent BBC story tells us “of hasty attempts to create a full digital inventory of works, … of attempts to move pieces to undisclosed locations and even of museum staff in some cases sleeping barricaded into cellars with the most precious artworks beside them”.Vladimir Vladimirovich's goal may be to snuff out Ukraine by shelling its people and its cultural institutions. But the courageous resistance of the people of Ukraine tells us the flame of nationhood still burns hot and bright.It is our duty as leaders in Canada's cultural sector not only to shelter that flame, but to make it burn bright in our country and to show the way for other to do the same.We can do that by supporting humanitarian efforts, notably refugee settlement. We can do that by supporting our Ukrainian colleagues in their efforts to protect their cultural treasures. We can do it through our programming by educating our fellow citizens on the people, the history and the culture of Ukraine. And we can do it by sanctioning Russia and the Belorussian regime by halting cultural and artistic exchanges.Canada's museums and heritage institutions are the guardians of our country's culture and history. This is our reason for being, and we cannot stand by and watch the long and storied history of Ukraine be crushed under a would-be conqueror's heel.And make no mistake, in this war, when cultural institutions and artists proclaim their support for Ukraine, its people, its history, and its culture, they are doing much more than “sending thoughts and prayers” – they are working to deny Putin victory.Massimo Bergamini is Executive Director and CEO of the Canadian Museums Association (CMA)