Russians don’t need to fire up gas chambers or turn every occupied settlement into Bucha in order to destroy Ukrainians as a nation. According to the author of the concept of genocide Rafal Lemkin, this crime can be committed by any means.

A national, ethnic, religious, or racial group can be wiped out not only by way of killing, deportation or limitation of birth. Often this can be accomplished by undermining the foundations of target group’s life. Lemkin referred to such foundations as political and social institutions, culture, language, religion, a sense of national belonging and pride, collective memory and collective experience, undermining the security of group members, etc. 

This is the reason why Russians began to confiscate Ukrainian books from schools and libraries as well as import and erect monuments to Pushkin immediately after establishing military control over the occupied territory. That’s why the occupying authorities replaced the Ukrainian letter “i” with a Russian “и” on the welcome sign near the entrance to Mariupol in less than a month after the seizure of this city. Russians are pursuing a deliberate policy of changing the identity of Ukrainians in the temporarily occupied territories (TOT) in order to turn the propaganda myth of “one nation” into reality.  

At the beginning of full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin expressed hope that the world would find out the “truth” about Russia when “the universal truth makes its way through the mutual love and culture that unites us all”. This is a rare instance when we can agree with the Kremlin dictator. Russian culture will indeed help us learn the truth about Russia. 

Civil Network OPORA conducted a research and gained an insight into how the Russians methodically and consistently weaponize the culture to destroy Ukrainian identity in the TOT. Due to isolation of occupied Ukrainian cities and communities, we cannot assess the effectiveness and scale of activities carried out by the occupiers. However, our data clearly indicate the intention of Russians to make it impossible for residents of TOT to develop, preserve, practice and pass Ukrainian culture down to the next generation.

How the assimilation of Ukrainians was “formalized” in Russian legislation

Russians followed the “Crimean scenario” in preparation for annexation of mainland Ukraine and in the aftermath of legalization of annexed territories in Russian law: they built a vertical of power controlled from Moscow, harmonized local policy in the TOT with Russian policy and incorporated it into Russian legislation. 

Shortly after the occupation of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, the occupying authorities established local “ministries of culture” subordinated to the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation. They got the Russians from Crimea, Krasnodar and Rostov-on-Don to work in these “institutions” due to the lack of specialized professionals among local collaborators. Until now the “ministries” have been systematically complaining about staff shortages and posting jobs on their Vkontakte pages.

A “transitional period” of integration into federal policy of Russia began in the so-called new regions. It will last until January 1, 2026. On a day when Vladimir Putin signed the decrees on “independence” of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts, the “ministry of culture” of occupied Kherson oblast announced the transition of local cultural sphere to “Russian standards”. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation has set the integration of so-called “new regions” into the “cultural life of Russia” as its main goal for the coming years. 

Russia launched a national program “Culture”, which extends even to remote localities in all annexed regions. What this means for Ukrainians is that the “great Russian culture” should reach literally every village in the TOT. “Auto clubs” (“multifunctional mobile cultural centers”) have been launched to ply between the smallest and most war-damaged villages and towns that have no halls of culture. Russian occupiers declared that 28 “auto clubs” are operating in the TOT as of 2023.

Russian Minister of Culture Olga Lyubimova expressly said that the work with “new regions” is carried out “in manual mode”. According to her records as of October 2023, there are “more than a thousand libraries, almost a thousand houses of culture, almost 160 children’s art schools and 77 museums” in the TOT (except for Crimea), and they all receive “patronage assistance” from federal cultural institutions. 

For example, the museums of the Russian Federation took each museum in the TOT under their “patronage”. The “patrons” provide property and equipment, bring in their specialists, organize professional “training” in Russia and teach their Ukrainian peers how to make the population “love Russian culture”. For example, 200 employees of cultural institutions from the TOT attended an educational seminar in the city of Tula in August 2023.

“451 degrees Fahrenheit” in the tradition of “great Russian culture”

Ukrainian books are being confiscated and destroyed. Russian occupiers also reported about the establishment of “model libraries”, which involves renovations to library premises, purchase of new equipment and “renewal” of book collection – the importation of Russian books to replace the destroyed “extremist” Ukrainian literature.

Back in March 2022, Russian “military police” units destroyed Ukrainian history and fiction books that were confiscated from the libraries in Luhansk, Donetsk, Chernihiv and Sumy oblasts. For example, the complete collection of Ukrainian-language literature was seized in Melitopol. In early December 2023, collaborator Ihor Ternavskyi, who manages the Lermontov library in Melitopol, reported that he purchased Russian books “worth more than a million rubles”.

The same situation occurred in Luhansk region. At the end of January 2023, the head of Luhansk OMA reported that the “ministry of education and science of the LPR” issued an instruction to withdraw books from the school libraries per the list of 365 items. Cases of Ukrainian book burning were also recorded in the boiler houses of Luhansk oblast. According to the National Resistance Center of Ukraine, the occupiers brought about 2.5 million Russian books to the TOT over the course of 2023. 

In December 2022, the Presidential Foundation for Cultural Initiatives began to finance cultural projects in the TOT under the “Common Cultural Space: Projects of New Regions” program. In the 2022-2023 timeframe, the Presidential Foundation allocated a total of 3.4 billion rubles (about $38.3 million) under this program. Most likely, these funds were spent on projects created in the occupied territories of Ukraine because the Russian-made cultural projects about TOT (or for the TOT) have already been funded before.

For example, this foundation sponsored the children’s play “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” in Mariupol, which was intended to “instill traditional moral values that are intrinsic to the entire Russian nation”, a car expedition along the Azov Sea shore, and the filming of detective series “Peaceful Atom” about the occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. 

The Presidential Foundation of Russia also finances a system of “re-education camps” designed to indoctrinate Ukrainian children who were deported from the TOT. OPORA’s experts have identified at least 48 Russian state and non-state organizations and institutions that are involved in the promotion of Russian culture in the occupied territories of Ukraine.

The occupiers instituted the Russian holiday calendar in the TOT to acquaint local population with Russian collective experience. In particular, they reintroduced the “Defender of the Fatherland Day”, which is celebrated on February 23, and held festive events on the occasion of the anniversary of liberation of Leningrad and the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad. Moreover, unlike in Ukraine where the Mother’s Day is celebrated in May, the Russians celebrate this holiday in November, and that is also when the Mother’s Day festivities are held in the TOT.

Even the annexation of Ukrainian territory is officially recognized as a public holiday in Russia: “the day of reunification of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Luhansk People’s Republic, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts with the Russian Federation” is celebrated on September 30.

Russians can’t go a day without stealing 

Furthermore, the Russian Federation formalized Ukrainian cultural heritage in its legislation. In particular, the Russians adopted a new law allowing them to automatically include cultural heritage objects from the TOT in the state register without carrying out expert examination. However, cultural heritage objects can lose their special status just as easily, which jeopardizes the possibility of preserving cultural monuments of the past.

The new law also allows for the free movement of historical and cultural heritage objects, archival documents, and library collections from the TOT to the territory of the Russian Federation without unnecessary document trail and bureaucratic red tape. Back in 2014, more than 150,000 cultural property items belonging to Crimean Tatars were included in Russian state registers. The Russian Ministry of Culture authorized the newly established companies to “repair and restore” cultural and historical sites in the TOT without acquiring appropriate license, which is prohibited in the territory of the Russian Federation.

Before fleeing Kherson, the occupying forces looted a number of local museums and archives: Kherson Oblast Museum of Local Lore, Kherson Oblast Art Museum named after Oleksiy Shovkunenko, Kherson Regional Archive, and Kherson Oblast Library. In total, Russians stole more than 15 thousand unique artifacts in Kherson alone.

Furthermore, Scythian gold dating back to the 4th century BC was stolen from the Melitopol Museum of Local Lore, and the entire collections of valuable exhibits were taken from the Mariupol Museum of Local Lore and the Kuindzhi Art Museum. The drawing up of inventory of lost items is still ongoing. According to rough estimates, about 2,000 valuable objects were stolen in Mariupol. Representatives of the “ministry of culture of Kherson oblast” claimed that they facilitated the looting of museum property in Kherson and the transportation of stolen valuables to Sevastopol.  According to the head of the State Archival Service of Ukraine Anatoliy Khromov, Ukraine has lost about half of its archival collections in Kherson oblast.

Indoctrination of the youth

The occupiers are also destroying Ukrainian sites of commemoration. They dismantled the monuments to Holodomor victims (Russian propaganda calls them “the symbols of disinformation”) in Mariupol and temporarily occupied areas of Kherson oblast. Russians erect their own memorials in place of dismantled monuments. For example, they restored the Soviet monument to “young architects of Kherson city”, which was demolished during decommunization.

Regular events are being held for children in schools and within the framework of extracurricular education system. The idea of “greatness” of Russian culture is conveyed during “Conversations about Important Things” which are held on Mondays, as well as at the “Lessons of courage” and cadet schools that were established in the TOT.

In September 2022, all schools in the TOT switched over to Russian curriculum, while the programs of Ukrainian studies were either reduced or canceled. The list of out-of-school education facilities includes “Yunarmiya”, “Movement of the First” and “Yug Molodoy”. They form a single system of “patriotic education”, which serves the purpose of militarization of youth consciousness. Russians methodically suppress Ukrainian national identity and instill military discipline in children living in the TOT so that they can be used as future soldiers in the “special military operation” in Ukraine or any other country that “motherland Russia” decides to declare as its own territory. 

Ukrainian children get acquainted with their “new homeland” through the tourist & educational programs “Cultural Map 4+85” and “Cool Country”, which are financed from the federal budget. These are short-term trips along pre-determined “cultural routes of the Russian Federation”.

Previously, such study tours were organized under the “Pushkin Map” program, but after the annexation of Ukrainian territory the program was rebranded as the “4+85 Cultural Map”, where “4” stands for four new regions – Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, as well as the so-called LPR and DPR. This program covers the cost of visits to more than 26,500 cultural institutions in the Russian Federation, including 101 institutions located in the temporarily occupied Crimea. According to the head of CSO “Regional Center for Human Rights” Kateryna Rashevska, up to 200-300 children from the occupied territories go on such “excursions” every week.

No death camps, no crime?

The behavior of Russians in the TOT goes to show that the control tools are not less valuable to them than cultural achievements, symbols and artifacts. Since the beginning of full-scale war in 2014, they have been allocating human and material resources to destroy Ukrainian culture and replace it with Russian culture in parallel to conducting an active warfare. 

For this purpose, Russians resorted to information isolation policy in the TOT. Local residents were deprived of access to information by means of policing and censorship, including in the digital media space. The next step is to deprive people of the space and ability to preserve and practice cultural traditions other than Russian ones. Furthermore, the occupiers are creating a complex system of organizations, institutions and events that fit every taste and age group to ensure that all residents of the TOT are in regular contact with Russian culture.

The occupied areas of Donetsk, Luhansk oblasts and the Crimean peninsula have been under occupation for 10 years. Those children who were first-grade pupils in 2014 have completed the full course of study in Russian education system. The first-graders of 2022 living in Mariupol, Berdiansk, Enerhodar and many other Ukrainian towns have every chance of graduating from primary school under the Russian system. 

There is no need to physically exterminate a national group to erase it from a certain territory. Any nation or ethnic group can be assimilated by way of implementing a consistent repressive policy.

Unfortunately, despite Lemkin’s original intent, contemporary international law does not consider anything other than physical murder and violence to be a crime against humanity. At the same time, Russians can achieve their goal by replacing the identity of residents of the occupied territories, and such actions are not causing “deep concern” among world leaders.


Original article: FAKTY