Last week marked one year since Russian forces withdrew from Bucha, Irpin and Hostomel — suburbs of our capital, Kyiv — and the terrible war crimes that were revealed there. We call them the Bucha massacre, because in this small town, beautiful and flourishing before the Russian occupation, the mass murder of Ukrainian civilians and prisoners of war was committed. Terrible pictures and videos of the massacre emerged on 1 April 2022 and made the world shudder with horror.
From the very beginning of the full-scale invasion by Russian troops, it was clear: Russia is waging this war against the civilian population of Ukraine, committing genocide. Russia is not fighting on the battlefield. Russia is killing our children, destroying our hospitals, schools, universities and libraries, and threatening our future. Russia is afraid of the Ukrainian spirit, national culture and our entire identity.
In the temporarily occupied areas, Russia reproduces the same patterns it has been using in Crimea and parts of Donbas since 2014: it appoints an occupation administration, then imposes Russian passports and legislation. Political integration is ensured by civil servants and bureaucrats sent from Russia to replace Ukrainian citizens opposing occupation. Those who refuse the imposition of Russian passports face the risk of being evicted from their own homes.
What, possibly, South African media have not covered yet, is that the law was adopted by the State Duma of the Russian Federation on 14 March 2023, according to which citizens of Ukraine who obtained Russian passports in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine, can renounce their Ukrainian citizenship on submitting an application to the Russian authorities. It represents an effort to legitimise the attempt to annex the captured Ukrainian territories and the illegal naturalisation of their residents. It is null and void and has no legal consequences. This is another Russian crime that the international community must resolutely condemn.
All this proves that the aim of Russia’s war of choice is to destroy Ukraine’s statehood and erase Ukrainian identity. So, what methods it is using?
Nothing new, actually. To ensure economic integration of the temporarily occupied territories, the occupation administration imposes the Russian rouble, opens branches of Russian banks, demands that local businesses re-register and pay taxes under Russian laws, and issues Russian-model car licence plates and driver’s licences.
Ukrainian hryvnia are withdrawn from circulation in the occupied areas under the threats of fines and confiscation of property, while Russian occupiers deny social welfare payments, leaving people in the temporarily occupied territories without a livelihood. Economic infrastructure, including seaports, is used to serve the interests of Russian occupying authorities.
Russian occupiers introduce education in Russian and according to Russian standards, as well as enacting measures aimed at undermining and erasing Ukrainian cultural identity and militarising Ukrainian children through the installation of military-patriotic educational programmes. So far, 43 camps for the “ideological re-education” of Ukrainian children have been created on Russian territory and in the temporarily occupied Crimea.
Russia terminated Ukrainian TV and radio broadcasting, replaced Ukrainian mobile operators, internet and fixed telephone services with those controlled by Russia, and brought propagandists from Russia to establish control over the information sphere.
Russian occupiers are using religious institutions to consolidate control of the temporarily occupied areas where only churches linked to the Kremlin are allowed to function.
In violation of the norms of international humanitarian law, Russia as the occupying power conducts the forced conscription of Ukrainian citizens in the temporarily occupied parts of Ukraine. The mobilisation campaign in Crimea targets specifically Crimean Tatars, indigenous people of Crimea not loyal to the occupying administration.
Although this all appears as a shock to the whole world, to Ukrainians who take pride in knowing our history it is not shocking at all. Russia has brought nothing but death and destruction to us for centuries. It would take me days to list all the crimes this, as they call themselves, “brother” country has committed against our heritage, culture and language.
We overcame decrees banning printing in Ukrainian, we lived through the seizure of Ukrainian church books, and our language was banned at schools and universities countless times. The whole Donbas region was fully Ukrainian until millions of Ukrainians were literally starved to death by Stalin, and settlers from Russia were brought into that region in their place.
We often make reference to the USSR when it comes to the liberation movements and our (as Ukraine was a meaningful part of it) assistance in the anti-apartheid struggle. But what you are not aware of, is the erasure of our culture in the times of the USSR. It is called the Ukrainian Executed Renaissance. I urge you to read about it.
During the 1930s, gifted Ukrainian poets, authors and writers were arrested on different made-up charges; they were terrorised, tortured or executed. In one decade, 80% of the Ukrainian intelligentsia were purposefully eliminated. Many were sent to labour camps where they were either starved to death or died from untreated illness or exhaustion. The main purpose of this horrific crime was to erase all of the names of Ukrainian writers from existence, along with the Ukrainian language and their love for their country and culture.
As a Ukrainian, I’m horrified with every piece of my history being erased. As of 22 March 2023, Unesco has verified damage to 248 historical or culturally significant sites since 24 February 2022: 107 religious sites, 21 museums, 89 buildings of historical and/or artistic interest, 19 monuments and 12 libraries. The representatives of this organisation emphasise that safeguarding the cultural heritage in Ukraine is a duty for the international community because our heritage is “a testimony of the past but also a catalyst for peace and cohesion for the future”.
Our victory is getting closer every day — it is made possible by the thousands of fearless Ukrainian soldiers who protect the future of Ukraine. For many of them, this winter was spent in the trenches. They suffered from frostbite, and many were wounded, but they know what they stand for on the front line: peace and prosperity of Ukraine are inseparable from the spirit of freedom and the development of education and culture, the preservation of our language and identity.
Protection, evacuation, preservation, and digitalisation of Ukraine’s cultural property are, undoubtedly, our most important priorities these days. We must save our heritage and preserve it for the next generations.
We will rebuild our heritage, educational and cultural infrastructure. One day soon, you will come to Ukraine and the beauty of our nature, architecture, and above all — the beauty of our people — will take your breath away. DM