Cultural Heritage in Ukraine: a Gap in Russian IO Monitoring
By Damian Koropeckyj
“Today, we are confronting Ukraine not only in an open armed conflict but also in the fight for the hearts and minds of millions of Russian people... An information and psychological war has been waged against our history and the memory of our heroes. They want to deprive us of our self-identity with barefaced lie[s]. The Russian Donbass will firmly rebuff the attempts to compromise the unity of Russians.”
-Denis Pushilin, leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, announcing the opening of a new Russian cultural center in Donetsk on November 30, 2021
The conflict in Eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea have been described as “the debut of online Russian propaganda on the world stage.” Research to understand and combat this threat has led to a focus on the obvious avenues of Russian Information Operations (IO) through the internet and Russian-language television media.,, Two key narratives arising from pro-Russian social media campaigns can be highlighted for the purpose of the following analysis:
• “the portrayal of Ukrainians as neo-Nazis and the framing of the war in the Donbas as a continuation of World War II…”
• “the depiction of south and east Ukraine as historically Russian as well as the positioning of Crimea as an ancient Russian land and the cradle of Russian orthodoxy…”
In these traditional IO avenues, the above narratives are packaged into simple messaging to reach as broad of an audience as possible and narratives, such as depicting the new Ukrainian government as a return to fascism, utilize the audience’s familiarity with historical themes and facilitate easier messaging efforts.
However, aside from a brief discussion of pro-Russian billboards in Crimea during the annexation in 2014, little attention has been paid to any attempts by Russian and separatist forces to utilize physical modes of communication specifically in IO in these contested landscapes, especially the use of tangible cultural heritage.
Considering current organizations and military units tasked with monitoring cultural heritage in such conflicts, USAR’s 38G/6V Monuments Officers are rightfully and legally focused on Cultural Property Protection. This practically amounts to the prevention and documentation of the destruction of existing cultural heritage in conflict through activities such as the contribution of cultural heritage inventories to No Strike Lists during the Joint Intelligence Preparation of the Operational Environment (JIPOE) process.,
In turn, institutional partners such as the Virginia Museum of Natural History’s Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab (CHML) provide Subject Matter Expertise (SME) focused on threats and impacts to cultural heritage through conflict and natural disaster, including the destruction of monuments that have occurred in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine during the present conflict. A recent UNESCO report outlines the extensive destructive actions Russia has taken concerning cultural property, including: damaging rehabilitation and appropriation of existing monuments; illegal archaeological excavation of at least one million artifacts, with many exported to Russia; and the destruction of Muslim burial grounds during the construction of infrastructure related to the Crimean Bridge., The archaeological evidence collected through these destructive practices is utilized in the justification of the narratives described above concerning Russian territorial claims to Crimea. However, gray zone competition and complex modes of IO necessitate new approaches, including to the strategic use of cultural heritage., This includes new techniques of monitoring cultural heritage as it pertains to the civilian environment in conflict. Looking at Ukraine as a case study reveals a potential gap in both the traditional approaches to Russian IO and current approaches to cultural heritage in conflict: the construction of new monuments as an IO tactic by malign actors.
Research has been ongoing at CHML since May 2021, tracking and analyzing the construction of new monuments in Crimea and the separatist-held territories of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) as potential evidence of Russian IO.
The methodology consists of open-source research to find sources describing monument construction in Russian-occupied Crimea and separatist-held territories in Eastern Ukraine, from the beginning of the conflict in 2014 up to the present. Both newly-constructed monuments and old monuments repaired after the start of hostilities were grouped into the definition of “monument construction.” This essay will discuss some of the methodological considerations and some general, quantitative analysis of the data collected. Then, a more nuanced, qualitative discussion of three monument case studies will better illuminate how the monuments are being utilized as vehicles for the narratives listed above. This analysis reveals patterns in monument placement and composition that prove useful for the projection of Russian narratives at target populations in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, akin to the IO seen in traditional media.
New Monument Construction in Ukraine
This research considers all monuments constructed- regardless of the ability to directly attribute it to Russian sponsorship, though attribution to the Russian government, Russian-backed proxies like the Night Wolves and the Wagner Group, and local separatist political parties such as the Peace to Lugansk movement is clear in certain cases. This is based firstly on the idea that non-attribution is a key tenet of modern Russian IO. However, I also argue that each of these monuments enjoys, at a minimum, implicit approval by the occupying forces for their messaging, outside of any direct sponsorship of their construction. This is based on examples of monuments that do not meet messaging requirements being removed in both Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.,
Further implicit approval may be assumed based on instances of the monuments’ reporting in Russian or separtatist state-owned media operations, or the public attendance of government officials at monument ceremonies.
Tying these threads together is an example of a monument depicting Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference which was originally offered as a donation to Crimea for display in 2005 by Zurab Tsereteli, the head of the Russian Academy of Arts. The monument was not accepted at the time due to local opposition by Crimean Tartars, who as an ethnic group were deported from Crimea in 1944, to a portrayal of Stalin. Wider Ukrainian sentiment is illustrated by a survey showing only 16% of respondents agreeing with the statement that Stalin was a great leader. After Russia’s annexation, the monument was then installed in 2015 at the historical site of the Conference, Livadia Palace, with then-Chairman of the Russian Duma (and now Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service and Chairman of the Russian Historical Society) Sergey Naryshkin and the leader of the Night Wolves attending the opening ceremony. Livadia Palace’s historical importance not only as the site of the Yalta Conference, but as the imperial tsar’s residence, was later recognized as President Putin personally unveiled a new monument to Alexander III there in 2017.
As a methodological approach, collecting data on every monument constructed also provides a fuller picture of the information and narratives disseminated among civil society, and provides a potential model for collection as an element of digital civil reconnaissance by CA officers.,,
Monuments were grouped by theme. Monuments concerning Pre-Revolutionary history and figures, from Kievan Rus’ up to the Russian Empire ending in 1917, are grouped under the theme of Russian Empire.
The construction of new, and repair of old, WWII monuments across these territories can be explained not only on for their use as a narrative vehicle as will be described in a specific case below, but also for the ability to literally build upon the historic Soviet campaign of WWII monument construction across the Soviet Union as a means of shaping political legitimacy. A notable divergence in comparing monuments constructed in Crimea versus those in Eastern Ukraine is the higher percentage of monuments dedicated to the Russian Empire in Crimea. This can be attributed to the ostensibly stronger historical claims to Crimea based on Russia’s imperial history on the peninsula, finding traction in Western appraisals of Russian claims of ownership.,
More patterns emerge when considering the physical placement of the monuments:
Parks obviously present useful messaging opportunities as high-traffic public spaces. Parks also offer an opportunity to reach target populations who are less likely to access other IO channels like the internet, such as children and older people. A survey conducted in Ukraine in 2014 indicated 50.9% of households had an internet connection, and only 12.1% of individuals over 55 accessed news sources online. Soviet emphasis on green space in public planning led to the installation of a high number of parks in urban areas based on population. These spaces were then utilized as venues for the aforementioned Soviet campaigns of monument construction, extending to the placement of monuments in other prominent positions including outside of institutional buildings.,
Aside from institutional and park locations which call back to Soviet monument construction strategy, the most obvious and direct connection is the use of existing historic locations such as: repaired Soviet WWII monuments and new monuments placed alongside Soviet-built monuments, including those dedicated to WWII.
At least 20% of the monuments were placed in a primary location described above, but also within a secondary location of note. An example of this is the “Oni otsoyali Rodinu/”They defended the homeland” monument in Luhansk. The monument is placed both primarily in a prominent position at a park in central Luhansk, and also secondarily across from an institutional building: the LNR’s Ministry for State Security.
Looking at broader geographic trends, mapping the monument locations against population density estimates by WorldPop reveal monuments have been constructed in nearly every heavily populated area. In Eastern Ukraine, this extends to less populated areas in the south.
The data presented above illustrate patterns in both monument composition and placement. Patterns in monument composition show clear links to Russian history and narratives, as well as differences in themes between Crimea and Eastern Ukraine according to the territory’s distinct historical elements. The placement of the monuments not only in heavily populated areas, but specifically in high-traffic, high-visibility and politically significant locations emphasizes the intentionality of placement and also shows historical precedence in Soviet monument construction.
Moving beyond this overview of the methodology and general trends, three specific case studies of monuments will now be considered. Their themes and placement in the landscape will be situated within the prominent narratives found in Russian IO campaigns.
Savur-Mohyla - Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR)
The Savur-Mohyla complex in the DNR represents a massive undertaking involving both the repair of the original WWII monument and the appropriation of the site into a commemoration of events that have occurred since 2014. The large WWII memorial obelisk and related sculptural works are located on top of a Bronze Age burial mound (kurgan), which allegedly suffered major disturbance during the construction of the monuments in the 1960’s. The memorial complex was heavily damaged during fighting for the strategic height in August 2014, including the full collapse of the obelisk. DNR combatants killed in the fighting were buried on and nearby the monument, with re-interred remains of Soviet troops found during UXO clearance, by the DNR forces who won control of the location. A construction of a chapel on the grounds in 2017 solidified the reverence of those buried at the site.
Beginning in 2021, the DNR began clearing the debris of the original monument in order to reconstruct the obelisk and associated works, all of which the DNR claims is being planned and carried out by their own organizations, including the Donetsk Ministry of Construction and the Donetsk Regional Design Institute (Donetskproekt). Concept art for the reconstructed monument shows a large display of “2014” juxtaposed with the years “1941-1945” flanking the staircase leading up to the obelisk. This physical layering of monuments and inscriptions speaks to the narrative seen in Russian IO described above: framing the war in Donbas as a continuation of World War II. Though the memorial has not yet been completed, the DNR officially hosts thousands of visitors at the monument more than once a year to commemorate Soviet victory both in the region and in WWII. On Victory Day in May 2021, this included the display of a 300-meter long Ribbon of St. George by youth paramilitary organization members, a Soviet and Russian military symbol banned in Ukraine. Most recently, on September 8, 2021, the official commemorative event allegedly included Deputy Chairman of Russia’s Federation Council (and Secretary General of the ruling United Russia party) Andrey Turchak as an honored guest.
Night Wolves - Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR)
The Night Wolves Motorcycle Club is a pro-Russian proxy, directly funded by the Russian state, that participated in the annexation of Crimea, combat in Eastern Ukraine, and maintains a base in the LNR for the Russian and Russian-speaking Ukrainian members of the Donbas chapter of the organization., In 2015, the Donbas chapter installed a new monument directly outside of the LNR government HQ named “The Symbol of Novorossiya [New Russia] through the Eyes of the Night Wolves.” The chapter’s leader described the meaning behind the monument, composed of a crest with a double-headed eagle: “This sign evokes the idea that everything that was split and broken is slowly, bit by bit, beginning to return home.” This speaks directly to the narrative depicting Eastern Ukraine as historically Russian.
Kerch Strait - Crimea
Finally, in a revitalized park overlooking the Kerch Strait in Crimea, the Russian Military Historical Society (a state-funded organization founded by President Putin in 2012) and other donors installed a monument dedicated to the “first measurers of the Kerch Strait” in 2019 to mark the completion of the new Crimean bridge. The bronze statues reenact Prince Gleb (a figure from the history of Kievan Rus’) and the chronicler Nikon’s alleged measurement of the Kerch Strait in 1068 A.D. from the Russian mainland principality of Tmutarakan, an event that marked “the restoration of solid Russian power on both sides of the strait.” The previous quote makes the intention clear, but the monument and its attributes are built upon multiple layers that speak to the narrative of Crimea as an ancient Russian land. A rehabilitated public space, overlooking a nearly $4 billion Russian-constructed bridge connecting Crimea with mainland Russia, hosts a monument legitimizing current Russian rule based on a story dating to almost 1,000 years ago.
These three examples provide a qualitative look at how Russian proxies and Russian-backed separatists are involved in the careful and nuanced utilization of both monument placement and composition to display narratives found in Russian IO that utilized mediums like television and social media, but aimed at high-traffic physical environments and audiences that may not be reached by said “traditional” IO avenues.
Emphasizing the systematic nature behind the cases described above, further utilization of cultural heritage by the Night Wolves can be found in other contested areas of Ukraine. In another location in the LNR, in 2020, the Night Wolves installed a memorial plaque at a grave of re-interred soldiers who died in WWII. At the Donbas chapter’s base, which is officially listed as a museum on Google Maps, locals are welcome to visit from 0900-1700 every day to see a classic Soviet car collection, WWII memorabilia, and destroyed military equipment from the current conflict., In Crimea, plans were made between the Night Wolves and the Russian Ministry of Defense to construct a “patriotic park” and “historical and cultural complex” on land leased by the Night Wolves in Sevastopol, but the project was cancelled in 2017 due to environmental and legal concerns.,
Conclusion and Implications
This brief consideration of the evidence indicates that monuments are being constructed with themes and in locations that directly speak to key narratives found in IO, by the Russian government, Russian proxies, Russian-backed separatists, and private groups as a means to build legitimacy on contested territory. While the use of these narratives draws parallels to Russian IO seen in other avenues such as television and social media, the complex layering of messages and attributes, all occurring in the physical space, make this a novel avenue for IO distinct from the aforementioned methods. I propose that future applications of this methodology in search of the use of this tactic by other actors and gray zone competitors, as well as the re-examining of this case in Ukraine, consider this new avenue of IO as a concept of Building Advantages in the Cultural Terrain (BACT).
Russian operations involving BACT extend beyond monuments in Ukraine, to other territories where Russia is pushing territorial bounds and taking actions in the gray zone. A statue type installed in Luhansk dedicated to “Russian Volunteers” can also be found at a base tied to the Wagner Group west of Palmyra, Syria. The Night Wolves’ branch in Slovakia was originally advertised as a military museum during its announcement in 2018, but military vehicles were removed and it is unclear how the location is currently operating after government intervention. The “Green Man” model can be found not only in Crimea, but now in the Far Eastern Russian city of Belogorsk, after an unveiling coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. In Norway, the Russian government is officially involved in the construction of WWII monuments across the country. Beyond the messaging capability that these new monuments carry themselves, it should be noted that a much earlier IO and cyber campaign on Estonia was ostensibly carried out in 2007 based on the removal of a Soviet WWII monument on Estonian territory, providing pretense for the application of Russian gray zone tactics on a sovereign NATO member.
New monuments will continue to be constructed both in Eastern Ukraine and internationally. This requires frameworks for including cultural heritage in IO monitoring that otherwise have not been approached, which in turn needs new programs and avenues for SME’s to collect and confront the evidence and advise relevant stakeholders on campaigns such as that outlined above. At a minimum, programs like 38G/6V should consider monument construction, not just destruction, when analyzing cultural heritage in the context of gray zone competition and conflict.
Appendix: Map Data Sources
Ukraine 2020 Population Density Estimates
WorldPop (www.worldpop.org - School of Geography and Environmental Science, University of Southampton; Department of Geography and Geosciences, University of Louisville; Departement de Geographie, Universite de Namur) and Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), Columbia University (2018). Global High Resolution Population Denominators Project - Funded by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (OPP1134076). https://dx.doi.org/10.5258/SOTON/WP00675
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