The Attack on Ukrainian Culture "The World Is Finally Seeing What Russia Is Really Like"

The Russian army appears to be bombing monuments and cultural sites in Ukraine. In an interview, Polish Culture Minister Piotr Gliński warns that Moscow is trying to destroy the country's national heritage.
Interview Conducted by Jan Puhl
A destroyed cemetery in Mykolaiv: "The destruction is intended to break the population and force them to give up."

A destroyed cemetery in Mykolaiv: "The destruction is intended to break the population and force them to give up."


Bulent Kilic / AFP

DER SPIEGEL: Vladimir Putin’s air force is targeting residential blocks, hospitals and shopping centers and doesn’t appear to be shying away from cultural sites either. In Mariupol, they bombed a theater. Do you think it was intentional?

Gliński: The Russian army – and we already observed this in Grozny and then later in Syria – systematically commits war crimes, that’s its modus operandi. All infrastructure is destroyed to hit the civilian population as hard as possible. This includes theaters, museums and churches.

DER SPIEGEL: Is it a deliberate attempt to destroy the Ukrainians’ national heritage?

Gliński: There is no doubt in my mind about that. The destruction is intended to break the population and force them to give up. Putin is of the opinion that there is actually no independent Ukrainian society and certainly no Ukrainian nation. This view is not only presumptuous, but also a lie – as is most of what he says. Ukrainian society has been in the process of organizing itself over several centuries – just as it is now.

DER SPIEGEL: Ukraine, in other words, isn't just fighting against a dictatorial regime that Russia wants to impose on it, but also for its existence as a nation. How can the West help?

Gliński: The West, the civilized world, is supporting Ukraine by imposing harsh sanctions against Russia and supplying weapons. It is also important to provide humanitarian aid on the ground and secure infrastructure. This includes protecting monuments and historical heritage sites from destruction. We have been in close contact with our Ukrainian colleagues for years and we met with them just before the war. We have contacts with museums, institutes and archives there. Our partners have asked us for packaging material. Six or seven transports have already rolled into Ukraine from Poland. They are delivering cushioning sheets, cardboard, fireproof blankets and the like so that art treasures can be stowed and protected. In Lviv, 30 percent of the treasures from libraries and museums have already been brought to safety. But we are also helping artists who have fled here. We have done the same with the Belarussians – we create spaces for them, for example, or scholarships, we accept them at our institutes so that they can continue their work. I just approved funds for an internet portal of Ukrainian art. Poland is doing a lot to help. More than 2 million refugees have already arrived here – of which, it is estimated that 1.5 million will stay with us.

DER SPIEGEL: Will Ukraine’s entire cultural life go into exile, perhaps to Poland?

Gliński: Ukraine is still fighting and has not been defeated. Culture is important, but it is arms supplies and ammunition that are decisive at the moment. Almost the entire planet is currently supporting the Ukrainian fight against evil.

I have not, by the way, been asked to bring Ukrainian cultural treasures to safety in Poland. We would do that favor for them immediately – we’re prepared, but there has been no such request. That shows that they still expect to win. And we and the whole world should believe that it is possible to defeat Vladimir Putin. But they have asked us to impose strong sanctions on Russian portals and broadcasters that spread the Kremlin’s propaganda. And we will take that very seriously within the framework of the EU.

DER SPIEGEL: Polish politicians have been warning for years about the danger posed by Putin’s Russia. Now, it has been tragically shown that they were right. Currently, your country is a strong advocate for Ukraine in the West. Is the importance of Poland, now that it is suddenly on the front lines, growing?

Gliński: I hope we are not only the voice of Ukraine in the EU, but also the voice of democracy. We have a strong sense of responsibility. We are convinced that the fate of the whole world hinges on Ukraine’s fate. Our prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, and our political leader Jarosław Kaczyński, were in Kyiv just last week, together with our friends from the Czech Republic and Slovenia. That is where every European statesman should go. We have long been accused of being paranoid about Russia. But now the world is seeing what Russia is really like.

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