Victoria Juharyan discusses the destruction and threat of destruction of Ukraine’s cultural heritage during the Russian invasion. The visiting assistant professor in the Department of Russian and German at UC Davis teaches literature and philosophy. She has been active in the effort to preserve Ukrainian culture.
[00:00:00] Victoria Juharyan We're talking about not only Ukrainian culture, but we're talking about world landmarks that are under threat right now.
[00:00:14] Soterios Johnson The Russian invasion of Ukraine is causing untold suffering and devastation, with thousands of civilians killed and injured and millions of Ukrainians now refugees fleeing for their lives. On top of the human toll this undeclared war is extracting from Ukraine is the destruction and threat of Ukraine's cultural heritage. This is The Backdrop, a UC Davis podcast exploring the world of ideas. I'm Soterios, Johnson. What's been lost or damaged already? What's being done to save other cultural treasures? And is this part of Russian President Vladimir Putin's plan to break Ukrainians' spirit? Victoria Juharyan is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Russian and German at UC Davis, where she teaches literature and philosophy. She holds a Ph.D. from Princeton in Slavic languages and literatures. She has been active in the effort to preserve Ukrainian culture even before the Russian invasion. Welcome to The Backdrop, Victoria.
[00:01:08] Victoria Juharyan Hi, it's good to be here. Thank you for the kind invitation.
[00:01:11] Soterios Johnson Absolutely. So just to start off, can you tell us how how serious a problem is this right now in Ukraine?
[00:01:19] Victoria Juharyan It's it's an emergency. And some of my efforts, I have been calling double jeopardy in the sense that what Putin is doing is not only a genocide, it is also a suicide. Because we're not only speaking about Ukrainian culture, we're speaking about World Heritage and many of those cultural figures that cannot be divided between Russia and Ukraine. For example, the Pushkin Museum in Odessa, Pushkin is the national poet of Russia. He has spent 13 months in Odessa. How are they going to divide that cultural figure? Many of the writers, for example, Mikhail Bulgakov, who is from Kiev, but he's considered the main mythologizer of Moscow. So this is we're talking about not only Ukrainian culture, but we're talking about world landmarks that are under threat right now. And it's double jeopardy because all those writers and artists have already been prosecuted by the government. Be it the 19th century empire or be it the Soviet Union or during the revolution, all those artists, writers, poets, they have been in the gulags. They have been prosecuted. They have been exiled. And right now, even their records are under threat.
[00:02:52] Soterios Johnson Right. I mean so it sounds to me like you are placing what's happening now in kind of a larger narrative of kind of a cultural oppression that whether it was the Russian Empire the Soviet Union has inflicted on on Ukrainians.
[00:03:09] Victoria Juharyan Absolutely. And not just on Ukrainians, but people, artists who fight for human freedom, who are defenders of human freedom,
[00:03:18] Soterios Johnson Be they Russian or Ukrainian.
[00:03:20] Victoria Juharyan Absolutely right? Many of those cannot -- Pushkin has great grandfather from Ethiopia, right? So this pure Russian idea that Putin is now working with is quite dangerous. And I do strongly believe that arts and culture are the most dangerous enemies of totalitarian regimes because that invader is trying to rewrite history and tell only the side of the oppressor. Right? History is the memory of the government and what Putin is trying to do right now, also creating this information blockade in his own country is to suppress the voices of freedom.
[00:04:05] Soterios Johnson So I was hoping to talk about some of the cultural monuments or buildings or collections that have already been destroyed or damaged so far. What do we what do we know?
[00:04:16] Victoria Juharyan OK, we know that he bombed in in Nujyn the University of Nijyn, where Gogol studied. He is one of the main figures of what the world calls Russian literature. But he's the Ukrainian writer as well, right? And the university where he studied in Nijyn, my students were writing to me saying, Oh my God, I've spent time studying here and they're bombing it. Number One. Second example I can give you Chaikov University. I was planning to spend years there studying their Hegelian movements. They have had an incredible philosophers there that studied Hegel in the 19th century, a crucial thinker for Slavic thought. They were bombing Chaikov University. I've been in touch with families from there. They have destroyed the university. Families are fleeing. As this mother of two children, I was talking to, they had to run to Lviv to escape, and she said, You know, my my my beautiful city is being wiped, wiped out of the face of Earth
[00:05:26] Soterios Johnson And you know, the university being the center of research and study and culture. It's not, I mean, talk about how significant it is that, you know, these are not just a collection of buildings.
[00:05:38] Victoria Juharyan Absolutely, absolutely. They were. I mean, when I saw that there was a possibility of bombing the Cathedral of Wisdom, the Cathedral of Sophia in Kyiv. I was absolutely horrified.
[00:05:53] Soterios Johnson Mm-Hmm. And that's the big cathedral that we see when we see shots of Kyiv. It's the big cathedral with kind of like the green roofs and the gold domes, like it's beautiful.
[00:06:03] Victoria Juharyan Yes, cathedral of Sophia. I've been there.
[00:06:06] Soterios Johnson Yeah, yeah.
[00:06:06] Victoria Juharyan There was a church that survived two world wars and was destroyed now.
[00:06:14] Soterios Johnson And again, it's not that it was just a building that was destroyed. It's like, what does that represent?
[00:06:20] Victoria Juharyan It's the wonders of the world. These are temples of human creation. Those are not things that can be reconstructed. These are like the pyramids, right, or the seven, eight Wonders of the World. These are incredible creations of human spirit.
[00:06:41] Soterios Johnson Mm0hmm. I know one of the other kind of cultural landmarks that was damaged was Babyn Yar, the Holocaust memorial that marks the spot of one of the largest mass graves associated with Nazi atrocities in Europe.
[00:06:56] Victoria Juharyan And my heart is bleeding because when I was in Kyiv, a good friend of mine and a translator. He's about 90 years old right now. Pavel Grushko, who lives in Boston. He's a poet. He's translated Latin American literature into Russian, an incredible human being. When I was in Kyiv, he asked me to go to Baba Yar and honor his -- where his grandfather and great grandfather, great grandfather, was murdered during the Holocaust. And I didn't make it because I thought I would be always coming back. And now, it's unclear when that would even be possible again. Right?
[00:07:40] Soterios Johnson What are some of these cultural assets that are still in jeopardy as far as you know that people are hoping to preserve in some way?
[00:07:49] Victoria Juharyan Absolutely. So one of them is a museum dedicated to the Ukrainian dissidents of the '60s. It's in Kyiv on the street of Olesya Honchara, 33. So this is an entire generation that was prosecuted. They all died in the gulags or were murdered, and I will gladly tell you about some of those figures. But now their archives and the museum are in jeopardy, all of their records. This museum is unfortunately very I mean, even intellectuals in Kyiv had not been to that museum. And I have photographed every single part of it, and they had even more enormous archives.
[00:08:36] Soterios Johnson And that basically documents a moment in Ukrainian and also Soviet Union history that could be studied even more than it has been.
[00:08:44] Victoria Juharyan We need to. I mean, I'm giving lectures on this topic at NYU and all over the place about the necessity of saving those archives and the museum pieces.
[00:08:55] Soterios Johnson What's another example of cultural assets and part of the heritage that's that's at risk? I know there are lots of there's there are all of these small wooden churches kind of all over the country, especially around Kyiv, and many of them have been destroyed or damaged. I mean, what...
[00:09:12] Victoria Juharyan But also, you know, this a Pushkin Museum again, there is a Saint Petersburg is incredibly proud of its own Pushkin House museum, where he lived, where he was living right before his duel, when he died in 1837. But Odessa has a similar landmark because when Alexander Pushkin was exiled nearby, he spent 13 months living in Odessa. Odessa is considered by many a center -- and it is absolutely true --it's a center of literature and arts. Akhmatova, Makovsky, Kuprin, Bunyan. All of those great figures again of Russian literature have very strong ties to Odessa. There is a wonderful article in The New Yorker called "Odessa, The City of Writerly Love." So the Odessa myth -- St. Petersburg has a myth, a literary myth and Odessa has its own myth, right? If St. Petersburg is a literary center but also associated with madness, insanity, caused by lack of sunlight, lack of because it was Peter the great built it on swamps, right? In literature, it's called the most artificial city. It's a beautiful city. But again, the idea is you become a literary genius in St. Petersburg, but you might also lose your mind and usually those go hand in hand.
[00:10:48] Soterios Johnson Mm-Hmm.
[00:10:49] Victoria Juharyan Odessa's myth is freedom, rebellion, irony and where geniuses become geniuses, literary writers. Yes?
[00:11:01] Soterios Johnson Mm hmm.
[00:11:02] Victoria Juharyan And also Ukrainian literature. And now I'm going to quote a famous Russian writer, Dmitry Bykov, who's a journalist and a writer, poet, a very close friend of mine and one of my absolute heroes. So for this interview, I talked to him and he asked me to point out that Ukrainian literature came up with the idea of magical realism even before it was invented in Latin America.
[00:11:30] Soterios Johnson Hmm.
[00:11:30] Victoria Juharyan OK? Because he says there is a cult or form and cult of irony because -- and mythologizing in Ukrainian culture, because those were those have been the domains in which freedom of expression, freedom of subjectivity can be maintained because in reality, there has been so much suppression that the culture was able to survive in those acts of creative mythologizing, fairy tale elements, magical realism.
[00:12:07] Soterios Johnson Right, right, right.
[00:12:08] Victoria Juharyan And irony and humor is says Ukrainian writers are often extremely ironic and sarcastic because laughter in the face of the oppressor, creation in their face is an act of rebellion. This is why saving that cultural heritage is extremely important, because until we understand what is worth saving from the past, we will never realize what needs to be preserved from our own times.
[00:12:41] Victoria Juharyan So, so what is being done right now to try and save these cultural assets? And I think we need to be a little general here, just so not not to put people you know or culturally significant objects at risk. So just in general, what's being done to try to preserve these things?
[00:12:58] Victoria Juharyan So I can tell you some of my efforts. I contacted -- I won't name names as you are asked, right? But I contacted someone responsible for Parajanov art pieces. He's a movie director, Sergei Parajanov, who has made a movie about Ukraine, by the way, strongly recommended. It's called "The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors," about Ukraine, and another one about a medieval Armenian singer called "The Color of Pomegranate." He was in gulag, so this is the generation of '60s, right?
[00:13:34] Soterios Johnson Right.
[00:13:35] Victoria Juharyan He's one of the fighters for freedom. He was in the gulags twice for speaking up against the Soviet regime, and he was put to jail for nationalism. OK.
[00:13:45] Soterios Johnson Mm-Hmm.
[00:13:46] Victoria Juharyan Because, ooh, guess what? In the Soviet Union, we all have to be uniform. And here you are, showing specific aspects of Armenian and Ukrainian culture. And another thing that will answer your question is that I wrote to someone who works at the museum in Kyiv and I asked, OK, is there anything we can do now, please, to save all those artifacts? And the response was all of the museums in Kyiv are in the same situation right now. We don't have access to the collections. If the government provides places to store and gives us access, maybe we can talk about something. But right now we don't have access. But this is one person. I cannot speak about the validity of this claim, right?
[00:14:36] Soterios Johnson Right.
[00:14:36] Victoria Juharyan I wrote two other museums, and I haven't heard back.
[00:14:40] Soterios Johnson You wrote to them. This is after the invasion or as the invasion looked like, it was going to happen?
[00:14:45] No, after the invasion.
[00:14:48] Soterios Johnson Right, right. OK. It seems like that that there that there are people trying to save things. I mean, you see public statues being wrapped in plastic or sandbags, and people are moving paintings into bomb shelters and things, things like that. Do you know, has there been any assistance from international organizations or governments to to help save any of these sites and collections from being destroyed? I mean, some of these sites are UNESCO's sites. .
[00:15:18] Victoria Juharyan Exactly! I mean, we're trying. We're trying. Right. And but something when you mentioned that people are hiding. Right? I mean, I have seen footage of churches hiding the icons, but I want to talk about some some of the techniques because, as you know, during the Soviet Union, religious religion was illegal. So churches and cathedrals were used for, I don't know, storing potatoes or the icons everything had to -- you could go to jail. And I'm talking about based on the history of my own family, not as well as studying history. Right? You could go to jail for having a religious icon at home.
[00:16:01] Soterios Johnson Mm-Hmm.
[00:16:01] Victoria Juharyan And later, some people have discovered secular paintings done on top of icons with materials that wouldn't damage the icons.
[00:16:14] Soterios Johnson Right. Interesting.
[00:16:15] Victoria Juharyan OK? So people are extremely creative.
[00:16:18] Soterios Johnson I mean, well, it sounds like, you know, it's a culture that is not -- this is not anything new having to try to either hide or preserve something because whether it's from physical destruction, from war or from some cultural oppression or government oppression, you know, this is something that's kind of unfortunately part of the psyche.
[00:16:41] Victoria Juharyan Absolutely. Actually, Dmitriy Bykov, the writer that I already quoted, we were giving an interview together when on March 14, Russia also closed Instagram. Right? And in his interview, he said, Look, this will affect influencers, but they will never stop the flow of information bewe have a very rich cultural experience of doing what's forbidden, because it has been parts of the strategies of survival for decades, if not centuries. And that's extremely unfortunate.
[00:17:17] Soterios Johnson Is there any way of knowing whether Russia is intentionally targeting these cultural sites? I mean, you know, they could argue that, well, it's just collateral damage.
[00:17:26] Victoria Juharyan Mm-Hmm. Well, it cannot be considered collateral damage. So Russia is trying to control the narrative by creating an entire semiosphere of fake news and then also passing a law that can have you in jail for 15 years for saying anything against Russia, any anti-Russian or any anti-military propaganda right now legally can send a Russian citizen into jail for 15 years. OK? Another thing that's really important because I mentioned the suicide aspect of it and the civil war aspect of it. I want to mention that the personal and the political are always intertwined. So first, Putin decriminalized domestic violence. Next thing we know he is invadingis his neighbor, closely related, a peaceful country. So I do see those phenomena as very closely related. If you don't respect personal autonomy, why should you respect the autonomy of your cultural neighbor?
[00:18:30] Soterios Johnson Right. So, Victoria, before we go, could you sum up for us why it's so important to not let these cultural treasures be destroyed or damaged? I mean, how would you respond to somebody who might say, you know, these are just buildings or paintings or an archive that they're just things where we should be more worried about human lives?
[00:18:53] Victoria Juharyan Because human lives and human freedom are expressed in those creative attempts. We will never respect human lives and understand the value of human lives. As long as we appreciate those creations that humans have made throughout centuries and thousands of years.
[00:19:16] Soterios Johnson And they also reflect, I guess, you know, a history, it's almost like a memory of human experience.
[00:19:23] Victoria Juharyan Absolutely. As I said during another interview that history is the memory of the government. The history and stories of individuals are preserved in art, architecture, literature, poetry. Those are the domains of human freedom and dignity. There is no way we will have any respect for human lives and not considered them collateral damage as long as we dare to not respect the strivings of those free spirits.
[00:20:05] Soterios Johnson Well, Victoria, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today, I really appreciate it.
[00:20:10] Victoria Juharyan Thank you so much.
[00:20:11] Victoria Juharyan is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Russian and German at UC Davis. You can find more about her work and other related links on our website, uc davis.edu/podcast. And if you like The Backdrop, check out our other UC Davis podcast, Unfold. It breaks down complicated problems and unfolds curiosity driven research like why songs get stuck in your head or what real-world engineering concepts you can learn from comic books. Join public radio veteran and host Amy Quinton and co-host Kat Kerlin for Unfold. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. I'm Soterios Johnson and this is The Backdrop a UC Davis podcast exploring the world of ideas.