Cultural Genocide in Ukraine: The Systemic Destruction of a People

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Brief history and the key definitions

In 1944, Raphaël Lemkin, a Polish Jewish lawyer,  coined the term “genocide” to describe the brutal practices in countries occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II. Having experienced different elements of genocide first hand, through the extermination of his family and being forced to flee Poland, he wrote the book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, with the primary intention of seeking accountability. In his view,

“Genocide has two phases: one, the destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group, the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor… Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.’’  (Lemkin 1944: 79)

What does Lemkin mean by ‘different actions’? And how could these actions be described and differentiated from each other? For the sake of our focus in this article, let us lay out key definitions on the ‘techniques of genocide’.

Physical genocide is considered to be the mass killing of the members of a targeted group, and biological genocide is the destruction/diminishing of the group’s reproductive capacity. Cultural genocide is the destruction of societal heritage through the concentration of assimilation elements and synchronised attacks on different aspects of life. The practices can materialize in the form of the targeting of education systems, languages, literary traditions, customs related to traditional clothing and more. Both physical and biological genocides are extreme forms of violence, and it is easy to grasp why they are considered crimes under international law. On the other hand, the moral and political weight of the eradication of certain communities by depriving their unique social and cultural identity has been on the agenda of genocide scholars for years. Why then has the concept of cultural genocide remained controversial to this day?

One of the main reasons is the lack of a shared definition of what cultural genocide means in the realm of governments, making it hard to tackle the topic in the legal forums. Over the years, several experts in the genocide studies community have been pushing to free and decolonize the word ‘genocide’ from its association to physical and biological genocides, i.e., the Holocaust. That being said, there has yet to be an alignment on the (re)definition of the term. Another important reason is the limited research, interest, and actual analysis on cases of cultural genocides and potential interdependencies between cultural, physical, and biological forms of genocide among the occupied nations.

Despite the commonality of most violent practices, the faces and layers of genocide could differ from one occupation to another. In the following sections, we would like to dive into the ways in which cultural genocide has been used as a mean to structurally violate and eradicate the Ukrainian heritage by Russian regimes over the course of centuries.


The case of Ukraine

According to the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission, since the war first broke in Ukraine, an approximate 16,000 people – including 5,767 civilians – have been murdered (Monitoring UN 9th Sept): among them – were 377 children (Prosecutors General office –; while another 9,000 civilians were injured. Though, the actual numbers are likely to be far greater than the reported statistics. What is talked about less than the human and territorial losses is the subsequent loss of culture, customs, and the orchestrated annihilation of Ukrainian national identity. The Ministry of Culture and Information Policy confirmed 493 cases of destruction of cultural heritage and institutions: 166 religious buildings were destroyed or damaged, 66 of them are renown monuments of history, architecture and urban planning.

Some might argue that such casualties are only a by-product of the war, mere collateral damage. However, if we take a closer look at Putin’s rhetoric that Ukraine is nothing other than a deviation from the Great Mother Russia together with the long history of Russian colonization and the policy of Russification, it becomes more and more clear that a cultural genocide is taking place.

Cultural genocide is an old tool of the Russian regimes. Although the Russian Empire was relatively late to the game – its colonisation politics fully unravelled in the XVII-XIX centuries with the annexation of Central Asia – the aftermath in Eastern Europe and Central Asia are on par with those who suffered from the British Empire. In the colonized societies, the population underwent mass resettlements, physical genocide, and the states were transformed into the production centres without functional economies.

What happened to the national identities of victim states? In the case of Russia, the state has employed the politics of Russification, a policy aimed at assimilating local ethnicities by erasing their language, folk tradition, art and culture by direct prohibition of the local languages in public spheres (i.e., governmental institutions, schools, literature, theatres, public organisations) paired with the executions and repressions against local inteligencia and opposition. The example of this policy has taken place in “The Stans” (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan), Crimea, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Finland, Litva, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine. Russification supported the narrative that the Russian Empire, later USSR and now the Russian Federation, has the right to annex and colonise other states because those states and their population are not autonomous and independent but rather are deviations of the Russian state and identity.

The long-standing policy has been evidently employed by the Russian regimes throughout the history of Ukraine. In the XIX century Tsar Nikolai II declared– “There is no Ukrainian language, just illiterate peasants speaking Little Russian.” Ukraine itself was named Malorossiya – “Little Russia ”. The Ukrainian Uniate Church was absorbed into the Russian Orthodoxed Church. Literature and spoken word were outlawed. World renowned poet and writer Taras Shevchenko as well as many other Ukrainian-speaking artists landed in exile or were executed. Expectedly, these practices led to a low literacy rate among the Ukrainian population in the years that ensued.

The Russian revolution came in 1917 and Ukraine experienced a short-lived revival of its national identity in the form of political parties, freedom of speech, as well as with social and cultural organisations coming into life. However, as in 1919 Bolsheviks seized power in Kyiv, the rise of Ukrainian culture met its demise.

Holodomor, the man-made famine of 1932-1933, is still debated to be a physical genocide against Ukrainians to this date. It is a widespread belief in the Ukranian society that the famine was a physical genocide aimed at the Ukrainian peasantry. Out of 5 million people in the Soviet Union who perished in the famine, 4 million were Ukrainians. Alongside the physical destruction of Ukrainians, the Soviets announced a campaign against “nationalist deviations”, a body of decrees, policies and actions aimed to destroy Ukrainian culture and the cultures of other Soviet Republics that were not inherently Russian. Writers, artists, pro-Ukrainian public figures were executed or sent to exile. The wave or executions washed away the Ukrainian cultural elite.

During WWI, when the Russian Empire occupied Galicia, a part of Ukraine formerly ruled by the Austrian Empire, Ukrainian literature and cultural organisations were forbidden and public figures prosecuted.

Russification continued after the WWII and Stalinist era and during the Khrushev rule. The party developed the theory of “fusion of the nations”, where local languages and traditions were to be diffused in favour of the one Russian language as the path to communism. Naturally, literature, periodicals, and schoolbooks in Ukrainian became extinct.


The fall of the Soviet Union

The rise of nationalism during Gorbachev and his attempts at rebuilding the USSR (period known as “Perestroika”) in the late 1980s led to the mobilisation of civil society. This mobilisation awakened the cultural identity that later took political direction and ultimately led to the fall of the Soviet Union. In August 1991, Ukraine proclaimed independence. Since then, the Putin regime grew increasingly concerned about Ukraine’s ambitions to transform into a European state and so join the EU. These aspirations were not in line with the imperial mission of Putin. War in the East, Annexation of Crimea, and, recently, the full-blown invasion into Ukrainian territory have been bleeding out the country. Russification of Ukraine and other countries that have had bad luck with neighbouring Russia never stopped during Putin. Besides the loss of lives and physical destructions of the cities, one can argue the cultural form of the genocide is taking place as well.

Putin’s essay “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians” vocalises Putin’s colonial ambition despite not holding a basic fact-check. On the eve of the invasion on February 21st 2022, Putin claimed in his speech that “Ukraine is not just a neighbouring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.” This rhetoric has been pretty much laying the groundwork for his actions to dismantle Ukrainian national identity and culture, alter history, and erase traditions.

Along with the destruction of museums, churches, memorials and other sites of cultural heritage, and trafficking of cultural artefacts, Ukraine has been witnessing mass deportations and kidnapping. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed forcible relocations of up to 1.6 million Ukrainians from the occupied territories into Russia. 260,000 of those are children. These are characteristics of physical and cultural genocide and must be recognized as war crimes. It also resonates with Russian “filtration” tactics employed, for example, in Chechnya and other regions. People who do not pass “filtration” due to their political views are transported to incarceration facilities or executed.

In the occupied territories, the school system is also undergoing alterations as the history needs to be re-written and children are being re-educated. Teachers are forced to use the new Pro-Kremlin curriculum. They are provided with Russian textbooks where most of the references to Ukraine are purged and the Ukrainian language is prohibited.

There have also been reports, although unconfirmed, about the Russian military forces burning books in the occupied territories. As the famous quote by Heinrich Heine goes “First they burn books and then they start burning bodies”. Very sadly in Ukraine, both of these actions are happening simultaneously.


In a nutshell

Taking all these reports into consideration, it is evident that the destruction of Ukrainian national identity and culture is not a collateral victim of the war but an intentional and smartly devised agenda. Throughout history, cultural genocide has been a part of the internal and external political strategy of Imperial Russia (USSR and the current regime) directed against neighbouring countries. The current situation in Ukraine is just one example of cultural genocide of the last centuries, along with policies directed at indigenous people in Canada and US, at Kurdish people in Turkey, and at Palestinians in Israel through various political strategies.

The list goes on and on… Tragically, the “Never Again” quote did not prove to be prophetic. Cultural genocide is a tool employed by several totalitarian regimes to achieve its goals despite the downgraded status of the term in the international discourse and policy making practices. Back to Ukraine, the war of 2022 has clearly showed how intertwined physical and cultural genocide politics are and how imperative it is to watch out for the tell-tale cultural destruction signs in the day-to-day life of occupied territories.


*We must mention that the authors of the article in no way support but condemn nationalistic movements, including the ones in Ukraine. Preserving national identity, language, culture, history, and tradition does not equal nationalism and/or fascism; it means preservation and finding a sense of belonging.*


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