Ukrainian cultural artifacts are under threat during the Russian invasion, but their digitization may offer some protection

During the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the possibility of cyber warfare was a constant threat. The consequences of a violation go far beyond a threat to national security. They expand and threaten cultural and artistic production — galleries, libraries, archives, museums and universities must be protected.

Read more: Libraries around the world help safeguard Ukrainian books and culture

The invasion of Ukraine was a hybrid war fought with traditional kinetic weapons alongside cyberattacks. The prelude to the war included widespread attacks on Ukrainian organizations. Although there have been preliminary reports of the disappointing performance of Russia’s legendary computing capabilities, the brutal reality of war does not easily match the precise planning required to stage a cyberattack.

Ukrainian archivists, curators and librarians protected physical and digital archives throughout the war. Monuments, such as the statue of the Duke of Richelieu in Odessa, were piled with sandbags. And an international coalition of archivists supports the less visible work to protect collections in institutions and libraries.

A statue of the Duke of Richelieu has been covered with sandbags to protect it from possible damage in Odessa, Ukraine.
(AP Photo/Max Pshybyshevsky)

Because digitization is a key aspect of this preservation work, it is time to consider the protection of digital infrastructures alongside economic, industrial and military objectives.

Review History

Putin’s rambling speech, days before the February 24 invasion, asserts that Ukraine is “an inalienable part of [Russia’s] own history, culture and spiritual space. The attempt to nullify Ukrainian culture is both a pretext for invasion and a military objective.

Ihor Poshyvailo, the general director of the Maidan museum in Kyiv, called on the world community to fight Putin’s “pseudohistory”.

This is not the first time that Poshyvailo has preserved history. In 2013, he helped preserve the history of the 2013 Euromaidan movement – ​​otherwise known as the Dignity Revolution – which toppled the pro-Putin regime of Viktor Yanukovych.

In a tweet marking the first month of the Russian invasion, Poshyvailo described how history and language are intertwined with identity:

It’s easy to imagine how a museum director might work quietly to collect and preserve the artifacts that tell the story of important things, people and events. In Ukraine, any material evidence of this democratic revolution is a threat to Putin’s autocratic regime, as he remains determined to alter reality to fit his limited view of history.

When the pretext for war is cultural non-existence, history and language become targets. As a genocidal and colonial project, the erasure of the past is a prerequisite for social control.

heroic deeds

Cultural preservation in times of war is a heroic act. An emergency response is currently underway at the Maidan Museum to quickly protect the artifacts by putting them out of harm’s way.

Ihor Poshyvailo, Director General of the Maidan Museum, speaks at the symposium organized by the Smithsonian Institution entitled “Current Approaches to the Conservation of Conflict-Affected Heritage”.

Emergency rescue of cultural heritage should be a feature of all conflicts, as previous incidents have shown. The destruction of the Afghan Buddhas in Bamiyan in 2001, the looting of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad in 2003 or the demolition in 2015 of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra in Syria are reminders of what we risk.

The digitization of cultural artifacts offers some promise of protection. But servers are just computers after all, and computers are fragile: they need constant power, network connections, and maintenance to keep running. Computers are also vulnerable to cyberattacks.

In a 2020 Microsoft Digital Defense Report, higher education ranked among the top six industry sectors targeted. Universities run large networks that attract criminals interested in running ransomware scams or cryptojacking (using a network without permission to mine cryptocurrency).

Research institutions are also targeted by governments interested in high-value data such as student personal and financial data. And universities often host online archives of cultural research and memory.

Preserving History

Supporting digital infrastructure for the collection and preservation of cultural history also means protecting these systems. Amazon Web Services won an award from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to preserve government digital infrastructure, but cultural organizations also need special protection. Data integrity isn’t just about long-term storage, it’s also about developing data recovery and mitigation plans in the event of a cyberattack.

Social media can be used to amplify attention to collections and their preservation. However, this can put cultural workers and their institutions at greater risk from hostile forces.

There have been other irritants to Russia’s cyber warfare efforts, including Ukraine’s volunteer IT army. This international collection of cybersecurity professionals volunteer their time and expertise to defend and harass Russia’s ability to wage cyber warfare.

Operating in any conflict-affected area requires training. Another volunteer army of digital archivists is busy collecting digital exhibits and website data from more than 1,500 Ukrainian museums and libraries. Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online has collected public data from thousands of websites. Under the supervision of professional librarians and archivists, the project team saved hundreds of sites from potential loss.

Going forward, digital archivists will need support from the wider security community to secure their operations and work safely in dangerous online environments. At this time, it is unclear whether these archives focused on cultural preservation will be used. Maybe those backups will never be needed. Or maybe they will represent a snapshot of Ukrainian history in a moment of crisis.

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