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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Robert Bevan’s <I>The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War</I>

27 February, 2007 - 00:00

In his book The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War published in London in 2006 Robert Bevan, the journalist and former editor of the British architectural weekly Building Design, argues that the intentional destruction of any country’s architectural monuments not only has an impact on the nation’s moral state; it is also an act of eradicating the memory of culture and ultimately, its very existence.

For every nation, architecture is a cult object acquiring the significance of a totem — a mystical protector of the people. A church building is not simply a temple; it also represents a society’s presence in time, its cultural memory. It is material proof of its real existence and the legitimacy of its history. Bevan concludes that the sometimes subconscious goal of destroying others’ architectural monuments may be to capture the territory and introduce a new national, religious, and ideological identity. To prove his opinion, he quotes the words of Milan Kundera: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

“The war against architecture” is waged because historical buildings always have a special meaning for people, a meaning that can be destroyed, and trampled. Bevan rightly notes that conquerors often use new structures in order to form and falsify the history and national identity of the conquered peoples. That is why “war against architecture” is not haphazard but rather a well thought out policy of “forced forgetting,” the process of raising “janissaries,” and attacks on libraries, sacred places, and monuments — these are acts of cultural cleansing.

A number of reviews of Bevan’s book have appeared in the Western press. Critics write that genocide and vandalism are fatally linked with each other. The practice of conquests serves as proof of this. Therefore, the threat to our monuments is a threat to our collective identity. It is about where we belong, our sense of ourselves. Reviewers note that the book documents a monstrous subject: the devastation of culture in times of conflict — houses, libraries, and paintings, that is, everything that forms a nation’s feelings of pride and identity and manifests its worthiness and power.

Bevan describes a cultural war as a thoroughly negative activity that removes or destroys memory, buildings, and identity; activity that strives for a state of devastation, emptiness, and poverty. Critics recall the destruction of Jewish synagogues, the bombing of Dresden, and recent episodes of ethnic or cultural cleansing in Palestine, Bosnia, and other countries.

Bevan’s book analyzes several countries whose historical culture was devastated by conquerors. In 1950 there were 6,000 Buddhist monasteries in Tibet. After 30 years of Chinese government control only 10 monasteries remain. The devastation of Tibetan culture includes such actions as the removal of the Seventh Dalai Lama’s relics and sepulcher (five-meter-high statues made of bronze and gold) to Shanghai. The eradication of the Tibetan people’s memory — one of the oldest — is also actively taking place. This tactic may be compared only to Ukraine’s Holodomor of the 1930s.

Bevan devotes considerable attention to an analysis of Ukraine’s modern history, where during the 1930s architectural monuments of the Ukrainian Baroque were destroyed in cities, and unique wood churches were razed to the ground in villages. During this period almost all the wood churches in Ukraine’s central oblasts and every last tall wood church on the Left Bank were destroyed. This was a “struggle against Ukrainian nationalism,” Bevan writes, noting that the fate of these churches is one of the most painful tragedies in the modern history of architecture, which may be compared to the loss of wood synagogues.

Today in Ukraine people are “ashamed” to recall the destruction of 1930s artworks by such well-known artists as Anatolii Petrytsky or the members of the Boichuk school. The devastation of Ukraine’s cultural heritage continued after the Second World War, and despite international commitments to preserve cultural values, the works of the Boichukisty, Archipenko, and Narbut in the Lviv State Museum of Ukrainian Art were destroyed. Later, collections of rare books in the country’s main library were set on fire again.

In his discussion of the Soviet Union, Bevan writes that national cultures, languages, and history were trampled or crossed out in order to create a new history, including the history of architecture, which would be consistent with the Russification of the Soviet republics. Ukraine suffered tremendously as a result of this policy. Its peasantry starved, its intelligentsia was annihilated, and its towns were plundered. In once beautiful Kyiv, the heart of the Ukrainian Church and nationalism, architectural monuments were also ruined.

In his book the English journalist states that “in the 20th century approximately 10,000 historic Ukrainian architectural monuments disappeared in the times of the “new orders” under Stalin and Hitler. Describing the Nazis’ racial theories about the annihilation and enslavement of the Slavs and the eradication of their culture, Bevan says that Kyiv is proof of this annihilation. By the end of the war not just Kyiv lay in ruins. The scorched earth policy of the retreating Germans caused devastation that stretched from Leningrad to the Crimea.