As anyone who knows me personally knows, I'm generally not reluctant to speak out in disagreement. But this post is about a time recently when I didn't, and I continue to regret it. The recent Museums and Politics conference was held at a very challenging time for many people and nations. The Russian government's actions in Ukraine, including both Crimea and the Donbass, have dismayed many, including me. Thousands have lost their lives in Eastern Ukraine in the continuing conflict. The governments of the United States and Germany (along with the European Union), the other conference co-sponsors, have imposed sanctions on Russia; but most of those who came to the conference came with the intention of listening and learning. It was a hard choice for me to come because ICOM Ukraine requested a boycott, but I did, with the same motivation--to listen and learn. In general, speakers and audience members were respectful, even of viewpoints that differed greatly from our own. For a full conference roundup, check out our conference blog.
However, one speaker embarked on a diatribe that I did not respond to and I should have; I wished I had had the courage in the moment to step forward with questions and clarifications. So I will respond here--that's the advantage of having my own blog, I suppose. Sergey Pushkarev, director of the Association of Preserves and Museums in Crimea gave a talk so filled with hate and vitriol that I was astounded. I'm relying here on my own notes from the simultaneous English translation and a colleague's notes from the German version. His accepted session proposal was to be about tourism in Crimea, a topic of critical importance to museums there. His topic published in the schedule in Yekaterinburg was about the state of Crimean museums now: also potentially a topic of interest. However, his talk could be be described as a tirade against the current Ukrainian government and its people.
He shouted his way through a talk that included the highly debatable point that, although fifty percent of Crimeans voted to join Russia, he personally was sure that 100% of people were in favor of it--and even more directly, that 90% of museum staff in Crimea are pro-Russian. As a corrective example, I'll just point to the recent search and closure of the Meijlis, the Crimean Tatar Parliament, in Simferopol. It's crystal clear that at least 12% of Crimea, the Crimean Tatar population, did not support the takeover in any way. And also very clear that it's dangerous in Crimea these days to support Ukraine.
He then accused the Ukrainian government of the misuse of funds for museums, but neglected to mention that this kind of corruption was exactly what led to Maidan and the ouster of President Yanukovych. He stated that Maidan was nothing more than an effort by the West to sever the ties of the Slavonic people: something I know that would be a surprise to those of you who stood on Maidan. He did state, correctly, that museums in Ukraine supported the anti-Russian campaign, although I expect those museums would describe it as a campaign for dignity, human rights, and a just society rather than an anti-Russian campaign.
Not surprisingly, he addressed the issue of Crimean artifacts on loan to a museum in Amsterdam, having said a letter was sent requesting their return. As I understand it, some of those objects have already been returned to Ukraine, as they were, and continue to be, state property. Negotiations for the remaining artifacts are ongoing. He also assured the audience that no objects would be removed from Crimea to Russia.
He accused Blue Shield Ukraine of being active on Maidan, but not caring for what was happening to museums in eastern Ukraine, particularly mentioning the local history museum in Donetsk. I've actually been to that museum (and I bet he hasn't). Its destruction is heart-breaking, particularly since it's been very hard to get information and clear documentation because the area surrounding the museum is still controlled by separatists. However, Ukrainian museums and the Ministry of Culture are supporting their colleagues and the museum there in whatever possible ways given the situation and the extremely limited resources of Ukraine's current government. Museums in Kyiv have offered working space for those colleagues who have left the Donbass and Kyiv museums are helping to raise funds for the eventual repair of those museums damaged by the conflict. I believe the Ministry has begun holding some disaster preparedness sessions and Blue Shield is making significant attempts to learn about the state of all endangered museums and cultural sites in Ukraine.
He ran over time, had to be interrupted by the moderator, and so there was no time for questions. As I wrote at the beginning of the post, I wish now I had not made the decision to be a good guest, but rather that I had stepped forward with questions, despite the press of time. To Mr. Pushkarev, I hope next time you present facts rather than polemics. To my Ukrainian colleagues and friends, my apologies, my support, and the small amends of this post.
Image: Chufut Kale, from a visit to Crimea in 2011.