Byline Times talks to Susie Symes, Chair of the Museum of Immigration, about the arrest of Leyla Ibragimova and what it tells us about how authoritarian and repressive regimes attack culture and memory

Leyla Ibragimova, deputy of Zaporizhia Regional Council and the Director of the Melitopol History Museum in Ukraine has been arrested by Russian forces, according to reports on Twitter, by the Svidomi news website, and on the Interfax-Ukraine news agency. 

The arrest was also reported on Facebook by Eskender Bariyev, Head of the Crimean Tatar Resource Centre. Bariyev’s post reported how at 6 am, a group of plain-clothes Russian men broke into Ibragimova’s house, conducted a search, took her phones, before she was “taken to an unknown direction”. Her arrest has also been referred to as a kidnapping.

Leyla Ibragimova is from the indigenous Crimean minority group. The ethnic group has for a long-time been a target of Russian repression, alongside efforts to erase their history.

Susie Symes, Chair of the Museum of Immigration at 19 Princelet Street, told Byline Times that the targeting of cultural figures and symbols is “a way of destroying people’s connectivity with ideas, with place and with each other. It’s breaking up those linkages”. 

That Ibragimova is a Museum director is specifically significant. Good museums, said Symes, “recognise that there isn’t a single story. They explore history, they explore contested and complex ideas. Authoritarian regimes and occupying powers absolutely do not want that to happen. They want to impose a single story. So it’s not a surprise that repressive regimes turn on museums, as museums are the holders of history and culture”.  

Ibragimova is the first known civilian to have been arrested in Melitopol since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russian forces are reportedly searching the homes of Crimean-Tartars in the occupied territories adjacent to Crimea.

The city in the south of Ukraine was attacked by Russian forces on 25 February. Despite Ukraine forces reclaiming the city during the fighting that followed, since 1 March it has been under Russian control. 

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An Attack on Free Thought

The arrest of Ibragimova offers a chilling echo from history, as Russian forces launch an attack on Ukraine’s cultural heritage as well as its people and cities. 

During the 1930s, Stalin launched an assault on Ukraine’s cultural heritage, as Ukrainian poets, thinkers and intellectuals were arrested, sent to the Gulag or sentenced to death. 

In the decade leading up to the purges, Ukraine in the 1920s was a period of creative experimentalism and excitement, as after years of subjugation under Tsarist Russia, the country sought to embolden its national identity. The period was dubbed the “Ukraine Renaissance” – but soon that renaissance fell under Stalin’s axe. 

Throughout the 1930s, the Soviet Union launched a campaign to remove and exterminate Ukraine’s intelligentsia, with 223 writers imprisoned or executed during the Great Purge of 1938. Some estimate that up to 30,000 Ukrainian intellectuals were repressed during the purges, and the number of literary works published by Ukrainians dropped from 259 writers in 1930 to 36 in 1938. 

Among those targeted was the poet Ievhen Pluzhnyk who was sentenced to death in 1935, although his sentence was later reduced to imprisonment in a concentration camp where he died within the year. 

During the same period, the Soviet Union committed genocide against the Ukrainian people with the Holodomor, when millions died in a man-made famine. 

Symes referred to Perm 36 – the gulag museum which in 2014 was taken over in what many saw as a way to erase the history of political repression it was designed to memorialise. “It was cleansed of all its uncomfortable references,” Syme explained. “There was a period of time in Russia where it was looking back to an awful period in its history and trying to make things better. Closing that discussion down is an absolute tactic of authoritarian regimes”. 


Genocidal Acts

The targeting of cultural heritage during war and conflict has been considered a form of genocide, making the arrest of Ibragimova even more concerning. 

A policy briefing published by the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) to the International Criminal Court (ICC) explains how “crimes against and affecting cultural heritage are a pervasive feature of the atrocities within the [ICC]’s jurisdiction. Willful attacks on cultural heritage constitute a centuries-old practice that remains a feature of modern conflict”. 

Such crimes, the briefing continued, “constitute, first and foremost, an attack on a particular group’s identity and practices, but in addition, an attack on an essential interest of the entire international community”.

This was the approach of Stalin’s regime as it persecuted Ukraine’s cultural heritage in the 1930s. In more recent years, Daesh’s destruction of historic monuments such as the ancient structures in Palmyra, and the Taliban’s bombing of the Bamiyan Buddhas, have been labelled as a acts of cultural genocide. 

“Human history is full of attacks on cultural symbols simply as a way to repress opposition,” said Symes, citing Henry VIII’s destruction of the monasteries as a UK example. 

Putin’s speech given before the invasion focused on how an independent Ukraine’s status as a sovereign nation was unacceptable, that the former Soviet republics shouldn’t have left the USSR, and an independent Ukraine should not exist. This denial of the country’s right to existence is, in itself, a genocidal threat. 

Symes believes the cultural sector has a role to play in showing solidarity to individuals and spaces under attack by ensuring it “holds on to the freedoms to tell multiple stories and not be neutral in exploring ideas and complexity. We may be almost powerless to impact what is happening in Ukraine but we are not powerless in making sure we uphold our values in our own spaces”.

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