After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, John Hall, JD ’00, followed the war from his vantage point as a professor at Chapman University Fowler School of Law in Orange, CA. Hall, a human rights and international law scholar, felt helpless and horrified. Finally, as the 2022-23 school year started to wind down, he decided he needed to go to Ukraine to see what he could do to help. He spent the summer of 2023 volunteering with the highly regarded Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group.
Hall, a native of England who also specializes in art law, spent two weeks in the capital, Kiev, and seven weeks in Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine, 18 miles from the Russian border. He supported Ukrainian lawyers as they worked seven days a week to build cases for what they hope will be eventual war crimes actions against Russia in the International Criminal Court, as well as other courts and tribunals.
He also experienced frequent missile attacks and bore witness to the daily destruction unleashed across Ukraine.
Hall spent much of his time gathering evidence of a Russian objective that he says often gets lost in the news coverage of so much human tragedy. “Putin’s goal is to erase Ukrainian culture, heritage and history,” Hall says. “Russia is attempting to do that by systematically targeting, destroying, and looting museums, libraries, galleries, theaters, historical buildings, archives, and monuments. I came to understand that this destruction of Ukrainian culture is central to Putin’s war. He’s trying to destroy any idea of a separate and independent Ukrainian culture.”
Here, Hall discusses his work in Ukraine, which merged his human rights and art law expertise, including the monumental efforts of the Ukrainian lawyers with whom he worked and the shocking stories he heard.
You focused your research and evidence-gathering on Russia’s destruction of Ukraine’s cultural heritage. What did you learn?
Kharkiv, an industrial and university city where I spent most of my time, was a place of learning, culture, and history, with a vibrant music and arts scene. After months of Russian bombardment, many of the key cultural sites are now in ruins. University buildings have been struck by guided missiles and are empty shells. Music venues, theaters, museums, and art galleries have been struck. The ruined cultural sites across Ukraine speak to a Russian goal rarely discussed in the media: this is a war intended to erase Ukrainian culture, heritage and history. Putin and Russian pundits have been questioning the very existence of an independent Ukraine, calling the Ukrainian leadership and its supporters “fascists” and “neo-Nazis” as justification for their illegal invasion. Erasing Ukraine’s cultural centers goes to the heart of Putin’s vision of Ukraine as not having its own culture and heritage, which is, of course, entirely false.
What are some examples of this deliberate destruction of Ukrainian culture?
Unfortunately, there are many. In March 2022, the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater in Mariupol was destroyed by a bomb dropped by a Russian aircraft. At least 600 civilians were killed who had been taking shelter there. The building was clearly marked “children.” In February 2022, a museum in Ivankiv dedicated to the beloved folk artist Maria Prymachenko was partially burned down and destroyed, resulting in a loss of 23 paintings by the artist. In April 2023, a Russian missile erased a history museum in Kupiansk.
One of the most obvious ideological attacks on Ukrainian identity occurred in May 2022, when Russian missiles targeted the historic home of Ukraine’s most famous poet and philosopher Hryhoriy Skovoroda, located in the isolated and otherwise insignificant village of Skovorodynivka. Skovoroda has been of enormous influence to generations of Ukrainians since the 18th century, and is seen as a symbol of Ukrainian heritage. Russia, however, claims Skovoroda as its own, and the destruction of his home was a way of erasing links to Ukraine.
What kind of evidence-gathering and day-to-day work did you engage in?
My work primarily involved analyzing, verifying, and collecting disparate eyewitness and media reports and photographs of the destruction of historical buildings, libraries, galleries and so forth. I then assessed suitable legal theories, if any, that this evidence would support, whether claims under the 1954 Hague Convention, the 1970 UNESCO Convention, the Genocide Convention, or customary international law.
I plan on completing a law review article about the legal issues relating to the destruction of cultural heritage in Ukraine. I am hoping to return to Ukraine next summer to continue my work there, but that depends on locating some financial support.
What was it like to work with the Ukrainian lawyers?
It was an honor for me to be working alongside them and the little I could contribute paled in comparison to what they were doing. I was always very conscious of my role there as a foreigner, but I could use my role as an experienced human rights attorney to offer a degree of psychological support if nothing else. These were very young attorneys. The majority were in their twenties. They risked their lives routinely to go to places where bad things have happened. Every day, they engage in interview after interview after interview, where people come in and break down and tell them the worst possible things. They’ve been doing that for well over a year now, seven days a week. They were lovely, amazing, dedicated people, and clearly exhausted. They have put aside their own traumas and their own psychological well-being in order to serve their clients 24/7. It was so moving to see.
Are you able to share some of these stories you heard from Ukrainian survivors?
I knew from my past human rights work that right now, at this point in my life, I could work more effectively on the destruction of Ukraine’s cultural heritage rather than engaging directly with survivors, people who have been brutalized, raped, or whose families were murdered. As my career has gone on, I’ve become more and more aware of the sometimes inappropriate way that particularly white males go into conflict situations with this sort of “savior complex” and it did not feel right to me, in this context, where I don’t speak the language. Honestly, there was also an element of protecting myself from psychological trauma. But you can’t avoid the stories. They’re everywhere. You’d talk to someone on a train and learn they had lost their entire family.
Once I was driving down the street in a village near Bucha (site of a documented Russian massacre of civilians in early 2022) with a couple of my colleagues. We stopped to take some photos and an elderly woman came out to talk to us. She told us how when the Russians were there they sat in their armored personnel carriers on this long street that ran through the village and if they saw people on the street, they would just shoot them. They’d get drunk and shoot people. They rounded up the young women and the children. They put them in a basement. They raped them and killed many of them.
She told us how some of the older people in the village were starving because the Russians wouldn’t allow anybody out of their houses. So her husband would deliver food in the village at night. The Russians saw him and shot him and wouldn’t allow her to pick up his body for several weeks. And when they left, they set fire to her house and a lot of other houses. Her son, who was away at university at the time, and couldn’t come back, obviously, when the Russians were there, finally did come back when the Russians left and he was so infuriated, he joined the Ukrainian army and was later killed in Bakhmut. So there’s this poor, elderly woman who lost everything, whose house was burnt down, and she’s now living in a little metal container house provided by the government.
The longer I was in Ukraine the angrier I became. With Putin, obviously, and his cronies, who organized the invasion. But also with the violent, brutish and undisciplined behavior of the Russian army and their allies.
Did you ever feel in danger yourself?
There had been no attacks on Kiev for about six months when I first arrived there, but then there was this sudden flurry of significant air attacks. The Patriot air defense system had just been installed a week or two before I got there. So the Patriots were going off all around my hotel shooting missiles down. I don’t think I’d been there long enough to be truly fearful. Oddly, I felt somewhat distanced, and in a way it even felt fascinating to be experiencing first-hand such historical events.
One night in Kharkiv, I was very scared. I was at the hotel and there was an explosion in the distance. The sirens went off and so I went down to the basement with the rest of the staff and guests. A few minutes later, there was a huge percussive explosion. The hotel shook and dust came down from the ceiling. Everyone started shouting and then there was this strong smell of burning. We ran back upstairs to make sure the hotel wasn’t on fire. As things started to settle down, I offered some chocolate to a Ukrainian couple and when I went to unpeel the wrapper, I found I couldn’t do it because my hands were shaking so badly. I looked at my hands and it was as though they belonged to someone else. The next day, we learned the missile hit several blocks away on the road. It knocked out all of the water and power, so our hotel didn’t have water for close to a week.
Why did you choose to work with the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group?
Before I went to Ukraine, I researched the different human rights organizations that were available. In my years of working with human rights NGOs around the world, I’ve learned it is very important to identify legitimate organizations. There are too many that are just used for fundraising and aren’t necessarily doing anything particularly valuable. The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group is the oldest human rights group in Ukraine. Prior to the Russian invasion, it was deeply involved in anti-corruption efforts—and corruption was and is a huge problem in Ukraine. Most importantly, the founder and co-chair is Evgeny Zakharov, who has been a prominent human rights activist since the Soviet era. I knew of his extraordinary reputation and was well aware of his work with the Helsinki Human Rights Union and the Nobel Prize-winning international human rights organization, Memorial. It was the honor of my life to be able to work with him.
How optimistic are you that Putin or others eventually will be tried for war crimes?
Perhaps the chance of seeing Putin in the dock isn’t high, at least at the moment—though never say never. But that is rather missing the point. Documenting the crimes preserves the possibility of future justice and will form the basis for assessing damages and reparations. An accurate record of the extent of the crimes counters a false Russian narrative of events. Humanitarian organizations like this one also serve a very important psychological function in that they allow victims to talk to somebody who listens, who documents their experience, takes them seriously, and creates both a legal and an historical record. The survivors of Russian atrocities are so often deeply traumatized by recent events, that it is important that they have a sense of agency. They need to know that their suffering, their appalling loss, is visible, documented, and will not be forgotten. That, in short, their lives count. It is our duty to make sure that they do.
John Hall teaches International Law, Human Rights, Torts, and Employment Law at Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law. A native of England, he received a B.A.(Hons.) in American Studies from Sussex University and a Doctorate in Modern History from Oxford University. His doctoral dissertation, “Quieting the Storm: The Reestablishment of Order in Post-Revolutionary South Carolina,” was awarded the Sara Norton Prize in History. For 10 years he was a professor and department chair at Albion College in Michigan, where he taught courses in early American and military history. While at SLS, he became the first student twice awarded the Carl Mason Franklin Prize in International Law. Hall has carried out extensive Human Rights fieldwork in Cambodia, where his research centers on factory conditions, the bringing to justice of the Khmer Rouge, and human trafficking, and the Philippines.