Two organizations at the intersection of technology, human rights, and “hacker culture” — Forensic Architecture (FA) and the Center for Spatial Technologies (CST) — have partnered on a series of investigations into Russian war crimes in Ukraine, beginning with an in-depth study of the deadly military strike on a Kyiv TV tower near the Babyn Yar memorial.
CST, based in Kyiv and headed by its director Maksym Rokmaniko, has pursued a number of disparate research questions. One project asked how the construction of the High Line in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood influenced property values in the surrounding area. Another, done in concert with the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, involved 3D spatial modeling of the massacres that took place during World War II in Babyn Yar, when German Nazis killed over 100,000 Jews, Ukrainian political prisoners, Roma people, Soviet prisoners of war, and psychiatric patients. But the main focus has always been sustainable urban design, Rokmaniko explained at the Tbilisi Architecture Biennial in 2020.
Much has changed since then. On February 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine. Within minutes, rockets and airstrikes rained down on Ukrainian cities. Rokmaniko fled Kyiv with his family the next day, pausing in the Carpathian Mountains before relocating to Berlin. Soon after, CST put its other projects on pause to dedicate its time to analyzing Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, and Eyal Weizman, founder of the Goldsmiths-based research group Forensic Architecture, reached out to ensure that Rokmaniko was safe.
They had talked once before: Rokmaniko was an admirer of Weizman’s work and hoped to build on his methods. Now they had a reason to work together to expose Russia’s heedless destruction of Ukrainian cultural and historical patrimony.
On June 10, CST and FA published the results of their first investigation — an analysis of the Russian strike on Kyiv TV Tower, which took place on March 1, killing at least five people and wiping out broadcasting for a day. It was a targeted assault on the tallest building in Ukraine, which nevertheless remained standing. The missile also happened to fall near Babyn Yar. President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted, “What is the point of saying ‘never again’ for 80 years, if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar?”
On one hand, Rokmaniko was shocked by the attack. On the other hand, the researcher in him wanted to respond to the facts coldly, pinpointing the precise location of the massacre in September 1941 — which was not exactly known — and the site of the Russian attack.
By analyzing light that the missile emitted and modeling smoke plumes, CST and FA were able to trace the first strike to an air-launched cruise missile. They were also able to confirm that a second strike, which missed the tower, instead hit a building that was meant to house the new Museum of the Holocaust in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, an arm of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center.
Using archival topographic maps from the 20th century, photographs, and witness testimonies, researchers generated a digital model of the topography of Babyn Yar and how it had changed over the past century. This allowed them to identify the location of the first strike as a former Russian Orthodox cemetery, and the location of the second strike as a Jewish cemetery that also included plots for Muslims and Crimean Karaites.
For the first time, CST was also able to precisely locate sites where mass executions took place in 1941. These facts were not previously known because of extensive efforts by both Germans and Soviets to erase the memory of the catastrophic events that had taken place there. CST’s findings will likely have bearing on any attempt to construct a memorial on the site in the future.
“You can see traces of missiles flying in the same exact locations [during WWII in Kyiv],” Rokmaniko told Hyperallergic, “except those were Ukrainians and Russians fighting against Germans together.” He notes that Ukrainians suffered disproportionate casualties in World War II.
The goals of this work, Rokmaniko said, are twofold: “It’s both to show what’s happening [in the Russian war in Ukraine], and what exactly are the consequences of that, but also to dig deeper into these kinds of historical and cultural layers to show that these forces did not appear out of the blue. They’ve been fighting one another for centuries.”
He adds that being able to see historical resonances in contemporary events is “one of the few ways that people get excited about historic material.”
Their report also emphasizes that this attack was an instance of a broader strategy in which Russia has directly targeted TV towers and broadcast centers. In just one month, 32 TV channels and dozens of radio stations were affected by Russian attacks.
“Targeting them is both symbolic and practical in trying to win this kind of fight over the narrative,” Rokmaniko said. To his dismay, Russia has succeeded in sowing disinformation among certain groups of Ukrainians. A friend told him recently that some elderly people, who had little access to news or the outside world outside of Russian radio, were so starved of explanations for what was happening that they believed claims that Ukrainian militants were responsible for the attacks.
“The history of the site is not only one of violence but of different practices of cover-up and negation,” FA’s report concludes. FA and CST’s new collaboration seeks to prevent that negation which is central to Russia’s imperialistic attack on Ukraine.