Cultural heritage under threat in Ukraine

Maria Piechowska
Polish Institute of International Affairs

In Ukraine, millions of people have been forced to flee their homes, while the Russian Armed Forces continue to bombard cities and civilian infrastructure. However, Russia’s military operations in Ukraine also pose a threat to the country’s historical, cultural, and natural heritage. The very first days of the invasion saw the destruction of the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum, near Kyiv, which housed dozens of works by Maria Prymachenko. Born at the beginning of the 20th century, Prymachenko was a Ukrainian folk artist who worked in the naïve art style. Her drawings were displayed at the 1937 International Fair in Paris. Prymachenko’s dreamlike paintings, full of nonexistent creatures and plans, were admired by such artists as Pablo Picasso.

Ukraine is home to seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The ones currently under the greatest threat are those located in Kyiv: the Pechersk Lavra and the Saint-Sophia Cathedral. The latter dates back to the early 11th century, and contains examples of stunning frescoes and mosaics that have survived from the 11th and 12th centuries. Kyiv is one of the main targets attacked by the Russian Armed Forces, and the city is being shelled on a regular basis.

In addition to the sites located in Kyiv, the UNESCO list includes the Old Town in Lviv, the Wooden Tserkvas of the Carpathian Region, and the Residence of Bukovinian and Dalmatian Metropolitans in Chernivtsi, among others. These sites are some distance away from current hostilities, but it is difficult to predict how the war in Ukraine will progress.

Furthermore, the official tentative UNESCO list (sites that may be nominated for inclusion in the main list) contains additional locations in Ukraine. Among them are sites that are now directly in the zone of active hostilities, such as the historic center of Chernihiv, the Kamyana Mohyla archaeological site, the constructivist Derzhprom building in Kharkiv, completed in 1928, and the Askania-Nova biosphere reserve in the Kherson Oblast.

These sites are under serious threat. On February 28, Russian bombardment of Chernihiv destroyed buildings in the direct vicinity of the Transfiguration Cathedral. The cathedral survived the Mongol invasion, but will it survive Russian aggression? Another city currently under bombardment is Kharkiv, where the regional administration building, located near Derzhprom, was destroyed. Similarly, sites in Mykolaiv, Odesa, and other cities are under grave threat.

A range of efforts are being undertaken in Ukraine to protect the country’s material culture. Where possible, objects such as free-standing monuments are shielded with protective and fire-retardant materials, while historical fittings and museum collections are removed and stored in bomb shelters. The Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance has announced the creation of the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Rescue Team, whose main objectives include the protection of museum collections.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Information Policy (MCIP) has assured that it remains in contact with cultural institutions and that the exhibits and collections are being moved to secure locations. Additionally, the MCIP has asked the public not to disseminate the methods used to secure museums or the locations where collections are stored, due to security concerns. Since the start of the invasion, UNESCO has called for the protection of Ukraine’s cultural heritage. The organization is working with Ukrainian authorities to mark the country’s most important sites with a Blue Shield, the international symbol used to protect cultural property during armed conflict. The Ministry of Culture and Information Policy has also launched a dedicated website for the purpose of documenting damage. Individuals who have witnessed the destruction of cultural heritage sites can upload photographic evidence, which will then be verified and submitted to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

The protection of cultural heritage is regulated by the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its two protocols. The document ensures the inviolability of cultural property that has been granted special protection. But will Russian forces, who do not hesitate to attack regular people, hesitate to attack a church or a museum?

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