These Are The Cultural Treasures Under Threat Of Destruction In Ukraine

Medieval monuments in ancient cities, priceless art, world heritage sites - Ukraine has a vast trove of cultural treasures which are all under threat as Russia continues to bomb the country. Here's what is in danger of being destroyed and what is being done to save Ukraine's rich and irreplaceable cultural heritage.

The historical city center of Lviv in Ukraine

The bombing of cities during the Russian invasion of Ukraine has elicited concerns about destruction of ancient treasures. The historic squares in Kharkiv and Chernihiv were attacked, and missile strikes have targetted a local history museum in Ivankiv and the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial in Kyiv. Russia has targetted buildings situated close to the historic complexes in the city of Lviv, and Kyiv’s Cathedral of Saint Sophia. Among the heritage that has already been destroyed is a museum that had works by renowned Ukrainian painter Maria Prymachenko, whose art was admired by Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall. In a video recorded recently, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that Moscow had flattened a 19th-century wooden church in the village of Viazivka, in the western Zhytomyr region. Volunteers are racing to cover and save the incredible stained glass windows of the Latin Cathedral, Dormition Church and St George’s, on the hilltop above Lviv with plywood and aluminium sheeting.

These are just a handful of the vast cultural heritage that is in danger of being bombed into oblivion by Russia. 

The Race to Salvage Treasures

Recently, global institutions like UNESCO have called for a joint effort to save the priceless cultural heritage of Ukraine. Volunteers in Ukraine have been packing books, ancient manuscripts, paintings, artifacts like a 1,000 year old Bible decorated with gold thread. No one is waiting for specialised packing materials, any wooden crate and even cardboard boxes originally intended for transporting bananas to supermarkets are being used in the race to save the treasures. There are plans to not just hide them but also evacuate some of the precious art works from besieged cities. 

UNESCO is mobilising international partners during an emergency response coordination meeting with UNITAR, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), Blue Shield International, the International Council of Museums (ICOM), the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and ALIPH, among others. Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General, said in a statement that cultural heritage “must be safeguarded as a testimony of the past, but also as a catalyst for peace and cohesion for the future, which the international community has a duty to protect and preserve”. The organisation is in contact with Ukrainian authorities to mark cultural sites and monuments with the distinctive “Blue Shield” emblem of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict to avoid deliberate or accidental damages. 

The Smithsonian has also joined the fight to preserve Ukraine's cultural heritage. "The beauty of Ukraine's art, architecture, literature, and music has flourished for decades; its museums are some of the most revered in Europe," Smithsonian secretary Lonnie Bunch in a statement recently. The Smithsonian's Cultural Rescue Initiative is working with people on the ground in Ukraine. The programme responds to cultural crises sparked by armed conflict or natural disasters and provides disaster training for heritage specialists and first responders. Previously it's worked in Haiti, Syria, Iraq, and Puerto Rico, The Smithsonian is also working with the Virginia Museum of Natural History, which is using geospatial information system data to assess damage to cultural sites. As Bunch said, "When we lose irreplaceable history and culture, it is a profound loss to us all. If we instead work together to celebrate, share, and protect cultural heritage, we are ensuring the triumph of our humanity."

Among the places under threat are the following World Heritage sites listed by UNESCO:

Kyiv: Saint-Sophia Cathedral and Related Monastic Buildings, Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra

Saint-Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv Ruslan Lytvyn, Shutterstock

Designed to rival Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, Kyiv's Saint-Sophia Cathedral symbolizes the 'new Constantinople', capital of the Christian principality of Kyiv, which was created in the 11th century in a region evangelized after the baptism of St Vladimir in 988. These cultural heritage monuments date back to the Middle Ages and Early Modern period (Kyivan Rus’ and Hetmanate periods). UNESCO has listed two components - the Saint-Sophia Cathedral and its related monastic buildings and the monastic complex of Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra with the Church of the Saviour at Berestovo. The Saint-Sophia Cathedral is in the historic centre of Kyiv, and showcases the brilliant architectural and the monumental art of the early 11th century. According to UNESCO, the Cathedral was built with the participation of local builders and Byzantine masters during the reign of the Great Prince of Kyiv, Yaroslav the Wise, as the main Christian Church of the Kyivan Rus’ capital. The Cathedral has preserved its ancient interiors and the collection of mosaics and frescoes of the 11th century is unique for its integrity. Its masterpieces include the Pantocrator, the Virgin Orans, the Communion of the Apostles, the Deisis and the Annunciation. The huge pantheon of Christian saints depicted in the Cathedral has an unrivalled multiplicity among Byzantine monuments of that time. The mural paintings of the Cathedral also include a complex of unique secular frescoes in the stair towers made in the tradition of Byzantine art.

The ensemble of Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra is a masterpiece of Ukrainian art that was definitely formed during the Baroque period. It integrates unique surface and underground buildings and structures of the 11th-19th centuries combined with a rich landscape.

L'viv – the Ensemble of the Historic Centre

The ancient city of L’viv was founded in the late Middle Ages where a settlement had existed since the 5th and 6th centuries. The historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the National Museum houses the country's most complete collection of sacred medieval art and rare religious manuscripts. The property, “L'viv – the Ensemble of the Historic Centre”, consists of two components: the primary area, encompassing the castle, its surrounding area and the city centre, and to the southwest, a smaller area on St. Yuri’s Hill for the ensemble of St. Yuri’s Cathedral. L'viv was a flourishing administrative, religious and commercial centre for several centuries. The medieval urban topography has been preserved virtually intact (in particular, there is evidence of the different ethnic communities who lived there), along with many fine Baroque and later buildings. “If we lose our culture, we lose our identity,” Lilya Onyshchenko, the head of Lviv’s city council heritage protection office, told the Guardian in an interview.