Russia’s War Rages, Putting Ukraine’s Cultural Sites at Risk
Updated: Mar 30
Museum leaders look for ways to protect or move icons; debate brews over whether to keep them in the country
LVIV, Ukraine—Experts in cultural property protection are working to verify reports of damage to hundreds of heritage sites across Ukraine and safeguard them from further destruction, as Russia’s offensive intensifies.
Historic buildings, museums, monuments, churches, cemeteries and archaeological sites are among the sites to which possible damage has been detected. Over the weekend, shelling by Russian forces hit a 16th-century monastery and cave complex where people had sought shelter from fighting in the eastern Donetsk region, damaging two rooms at the Holy Mountains Lavra of the Holy Dormition, said the head of the Luhansk civil-military administration.
During the continuing siege of the port city of Mariupol, the mosque of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and his wife Roksolana was damaged, according to an adviser to the mayor.
Russian forces looted the Vasylivka Historical and Architectural Museum-Reserve, also known as Popov Manor House, said museum director Anna Golovko Monday, describing smashed windows and trampled office equipment.
Where possible, precious artworks, religious icons and other artifacts are being stashed away below ground to protect them from bombardment. Monuments and historic buildings have been fortified with sandbags and swaddled in protective materials.
Overseas, experts in cultural property protection are using satellite imagery to pinpoint and monitor damage across the country. The Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab at the Virginia Museum of Natural History has identified several hundred heritage sites that may have been damaged in some way. The list is growing, according to its director, Hayden Bassett.
“We are going site by site to confirm those potential impacts or identify if some are indeed intact,” he said. “Cultural heritage, among other things, is a tangible reflection of someone’s long-term connection to an area. This is why we are focused on safeguarding the complete picture.”
Ihor Kozhan, director of the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum in Lviv, had staff take down the museum’s entire collection on the third day of the invasion, packing things up to be hidden away.
Protecting the history and identity that Russia’s invasion seeks to deny is key for Mr. Kozhan and others involved in the effort to keep Ukraine’s heritage safe. In a televised speech days before he sent tanks across the border, President Vladimir Putin questioned the concept of Ukrainian statehood and said the country was an indivisible part of Russia.
“Putin’s aim is to destroy Ukraine as an independent country, and to erase our cultural heritage and patrimony as evidence of that,” said Mr. Kozhan, his voice echoing in the empty room where old Ukrainian art from the 12th to 18th century used to be on display. He declined to say where the museum’s collection had been taken.
Buildings in the historic city center of Lviv, one of seven sites recognized by Unesco, have been marked by local authorities with a blue shield emblem, identifying them as protected under the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. A statue of Neptune that sits on a fountain in the cobbled square is now mummified in plastic wrap with its trident poking out. Stained glass windows of the nearby Latin cathedral have been covered over with metal sheeting. A statue of Jesus Christ was taken down from the cross in Lviv’s Armenian church for the first time since World War II. It is now in a bunker.
Ukraine and the Soviet Union were signatories to the convention, pledging not to target such sites or objects.
As Russian forces close in on Kyiv, there is growing concern for the Saint-Sophia Cathedral and the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, or Monastery of the Caves—one of seven Ukrainian sites recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Lazare Eloundou Assomo, the director of Unesco’s World Heritage Center, said he has been in daily contact with Ukraine’s deputy minister of culture and other heritage experts since the start of the conflict.
Unesco is organizing a meeting this week with other agencies, partners and nongovernmental organizations to coordinate and support emergency measures such as reinforcing heritage site buildings so that they can better withstand shelling and fire, said Mr. Eloundou Assomo.
The widening destruction is also fueling debate among those in the heritage community about how best to protect the country’s cultural landmarks and icons, not only from bombardment but also from potential looting.
Robert M. Edsel, author of “The Monuments Men,” a book about a U.S. Army unit of art and architecture experts who helped conserve much of Europe’s cultural heritage during World War II, said portable objects should be moved out of Ukraine to a country that is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
“Obviously, if we’re able to get arms in, we can get works of art out,” he said. During the Spanish Civil War, for example, paintings from the Prado art gallery were moved to Switzerland for safekeeping.
But moving objects can make them vulnerable to attack and potential damage, said Maria Shust, director of the Ukrainian Museum in New York. “You’d have to do this in trucks and this would probably be more unsafe than it is to try to hide them,” she said.
Still, leaving them in place raises concerns about items falling into Russian hands. Many objects and religious artifacts looted from Ukraine were taken to Russia in the 1930s. “Much of Ukrainian heritage has been taken to Russia and it’s sitting in their museums,” said Ms. Shust.
Artifacts from various countries were taken to the Soviet Union during World War II, including a number of important Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings that remain at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
Leaving cultural objects in place and running the risk that they end up in Russian hands might be safer, versus the potential for destruction, said Vasyl Petryk, head of the department of heritage protection in the Lviv region. “At least there will be some diplomatic means to recover it,” he said.
Mr. Petryk is part of a team of heritage experts in Lviv working with smaller museums and churches. They have leveraged contacts with cultural institutions around the world, including in the U.S. for funds to purchase materials to protect heritage objects, Mr. Petryk said.
The Geneva-based International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas has sent packing boxes, packing material, fireproof blankets and dehumidifying material as part of a $2 million package for emergency protection of Ukraine’s cultural heritage, according to Sandra Bialystok, a spokeswoman for the group. She said the group is focused on protecting Ukraine’s various collections and artifacts.
“Rerouting works from a country is obviously a political decision, but it’s also an emotional one,” she said. “And we leave it to the authorities to make any other decisions about further movement of those collections.”
March 15, 2022