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“Destroying culture, you destroy identity”: Russia razing Ukraine’s cultural and architectural heritage to the ground

Contrary to allegations, there is no evidence of Russia destroying Ukrainian cultural monuments, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at the general meeting of Russia’s Commission for UNESCO on December 22. In reality, Russian missile strikes and shells have already damaged thousands of cultural heritage sites, including those protected by UNESCO. Museum workers and architects are trying their best to save art objects and historical buildings from destruction, evacuating collections, covering monuments with shields and sandbags, and trying to restore damaged objects amid hostilities... Yet many cultural monuments have been irretrievably lost.

Content
  • “The cathedral no longer exists”

  • 7 historical monuments ruined by Russian strikes

  • “Any museum can become a military target”

  • Culture workers taking up arms

  • “Replacing lost sites with new ones, we risk losing the cultural connection between generations”

RU

“The cathedral no longer exists”

On July 23, 2023, Russia launched a missile strike on Odesa, damaging 25 architectural monuments, including UNESCO-protected sites – in particular, the Transfiguration Cathedral, which was Odesa’s largest Orthodox church.

The Transfiguration Cathedral after the Russian attack
The Transfiguration Cathedral after the Russian attack
Photo by AP/Libkos

The southeast wing of the building was badly damaged: the missile penetrated the roof and destroyed the altar, and the columns that had once supported the massive dome tilted badly.

The columns tilted on impact
The columns tilted on impact
Photo by Telegraf/Yan Dobronosov

Immediately after the attack, Andriy Palchuk, the cathedral's archdeacon, recorded an emotional video: the footage shows him walking around the destroyed church and saying that “the cathedral no longer exists” and that with their strike “the Russians hit the very heart of Metropolitan Agathangel.” [the head of the Odesa diocese.]

According to him, the impact came to the right side of the cathedral, with the missile going as deep down as the underground level and causing fire:

“The center piles and the foundation have been destroyed. All the windows and the molding have been blown out. There was a fire in the area where icons and candles are sold.”
The Transfiguration Cathedral before and after the Russian attack
The Transfiguration Cathedral before and after the Russian attack

They were incredibly lucky to retrieve the Icon of the Mother of God of Kasperov, the patroness of Odesa: it was pulled out from under the rubble. As one of the priests told The Guardian, this icon has protected the city since ancient times:

“In the Crimean War, during a bombardment [by an Anglo-French squadron on April 10, 1854], the people prayed before this icon, and a fog descended on the city, thwarting the attack.”

On the day after the missile strike, the clerics jointly with experts from the Odesa State Academy of Construction and Architecture assessed the extent of the damage. A decision was made to dismantle the front of the cathedral as it could collapse at any moment. Works began immediately, with city residents helping remove debris.

By striking Odesa’s historic center, Russia violated two international conventions at once. Before that, Lviv may have sustained comparable damage when a massive missile strike affected the so-called “buffer zone” – the area adjacent to the UNESCO-protected historic part of the city.

Active strikes on Ukrainian cultural heritage sites reinforce the opinion that Putin is destroying historical monuments deliberately, said Yuliya Vaganova, the director of the Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko National Museum of Arts:

“Destroying a people's culture and heritage is part of a genocidal policy, so Putin's intention is clear. Our mentality is intrinsically linked to our cultural and architectural environment, so the destruction of historical sites deprives us of our roots and causes us to lose direction in the world, making us susceptible to manipulation. So yes, by destroying culture, you destroy identity.”

7 historical monuments ruined by Russian strikes

In June 2023, Minister of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine Oleksandr Tkachenko said that at least one-third of the cultural heritage objects hit by Russian strikes were destroyed beyond repair, while more than 1,500 were damaged. Here are some examples of the affected sites, partially destroyed or lost forever.

The House of Scientists, Odesa

After the termination of the grain deal, Russia did not cease attacks on Ukraine's port infrastructure, hitting Odesa and Mykolaiv with a series of missile strikes. The latest strike affected Odesa’s historical center, causing severe damage to multiple buildings of 19th-20th, including the House of Scientists, erected in 1832 by Italian architect Francesco Boffo.

The house was purchased by Count Mikhail Tolstoy, and after the Bolsheviks came to power, the building was transferred to the “Odesa House of Scientists” – the regional office of Ukraine's trade union of education and science professionals. During World War II, the building was under constant threat of missile attacks but somehow survived. These days, the former aristocratic estate has had to face such strikes again.

The Russian July 23 attack smashed the windows in the museum, including the ancient stained glass windows, and inflicted grave damage on the entire interior decor, such as authentic stucco moldings and antique furniture.

The House of Scientists after Russian shelling
The House of Scientists after Russian shelling
Photo by Dumskaya

According to Svetlana Zhukova, director of the House of Scientists, the restoration timeframe for the damaged stained glass windows is very limited:

“The stained glass windows were authentic, and restoring them is a major challenge. We contacted the specialist, and he said we had to observe the time limit and complete the process within six months. Otherwise, the metal frame, to which the glass is attached, will corrode and fall apart.”
Aftermath of shelling at the House of Scientists
Aftermath of shelling at the House of Scientists
Photo by Dumskaya

Another museum exhibit damaged by the impact was a unique grand piano that once belonged to the composer Franz Liszt, had been restored, and was even usable.

The antique grand piano that belonged to Franz Liszt
The antique grand piano that belonged to Franz Liszt
Photo by Dumskaya

“Apart from the smashed windows, another problem is the risk of collapse: the blast destroyed a neighboring building lower on the slope, which, in turn, may affect the stability of the House of Scientists,” underlines Oksana Dovgopolova, a professor at the Mechnikov Odesa National University.

The Literary and Memorial Museum of Hryhorii Skovoroda, Skovorodynivka

In May 2022, a missile strike on the roof of the building tore down the museum of Hryhorii Skovoroda, a Ukrainian philosopher and theologian.

“The Russian army wasted a missile on destroying the Hryhorii Skovoroda Museum in the Kharkiv Region. A missile. To destroy a museum. The museum of an 18th-century philosopher and poet, who preached a truly Christian attitude to life and the importance of self-knowledge. Well, all of it appears to present a terrible danger for modern Russia: museums, a Christian attitude to life, and people's knowledge of themselves,” President Volodymyr Zelensky stated after the attack.

The missile hit the building at night, causing a massive fire, which wasn't extinguished until morning. The impact shattered the museum roof and blew out the windows, the walls are covered with soot from the fire, and the entire interior has been completely ruined. Only the outer walls with columns on the facade miraculously survived, and the statue of Skovoroda himself, partially damaged by fire, stands amid the ravaged museum.

The remaining exterior walls of the museum
The remaining exterior walls of the museum
Photo by KHARKIV Today
“The statue of Hryhorii that survived the Ruscist missile attack is another symbol of our indestructibility. The occupiers never realized that destroying the building doesn’t mean destroying the memory,” MP Oleksiy Krasov wrote two weeks after the incident.
The statue of Hryhorii Skovoroda after the missile attack on the museum
The statue of Hryhorii Skovoroda after the missile attack on the museum
Photo by Olha Soshnikova/Facebook

Fortunately, as the governor of Kharkiv region Oleh Synyehubov noted, the most valuable exhibits were not affected, as they’d been removed in advance, but the damage to the 18th-century building is enormous. Apart from the house itself, auxiliary buildings of the estate were also damaged, including the barn and the landowners’ office and community club.

“The window frames in the club were blown out; there are cracks in the walls. The roof of the barn, which was under restoration, was damaged and partially torn off; the walls also sustained damage, but the buildings survived, and so did Hryhorii’s grave,” shared the director of the museum Natalia Mytsai.

Despite the severe damage, the conservation experts who inspected the museum after the attack concluded it could be fully restored in the future.

The Skovoroda Museum before and after the Russian attack
The Skovoroda Museum before and after the Russian attack

The effort began with the philosopher's statue: restorers from Kharkiv recreated its original appearance in November 2022. In the future, the museum building will also be fully restored.

Youth Library at the house of V. V. Tarnovsky, Chernihiv

“I can't look at the small library in Chernihiv without tears. The restoration is now underway, but this building is the first one that comes to mind when I think of the damaged monuments that I hold dearest,” says Anna Kyrii, an architect and vice-chair of the Architectural Chamber of the National Union of Architects of Ukraine.

The library building was destroyed by Russian forces in early March 2022, when the city survived the heaviest airstrikes. The head of Chernihiv Regional Administration Vyacheslav Chaus published a video filmed near the ruined library. “Chernihivshchyna. The Yuri Gagarin Stadium. The library. All of these are presumably ‘strategic military facilities’,” Chaus notes bitterly at the beginning of the video.

Vyacheslav Chaus near the crater in front of the library
Vyacheslav Chaus near the crater in front of the library
Screenshot from video

Behind Chaus' back, a crater is clearly visible. The area has several such craters. in all likelihood, left by aerial bombs dropped on the city, as the portal Suspilne Novyny reported.

The crater in front of the library in Chernihiv
The crater in front of the library in Chernihiv
Yuriy Fushtey/Facebook

Inside the library, the wall and support beams collapsed and all the bookshelves fell. According to the director of the Chernihiv Centralized Library System Anna Pushkar, 70% of the building was destroyed, but the volunteers and library staff managed to restore it enough for the library to resume working in early summer.

Library in Chernihiv before and after the Russian invasion
Library in Chernihiv before and after the Russian invasion
“Many books were cut with shrapnel, some lost to the weather. There was no roof, so the books were exposed to rain. There was no heating. A lot of books have been lost due to temperature fluctuations, too. Even now, we find shards of glass in some of the copies,” Pushkar said.
Ruined bookshelves
Ruined bookshelves
Photo by UNIAN

The restoration of the historic building and the replenishment of the library's collection are underway.

Local History Museum, Okhtyrka, Sumy Region

The Russian forces attempted to capture Okhtyrka, a city located 40 kilometers from the Russian border, on the first day of the invasion. Faced with harsh resistance from locals and the military, the Russians assaulted the city from the air. The airstrikes went on for about a month.

In early March, the city center survived a particularly hard blow, which damaged numerous civilian infrastructure facilities, including the executive committee building, the district house of culture, and the department store. The local history museum, a 19th-century cultural monument, was also seriously damaged. The strikes wrecked the roof and facade of the building and blew out the windows.

The Local History Museum in Okhtyrka before and after Russian strikes
The Local History Museum in Okhtyrka before and after Russian strikes

The museum's collection featured over 9,000 exhibits related to regional history and natural features. Part of the collection was damaged too. After the strikes, it took museum workers and volunteers several months to clear the rubble for several months. At the moment, the museum still requires restoration.

St. George Church, Zavorychi village, Kyiv Region

The Church of St. George the Victorious was built in Zavorychi in the latter half of the 19th century. In the 1930s, the Bolsheviks turned it into a granary, since it was no longer used as a place of worship.

In 1968, the church regained its initial purpose: new iconostases were installed and the murals were retouched, but two authentic fragments were still left – the icon of the Virgin Mary and Christ Saving Peter from Drowning on the ceiling above the left and right aisles. This fragment was subsequently restored in 2007.

In early March 2022, a Russian shell hit the church, destroying it beyond repair.

St. George's Church before and after the Russian attack
St. George's Church before and after the Russian attack

According to the rector of the church, Archpriest Petro Kotiuk, Russian troops attacked the 19th-century monument deliberately:

“Our parishioners say they saw with their own eyes how a Russian unit moved through the area, firing back at the houses, and aimed one of the shells directly at the church dome, which was to the left of their movement. It was their way of covering themselves. They shot at the church fence with a machine gun. Thank God no one was there,” he concluded.

Bantysh Manor, Prelesne, Donetsk Region

The Bantysh Manor is located 20 kilometers from Sloviansk, in the small village of Prelesne. In the middle of the 19th century, it was home to the Bantysh family. In 1853-1855, the writer Grigory Danilevsky worked here as a teacher and lived in the outbuilding on the estate.

During Soviet times, the estate was used as a children's camp but was closed before the 1990s due to lack of funding. The building gradually fell into disrepair and began to deteriorate, the park became overgrown, and the lake silted up.

In December 2022, the manor was hit by Russian shelling and sustained critical damage. The 19th-century mansion is now almost entirely destroyed.
The Bantysh Manor before and after the Russian attacks
The Bantysh Manor before and after the Russian attacks

Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Kyselivka village, Mykolaiv Region

The Roman Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary was built in the second half of the 19th century. During Soviet times, it was used as a grain storehouse, and the church wasn’t returned to the believers until the 1990s.

In early May 2022, the building was heavily shelled.

“A Russian tank drove up from over there and started firing at the church. I saw it and even counted the shot. First, in the lower right-hand corner, second, in the middle, third, the wall in the center, fourth, the dome with the cross – and they aimed at it. They fired the final shell – the insurance shot – turned around and drove away,” an eyewitness recalls.
The Roman Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary before and after the Russian attack
The Roman Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary before and after the Russian attack

Alexander, the rector of the church, who returned to the village after its de-occupation, says the locals managed to hide some of the icons, but everything else was lost:

“There was a room where we kept our liturgical objects, including the chalice. We learned from our parishioner that she’d hidden the icons that were in the central part before the church caught fire. We saved most of the icons, but the rest was destroyed by the rains and field mice.”

The church is destroyed and cannot be rebuilt.

“Any museum can become a military target”

As UNESCO reports, 291 of Ukraine’s cultural sites have been damaged to varying degrees due to the Russian invasion. Last December, the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation estimated that over 550 sites had been damaged, and in May 2023, the Minister of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine Oleksandr Tkachenko mentioned 1,520.

However, an objective estimate can hardly be provided as long as hostilities are preventing any agency from obtaining reliable information about the entire territory of the country. In particular, the experts who are recording the damage have no way of verifying what happened to monuments in the occupied territories or the gray zone.

According to Yulia Vaganova, recording is a long and complicated process: first, experts take photos and videos and conduct three-dimensional scanning. The Ukrainian Ministry of Culture has launched a website where eyewitnesses can upload photos of damaged cultural heritage sites. In addition, there is the option of satellite surveillance and filming, as well as direct eyewitness accounts, but both are problematic due to active fighting.

Keeping records of lost sites and artifacts is also complicated by the fact that experts don’t have a clear understanding of what should be and what shouldn't be considered a cultural heritage site. The war has greatly increased the value of many local historical sites and museums, and what was not considered a national treasure two years ago has now acquired a new significance.

The war has greatly increased the value of many local historical sites and museums

“It’s not the material value that we should focus on. What we’re salvaging is priceless, and we must do everything in our power to ensure that future generations get to see these sites. Ukraine cannot afford to choose what to preserve in the first place,” says Anna Kyrii, an architect and deputy chairman of the Architectural Chamber of the National Union of Architects of Ukraine.

In addition, as Kyrii notes, stewardship of cultural sites in Ukraine was problematic even before the war, and developers often used it in their favor, demolishing buildings that could be restored.

According to a Smithsonian Institute research, Ukraine has 28,000 cultural heritage sites, and 1,689 of them have sustained damage.

Cultural heritage sites in Ukraine that have suffered damage since the beginning of the war
Cultural heritage sites in Ukraine that have suffered damage since the beginning of the war
Image from The Conflict Observatory report

The figure includes sites whose classification as cultural monuments is yet to be finalized, and by the end of the war, a lot more sites will obtain this status. At the same time, as Yulia Vaganova points out, not only historical buildings but also museum collections are under threat:

“Regardless of what a museum has in its collection and what kind of museum it is – whether it is the Khanenko Museum, the National Art Museum of Ukraine, the Lviv Museum or, say, the Dnipro Museum – any museum can become a military target. Unfortunately, there is no safe place for art collections in all of Ukraine. They can get damaged at any time because Shaheds and rockets are constantly raining down on our cities.”

Many Ukrainian museums began evacuating their collections early in the war, and monuments in the streets were fenced off with metal sheets and sandbags. This includes monuments to Princess Olga, Mykhailo Hrushevsky, and Dante Alighieri in Kyiv, Taras Shevchenko in Kharkiv, Duke de Richelieu in Odesa, and many others.

Sandbagged monument to Dante Alighieri in Kyiv
Sandbagged monument to Dante Alighieri in Kyiv
Photo by UNIAN

However, securing all sites is not easy. The biggest challenge, according to Yulia Vaganova, has been the transportation of exhibits:

“Before the war, we could always order the necessary tools and materials to transport artifacts within Ukraine and abroad. Everything depended solely on the museum’s financial capacity. But since the end of February finding such materials was almost impossible because they began to be bought up en masse.
In addition, new supplies have been severely limited, especially in places of armed conflict. We had help from European countries. In particular, the Khanenko Museum received everything it needed from the Berlin Higher School of Music.
Private initiatives, such as the Heritage Emergency Rescue Initiative (HERI), also came to the rescue, providing voluntary assistance. They purchased some of the materials in Lviv and transported artifacts to other areas of the country.
Other similar initiatives helped find materials and equipment to evacuate valuables. The process is more streamlined now, with many items imported from abroad and brought from the Ukrainian Museum for Change in Odesa.
Most importantly, we need to make sure that the artifacts are not damaged in transit. The most fragile items are those made of organic and natural materials, such as wood, fabric, bone remains, and so on. They need special treatment and have higher packaging requirements, making it more difficult to move them.”

Russian attacks affect not only cultural sites but also the people who work there. Some died sheltering in the buildings from airstrikes – as was the case of the Drama Theater in Mariupol; others because they chose to continue to work despite the imminent danger.

Mariupol's Drama Theater after the Russian airstrike
Mariupol's Drama Theater after the Russian airstrike
Photo by Reuters

Thus, in April 2023, a Russian strike on the Kupiansk Local History Museum killed its director Iryna Osadcha and another employee, Olena Vodopianova.

“On the day of the shelling, she was preparing yet another shipment of museum items to be moved, packing the exhibits to secure them for evacuation. Later, the rescue workers retrieved the boxes she’d packed from under the rubble. Amazingly, they survived. The exhibits were saved, but the director was gone,” says Olha Soshnikova, director of the Sumtsov Kharkiv Historical Museum.

Culture workers taking up arms

Many of the planned projects have been postponed indefinitely because of the war, and some will never come to fruition. Museum workers, artists, and architects are leaving for the front. Artist and set designer Volodymyr Chornyi was killed in May 2023.

“You became a super warrior. You went to the positions, guided troops through the most dangerous places, fired at the enemy, and pulled your wounded comrades from the battlefield. You liberated our cities, cooked delicious borscht for the platoon, listened to complaints, and interceded. In your spare moments, you took pictures of flowers and moss, which made your friends shun you at first because you were so weird – and wore your hair in a ponytail. You wrote short stories and took care of stray animals. I’m filled with wild rage thinking that the Russians have destroyed such a bright and generous-hearted personality,” the artist's girlfriend wrote upon his death.
Volodymyr Chornyi and his girlfriend Helena Biletskaya
Volodymyr Chornyi and his girlfriend Helena Biletskaya
Photo by Biletskaya/Facebook

Film editor Viktor Onysko was killed in action in December 2022.

“You're supposed to be editing a movie, but instead you were 'editing' military reality as a company man. Two times at zero – Kherson Region and Donbas. Without any chance of a date. You were so very tired but still took care of your comrades. You lost sleep over every loss,” his wife Olga Birzul wrote.

The ramifications of the war for Ukrainian culture extend even further. Yulia Vaganova notes that, aside from claiming the lives of artists and museum workers and presenting the challenge of preserving cultural property, the Russian invasion has made it impossible for ordinary Ukrainians to interact with culture:

“The war also affects ordinary citizens, including school students, who can no longer visit places of cultural and historical significance. Access was already limited during the COVID-19 pandemic, and now it is almost blocked. While people can physically enter the museum, doing so in a war can be quite dangerous.”

“Replacing lost sites with new ones, we risk losing the cultural connection between generations”

All cultural heritage sites affected by Russian strikes that can still be saved will have to be either restored or reconstructed. According to Yulia Vaganova, this choice depends on the condition of the object itself:

“Restoration implies using all the materials that were originally part of the destroyed site. If restoring the object with the original materials is impossible, we have to choose between partial restoration or reconstruction – but this is more difficult.
We know from World War II that it’s not always possible to rebuild a site from original materials, so in many cases, we restore parts of a building and reconstruct the rest.
The post-reconstruction aspect of a site always depends on the architectural idea and the local community, as well as public policy on the matter. In many places with partially destroyed buildings, such as Bucha or Irpin, proposals have been voiced to preserve the ruins as memorials, but the locals are opposed to this idea and favor new development instead of preserving these re-traumatizing monuments.”

But we should keep in mind that replacing lost sites with completely new buildings on a massive scale may create gaps in the generational cultural memory, says architect Anna Kyrii:

“I can cite Rotterdam as an example. After World War II, the authorities decided that instead of rebuilding the city, they should build a brand new one. As a result, only one pre-war building survives in Rotterdam, if I’m not mistaken. Even what survived the bombing was dismantled. Today, researchers say that the new generation can only learn their city's history through photographs, postage stamps, or leaflets.
In this case, the new generation is explicitly pointing out that the decision made was a mistake. People don't want to learn about the city from photos and stamps alone. Therefore, in Ukraine’s current circumstances, I believe that removing something instead of restoring it will only inflict more harm.”

According to Kyrii, the issue of restoring monuments should be approached “with an approach sensitive to regional identities,” as opposed to hastily extrapolating a single idea on all of Ukraine.

“The case of post-WWII Warsaw shows that a city can be rebuilt in five years. However, I'm not sure that speed is the right solution in the Ukrainian context,” Kyrii notes. Her prognosis is bleak:

“Right now, there’s some chaotic rebuilding going on with the available funds, but there is no re-imagining or reinvigoration. So I'm not hoping for solid results. I think some nice local projects may emerge where money meets value, but they’ll be more of an exception to the rule.
But the adequate level of funding isn't the main concern. Good architecture is always about thinking, making decisions, and balancing everything to cut costs, but it has to happen in collaboration with the city administration, the community, and the sponsors. My prediction is that the vacant spaces will be quickly filled with standard schools and other facilities because the local government wants to have at least something, and the developer wants a quicker return on their investment. Unfortunately, the number of people looking for quick profit outweighs cultural value and interest in great ideas.”

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