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Priceless art, medieval monuments, world heritage sites: what’s at risk of destruction in Ukraine

The massive Russian attack on Ukraine puts at risk priceless works of art, cultural artefacts, and monuments. What is at risk of destruction? Has something been lost already? What is being done to save Ukraine's cultural heritage?

UkraineA nun walks past the St. Andrew church museum in downtown Kyiv, Ukraine (AP photo)

The massive Russian attack on Ukraine puts at risk not just human lives and physical infrastructure, but also priceless works of art, cultural artefacts, and monuments. Ukraine is home to several heritage structures and historical sites, and its museums contain significant examples of Baroque and folk art.

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What is at risk of destruction?

Ukraine has thousands of museums that have in its collections important works of Ukrainian and Russian art, classical and Byzantine artefacts and paintings by masters such as Giovanni Bellini, Francisco Goya, and Jacques-Louis David.

The Museum of Freedom in Kyiv has a collection of around 4,000 objects that record Ukraine’s pro-democracy movement. The Odessa Fine Arts Museum in the Odessa city centre has a collection of more than 10,000 objects, including Russian and Ukrainian “orthodox icons” dating to the 16th century — artists such as Ivan Aivazovskyi, Myhailo Vrubel, Valentyn Sierov, Mykola Reryh, Zinaida Serebriakova, Kostiantyn Somov, and Vasyl Kandynskyi.

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The country also has seven world heritage sites, including St Sophia Cathedral, one of Kyiv’s most recognised landmarks, which was founded by the Kyivan Rus’ in the 12th century, and Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, or Kyiv Monastery of the Caves, an Eastern Orthodox Christian monastery that was founded in 1051. The old quarter of the western city of Lviv, located about 70 km from the border with Poland, is also a world heritage site.

The eastern city of Kharkiv, under heavy attack by Russian forces, is home to a number of museums, cathedrals, and historic neighbourhoods.

People cover the windows Museum of Ethnography with metal plates in Lviv, western Ukraine, Wednesday, March 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Has something been lost already?

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The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted on Twitter on February 28 that the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum, located on the northern edge of Kyiv, has been burned to the ground in the Russian assault. The museum housed among other works, 25 paintings of the celebrated Ukrainian artist Maria Prymachenko, known for her rhythmical strokes largely inspired by folk stories and fairy tales.

The great Spanish master Pablo Picasso was captivated by Prymachenko’s talent: “I bow down before the artistic miracle of this brilliant Ukrainian.” Her work has been exhibited in countries across the world, and some appeared on Ukrainian stamps of the 1970s. UNESCO had declared 2009 as the year of Prymachenko.

What is being done to save Ukraine’s cultural heritage from destruction?

The National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War, overlooking the Dnipro river on the southern outskirts of Kyiv, is reported to have moved important items in its collection to the basement of the building. In a statement, the global arts organisation Getty quoted Fedir Androshchuk, director of the museum as saying he was attempting, alongwith two colleagues, to protect the museum from attack or looting.

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“The museum is located in the middle of a rich cultural heritage area near three fine churches, but also close to some possible targets (the Ukrainian security service and border forces),” Androshchuk wrote in an email to a Swedish academic, according to a report in The Guardian.

In his email, Androshchuk said museums in Vinnytsia in west-central Ukraine, Zhytomyr in the northwest, Sumy in the northeast, and Chernihiv in the north had “managed to take down and protect their main exhibitions”, The Guardian said. “In Vinnytsia, the museum building is now partly used for internally displaced people. So far I have not heard that any of the aforementioned museums has been subject to looting or attack,” the report quoted Androshchuk as having written in the email.

What has been the global response so far?

Ukrainian scholars have spoken of an “unfolding cultural catastrophe” in the country, and Ukraine’s Minister of Culture and Information Policy Oleksandr Tkachenko has appealed to UNESCO to deprive Russia of the status of a UNESCO member, and to take away the 45th session of the World Heritage Committee in June from Kazan.

The Getty Trust statement condemned the “cultural atrocities” being committed in Ukraine. “At risk in Ukraine are millions of artworks and monuments, including monuments representing centuries of history from the Byzantine to the Baroque periods, as well as UNESCO World Heritage sites,” it said.

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The United States National Committee of the International Council of Museums has said, “The current conflict has taken lives, displaced tens of thousands of residents, and destabilized the international order. That it also seeks to destroy — recklessly and intentionally — the heritage, institutions, and access to history of a great nation and palimpsest of past cultures abrogates the reasonable expectations of civil society and the treaty obligations of which the United States, Russia, and Ukraine are all signatories.”

UNESCO noted that it was “deeply concerned about the ongoing military operations and the escalation of violence in Ukraine”. It called “for respect for international humanitarian law, notably the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its two (1954 and 1999) Protocols, to ensure the prevention of damage to cultural heritage in all its forms”.

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First published on: 02-03-2022 at 18:12 IST
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