As missile strikes in Ukraine this week damaged libraries, museums and universities, Ukraine says repeated Russian attacks on cultural heritage amount to a “war crime” that have caused losses of hundreds of millions of euros. Among Ukrainians, the fight to preserve cultural heritage continues. 

Residents in Ukraine awoke to loud blasts on Monday morning as Russian missiles struck cities across the country, in some cases for the first time in months. In Kyiv, rather than striking military targets, missiles fell in busy civilian areas; one hit a glass bridge, formerly popular with tourists due to its panoramic views of the city, another fell next to a children’s playground. 

Also damaged were cultural and academic buildings in the capital including Taras Shevchenko National University, Maksymovych Scientific Library, parts of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Philharmonic Society and two museums housed in Ukraine’s parliament building, Verkhovna Rada. 

The latest strikes are part of longstanding attacks on Ukrainian culture. Since February 24, UNESCO has recorded damage to 210 cultural sites in Ukraine including museums, monuments and libraries. A crowdsourcing website set up by the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation puts the figure closer to 450. 

The damage is not just external. Almost 40 museums in Ukraine have been looted of artefacts by Russian soldiers, Ukraine’s culture minister Oleksandr Tkachenko told AP on October 9. 

Bejewelled tiaras from 5th century missing

In museums and galleries in Donetsk and Mariupol, nearly 2,000 items were stolen by Russian occupying forces exiled city authorities estimated in May.  Other artefacts have been destroyed.

Among items now missing are a bejewelled tiara dating back to the reign of Attila the Hun in the 5th century, 2,300-year-old Scythian gold artefacts, and valuable antique religious texts. Modern works have also been targeted, including works by celebrated folk artist Maria Prymachenko⁠ and canvases by modernist painter Arkhip Kuindzhi. 

“The attitude of Russians toward Ukrainian culture heritage is a war crime,” Tkachenko said, adding that destruction and pillaging on an industrial scale has led to losses worth hundreds of millions of euros. 

‘Cultural cleansing’ 

The International Criminal court recognises crimes against cultural heritage as “pervasive feature” of the atrocities under its jurisdiction. In 2015 the UN denounced destruction of cultural heritage in Syria as a crime against humanity and a denial of identity to future generations.   

In Ukraine, “Russia’s intentions are genocidal”, says Dr Olena Betlli, historian and researcher at KU Leuven in Brussels. “It aims at the obliteration of the Ukrainian state and Ukrainian nation. Destruction of the cultural heritage is part of this process; it’s cultural cleansing.” 

The long history between Russia and Ukraine also makes cultural preservation urgent, and all the more complex.

Some buildings that have been the target attacks are famously symbolic of historic Ukrainian resistance against Russia, such as the Slovo building in Kharkiv, which was a gathering place for Ukrainian poets, writers and theatre directors later persecuted under Stalinism.  

Other culturally important buildings risk taking important chapters of history with them if they disappear. 

“During the Soviet period, a lot of monuments of Ukrainian identity were neglected or turned into storage facilities and highlighting anything Russian in Ukraine got priority,” says Olenka Pevny, associate professor of Slavonic and Ukrainian studies at the University of Cambridge, UK. “One of the dangers is that a lot of Ukrainian monuments haven't yet been fully documented.” 

‘A war against identity’ 

The psychological impact of attacks on cultural buildings, monuments, artefacts and artworks is profound. Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska described Russian aggression as “a war against our identity” on a visit to a Ukrainian museum in New York in September. 

Yet attacks are also boosting resistance among Ukrainians and giving cultural preservation efforts a sense of urgency. Within hours of Monday’s missile strikes that hit cultural sites in Kyiv, a Ukrainian crowdfunding campaign to purchase more military supplies (named “You have enraged Ukrainians”) had raised millions of dollars. 

>> 'Horrible and cruel': Kyiv residents shocked, angry after deadly Russian strikes

Many cultural preservation efforts are also taking place online. “There's this urge among people to go out and document monuments, and save things online so that there are at least some records,” says Pevny. 

Ukraine's blockchain community in July announced plans to digitize "every single piece of art or history" in Ukraine before turning them into a digital inventory in the form of NFTs. Ukrainian crowd sourcing website Sucho hosts a growing web archive of pages from Ukrainian cultural institutions in case their websites are taken offline.  

Grassroots efforts are also thriving. One such initiative is the Ukrainian Art History Twitter account run by art historian Oksana Semenik. During the Russian occupation in Bucha, Semenik spent two weeks living in a basement with no water, gas or electricity. “I had a lot of time to think,” she says. “And I thought, ‘Hell no, I am not going to die here.’”

Instead, she decided to channel her “fury” at the Russian invasion into protecting Ukrainian culture. “Spreading knowledge and giving Ukrainian culture a voice also helps to preserve that culture,” she says. 

Through her account, Semenik shares posts that display examples of Ukrainian artistic talent, but most are also inherently political.

One of her first posts featured a painting by Arkhip Kuindzhi, much of whose oeuvre was looted after a museum named after him was destroyed in Mariupol in March. Kuindzhi was born in Mariupol, yet “Russians claim that he is a Russian artist, and museums and institutions write about him as Russian,” Semenik says. “I am trying to show the historical context and decolonise Russian art.”  

‘Turning a blind eye to destruction’

Ukraine’s government is seeking more formal protection for the country’s heritage. Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday requested that UNESCO add the historic port city of Odesa to its World Heritage List in a bid to protect it from Russian air strikes. 

Zelensky also advocated for Russia to be excluded from UNESCO, even though it currently chairs the organisation’s World Heritage Committee. “We must provide a clear signal that the world will not turn a blind eye to the destruction of our common history, our common culture, our common heritage,” he said. 

For many Ukranians, Russia’s continuing membership of the UN body that purports to safeguard the world's cultural and natural heritage is no longer tenable. “It is absurd that a state that deliberately destroys a neighbouring country's cultural heritage goes unpunished and chairs the World Heritage Committee,” says Betlii.

"If one of UNESCO's main objectives is to preserve cultural heritage and you have everyone abiding, I have no idea how to justify Russia's membership," Pevny adds.

Yet, while some UNESCO members have boycotted meetings in support of Ukraine, the UN has said as long as Russia remains a UN member, it will not be removed from the cultural body.  

And even if Odesa is added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List it is no guarantee of safety – the city of Lviv has been bombed repeatedly since February, despite being a designated World Heritage Site. On Monday in Kyiv, missiles struck less than a kilometre away from another heritage site, the Saint Sophia Cathedral. The 11th century building was not damaged but, Betlii says, “it still raises huge concerns.” 

Ultimately, there is no sure-fire way to preserve culture while Ukraine is still under attack. For Semenik, the answer lies in Western governments providing air defence systems to prevent the likelihood of attacks happening at all. Otherwise, she asks, “how can we protect a whole historical building or older people who can sing unique folk songs?”

In the meantime, efforts to document, catalogue, and protect Ukraine’s culture online and in real-life continue. “The main task remains to preserve as much as possible,” Betlii says, “and to be prepared to the difficult winter that is coming.”

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