Ukraine-Russia - Race to save Kyiv's cultural heritage from advancing Putin as artefacts buried and statues wrapped

Statues now wear skirts made from heavy duty sandbags and ancient altar pieces are hidden underground for their own protection. Paintings are removed from view and glorious cathedrals now stand surrounded by in scaffolding, a protective barrier of sorts.

In Ukraine, the race is on to protect its intricate and powerful cultural heritage from a Russia determined to impose its version of history on a country that has long told its own story, for its own people.

With looting and destruction of cultural heritage part of armed conflict for almost as long as the history of warfare itself, concerns have been raised by UNESCO that a whole cultural life is at risk of disappearing in Ukraine.

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Recent casualties of culture include a museum in Ivankiv, north-west of Kyiv, which housed dozens of works by the Ukrainian folk artist Maria Prymachenko, who was lauded by Pablo Picasso, among others. The museum was set on fire in what some believe was a focussed attack to erase Ukrainian culture and identity, although there are now reports that a villager saved a large number of pieces from the flames before going into hiding with the artworks.

Statues are wrapped up around Lviv Town Hall. Volunteers are in the process of covering and wrapping statues and windows on many of the historically important buildings in the city. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
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In the village of Viazivka in the Zhytomyr region, a 19th Century wooden church was destroyed by Russian forces, in a move described by one observer as “the genocide of Ukrainian nation in action”. In Lviv, a city built by Poles, Germans, Jews, Armenians and Hungarians, a long list of cultural treasures are being boarded up, protected and hidden away in vaults, with locals helping to wrap statues in plastic and foam.

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In Kyiv, as the advancing military column continues to edge forward and the campaign to take the capital gears up, work intensifies not only to protect neighbourhoods and remaining residents but also the cultural relics of the city.

UNESCO – which has seven designated sites in Kyiv – is now prioritising the Blue Shield programme, which fixes the distinctive emblem of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict to the most historically important buildings.

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St Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, which is considered particularly vulnerable by UNESCO. The cathedral dates to the 11th Century and is one of the few surviving buildings of the Kievan Rus era, the Orthodox medieval state which Putin believes is root of shared origin of Ukrainians and Russians. PIC: Roman Brechko/CC

The shield identifies which buildings, if damaged or destroyed, are potential victims of war crimes. Satellite imagery is being used to monitor destruction of built history from above.

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Emblems being enough to repel Russian forces feels unlikely, but one historic site at the heart of Kyiv represents the very period which Putin claims spiritually binds Russia and Ukraine.

The 11th Century St Sophia Cathedral is one of the few surviving buildings of the Kievan Rus era, the Orthodox medieval state which Putin believes is root of shared origin of Ukrainians and Russians.

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But its a paradox of war that what is most wanted, is often destroyed.

Bird, 1962, by Ukrainian folk artist Maria Prymachenko. A number of works were reportedly destroyed in a Russian attack on Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum. It has now been claimed that several pieces were also saved by a villager who defied the flames to retrieve the artworks. PIC: Contributed.
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Historian Margaret MacMillan, Emeritus Professor of International History at the University of Oxford and Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Toronto, said: “Kyiv is often seen as the birthplace of Russia and Russian Orthodoxy.

“The great irony is that Putin will talk of Kyiv as the birthplace of Kievan Rus, he talks about the importance of Kyiv, but he is is ready to destroy it.

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“People will destroy the things that they claim to love.”

Professor MacMillan pointed to a moment during the Vietnam War in 1968 when Americans, following the destruction of a village in the south, claimed it had to be destroyed in order for it to be saved.

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UNESCO has advised Ukrainian authorities to apply the Blue Shield (pictured) to historic buildings to identify protected cultural assets to Russian forces. Damaging or destroying such property constitutes a war crime. PIC: Creative Commons.

Drawing a parallel with March 2022, she added: “Putin is destroying Kyiv in order to save it.”

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On whether the Blue Emblem signs will have any bearing on Russian forces, Professor MacMillan said: “I wouldn’t think so.”

She added: "You are now seeing people rushing to bury altar pieces and pictures of statues being surrounded by sandbags. If you look what Russian forces did in Aleppo – a wonderful historic city – it was pretty much levelled. His troops haven’t done well and he is prepared to bludgeon the Ukrainians into submission.”

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Lazare Eloundou, UNESCO's World Heritage Director, is particularly worried as fighting nears Kyiv.

The St Sophia Cathedral is considered to be particularly vulnerable given the shifting foundations of religious rule and a rift between the Orthodox churches of Ukraine and Russia.

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In 2019, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine was granted independence by the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul – a move which signalled a historic split from Russia.

Statues are wrapped at the 'Saint' Peter and Paul Garrison Church in Lviv, Ukraine, where locals have volunteered to protect the city's cultural heritage in the face of Russian attack. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
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Ukrainian clerics have since been urged to choose between the Russian-supported Ukrainian churches and the new church.

Mr Eloundou told reporters: "A site which for us is of great concern in the city of Kyiv, which is a World Heritage Site. This site has two very important ensembles: the St. Sophia Cathedral and also the Lavra monastic complex. These two places are testimony to the birth of the Russian Orthodox Church."

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Since 2015, Ukraine has embarked on its own programme of “decommunisation” where names of streets, towns and cities from the Soviet-era are renamed after nationalist heroes.

Monuments – such as statues of Lenin or those which bear a likeness to Trotsky or Che Guevara - are removed and Soviet-era symbols, such as the Red Star, are also replaced. Not all Ukrainians back the law, with some believing the law itself echoes Soviet methods.

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It could be that Putin himself finishes the job started by Ukraine in deleting traces of the Communist era as strikes intensify and once peaceful, ordinary towns and cities lie shattered in pieces.

Professor MacMillan added: “Ukrainian cities have come back before. An awful lot of cities saw fighting in World War One and at the end of the war, Kyiv changed hands seven times, including between anarchist and Polish forces

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“Putin is arguing that there is no such thing as Ukrainian nationalism. But he has done more to create it more than anyone else in recent history.”

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