The Destruction of Ukrainian Cultural Heritage during Russia’s Full-Scale Invasion in 2022
Nadiia Koval (Head of Research and Analysis, Ukrainian Institute) and Oleksandra Gaidai (Head of Academic Programmes, Ukrainian Institute)
The full-scale Russian assault on Ukraine, initiated in late February 2022, is the most lethal offensive in Europe since the Second World War. Russia’s official statements and military tactics indicate that its strategy in this war is a massive attack on civilian targets causing maximum destruction in order to demoralise the population and coerce capitulation. Since the initial days of the Russian invasion, the entire territory of Ukraine has been bombarded by various types of ballistic and cruise missiles. During the first month of the full-scale war, the Russian army launched over 1,100 ballistic and cruise missiles1 averaging 50 missiles per day. The Russian air force has dropped bombs on Ukrainian cities such as Chernihiv and Mariupol. As of October 2022, missile attacks have been partially replaced by hundreds of Iranian Shahed-136 kamikaze drones, launched first and foremost against energy infrastructure throughout the country. Although not all of these missiles hit their intended targets2 the scale of their destruction is immense, and all of Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure remains directly threatened.
Near the frontlines, civilian and military objects are routinely destroyed by artillery (predominantly Soviet-era MLSR Tornado-S, Uragan, Grad, and Smerch) and the resulting blazes. Thus, the Ukrainian cities of Lysychansk, Avdiivka, Rubizhne, Volnovakha, Mariupol, Popasna, and Izium are almost obliterated, while Kharkiv, Trostyanets, Irpin, Bucha, Borodianka, Hostomel, Chernihiv, and a great number of others are badly damaged. Calculations indicate that in just the first month of the war Russian forces destroyed 1,937 buildings in Kharkiv including 1,671 residential homes3 and destroyed or badly damaged 70 percent of Chernihiv4 and 80 percent of Izium (region of Kharkiv)5The Kyiv School of Economics (КSЕ) counted that, as of 1 September, 136,000 residential buildings, 987 medical facilities, 616 administrative premises, 19 airports, at least 110 train stations, and many other civilian targets have been either damaged or destroyed6 It is more difficult to quantify the trauma experienced by the residents of these cities who have witnessed the destruction of their neighbourhoods.
“Denazification” as a synonym for “deukrainization”
On the level of ideology, Russians have routinely attempted to justify the war on the basis of the need to reassert the unity of Russians and Ukrainians as a single Russian people, denying the Ukrainian state and culture the right to exist. In a one-hour speech given prior to the invasion, Putin referred to Ukraine as an artificial state, not a distinct political and cultural entity7. Published in July 2021, his “historical article” asserts that Ukraine as such does not exist, that it is a single nation with Russia, and that it was the West that compelled Ukrainians to believe they have a separate identity.8 “Denazification”, articulated as one of the war’s initial goals, is defined by the regime’s propagandists9 as entailing both physical and cultural de-Ukrainisation. According to the eminent American historian Timothy Snyder, for Vladimir Putin, “denazification” means the elimination of people who do not understand that Ukraine is part of a larger Russia10 This kind of ideology renders Ukraine’s distinct cultural heritage unnecessary and unwelcome, which in turn provokes a large number of crimes against cultural heritage. Thus, although all kinds of civilian infrastructure have suffered and the Russians have paid special attention to destroying electricity gridlines before winter, the material and symbolic damage to cultural heritage constitutes a significant feature of the Russian approach to war in Ukraine.
The UN Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict of 14 May 195411 ratified by 133 countries, defines cultural property as encompassing monuments of architecture, art, or history; archaeological sites; groups of buildings of historical or artistic interest; works of art; manuscripts, books, scientific collections; and buildings that preserve movable cultural property, such as museums, libraries, and archives. Signatories have undertaken measures to protect objects of cultural property within their territories from the possible consequences of armed conflict and refrained from actions that could cause damage to objects of cultural property elsewhere. In 2020, the Verkhovna Rada ratified the Second Protocol to the Hague Convention12 which strengthens responsibility for crimes in the field of cultural heritage protection. In particular, the document introduces the “enhanced protection” of objects of cultural property, regulates the issue of criminal prosecution for crimes against such objects, and indicates that the application of the principle of “military necessity” in case of damage to such objects is possible only if there is no practically possible alternative to obtain equivalent military advantage, with the exception of that which can be obtained as a result of committing a hostile act against this object.
Destruction of cultural heritage: an initial assessment
Since 24 February, according to the calculations of the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine, over 513 objects of Ukrainian cultural heritage of different value and protection status have been either destroyed or severely damaged, to say nothing of the tangible and intangible everyday cultural heritage that has suffered from the war13 As of 24 October, UNESCO has verified14 damage to 207 sites, including 88 religious sites, 15 museums, 76 buildings of historical and/or artistic interest, 18 monuments, 10 libraries. Ukraine must mobilise resources to thoroughly document and investigate these crimes. It will take time to conduct a thorough assessment, since the affected areas are often difficult to visit as a result of occupation, constant shelling, danger of mines, lack of specialists to assess the damage, and incomplete and contradictory information coming from besieged or occupied territories. As the shelling and fighting continue, the same cultural objects might be struck repeatedly. Ukraine’s cultural heritage is under constant threat. So far, no one has been brought to justice for war crimes committed within Ukrainian territory.
Among the 513 registered cultural heritage objects, there are 38 museums, 171 religious buildings, and over 271 historical buildings of different times and styles, currently used as libraries, theatres, residential buildings, administrative and public buildings, schools, and so on. Geographically, most of the destruction has been recorded in the Kharkiv Oblast (especially the city of Kharkiv), Kyiv Oblast, Chernihiv Oblast, Sumy Oblast, and Donetsk Oblast (predominantly the city of Mariupol). For instance, the Belgian architectural heritage15 of Lysychansk is all but lost.
Mariupol is among the cities most severely damaged during the conflict and over 20,000 of its residents have been killed by the Russian assault. The commercial port city on the Sea of Azov was known as the centre of Ukraine’s Greek and other minority communities. The Soviet period shaped the architectural face of the city, with the industrial architecture of the 1930s seen in the Azovstal iron and steel works, Ukrainian Soviet art (Alla Horska mozaics), and the Soviet neoclassical style Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater, destroyed by bombing on 16 March, with 300 people dead. Still, there were a number of pre–First World War buildings, among them the building of the Kuindzhi Art Museum, the former “Continental” Hotel, as well as other manors, schools, residential buildings, libraries, museums, churches, and mosques. All this rich cultural heritage is lost.
Kharkiv is the second largest city in Ukraine after Kyiv. It used to be the capital of Soviet Ukraine. The city was the centre of the Ukrainian literary and artistic renaissance of the 1920s-1930s. The first modern Ukrainian university was established in Kharkiv and the city remains Ukraine’s most important university centre. Architecturally, the city is renowned for numerous examples of Soviet constructivism (the Derzhprom/Gosprom building being the most prominent), but it also hosts precious examples of nineteenth- and twentieth-century architecture in the Classical (Pavlov Manor) and Art Nouveau style. Despite (or, maybe, because of) its artistic glory and cultural significance, the city has been heavily attacked since the first days of the invasion. As a result, the residential area of Saltivka, the prime example of post–Second World War Ukrainian modernism and home to 400,000 people, has been literally obliterated. An extensive list of Kharkiv’s affected cultural heritage includes damage to the central Svobody Square, Constitution Square and Sumska Street, the Palace of Labour, university buildings and sports facilities, research institutions, an opera house, a central cathedral, art museums, schools, fire departments, and many more.
Chernihiv is one of the ancient Kyivan Rus centres with a large number of medieval monuments. Throughout the month of March, residential areas in Chernihiv and its suburbs were severely damaged because of constant shelling. Because of shelling and aerial bombing, the city centre, which contains the national historical and architectural reserve, “Ancient Chernihiv”, was damaged. Although no ancient churches were completely destroyed, all of them were damaged: the walls and the windowpanes were shattered (in particular, in the Spasky Cathedral built in the eleventh century, the bell tower and walls of the Yelets Assumption Monastery, and the Illin Church). On 27 February, the regional youth centre in Chernihiv, one of the few remaining monuments from the 1930s, was bombed. The building that housed the Chernihiv Regional Youth Library was destroyed by shelling on 11 March: this one-storey pseudo-Gothic structure used to house the Museum of Ukrainian Antiquities, one of the first museums in Ukrainian territory.
The irreparable losses of religious and museal heritage
As the statistics quoted above show, the biggest share of losses are religious monuments. On 7 March, two nineteenth-century wooden churches were completely decimated as a result of shelling and subsequent fire: the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the small village of Vyazivka, Zhytomyr region, built in 1862, and the wooden church of St. George in the village of Zavorychi, Kyiv region, built in 1873. On 12 March, shelling damaged the Holy Dormition Sviatohirsk Lavra built in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, an architectural monument of national importance. Since Lavra is situated near combat lines, it has suffered repeatedly: in June 2022, the All Saints Skete of the Lavra was burnt. Although there are very different churches and mosques in this list of destruction and damage, from nationally important historical monuments to the very newly built modest ones, all of them were important spiritual centres to their respective communities and the loss is significant in each and every case. Some churches have witnessed the most horrific aspects of this war. For instance, on the grounds of the Church of St. Andrew the First-Called in Bucha, after the liberation of the city by Ukrainian troops, a mass grave was discovered with 73 people buried, most of whom had been shot.
Museums hold a prominent position among the cultural objects that have been damaged. The destruction and looting of museums almost always result in the greatest losses to a community’s cultural heritage, since their primary function is the preservation of cultural artefacts. The first museum to suffer from the war was the Museum of History and Local Lore in the village of Ivankiv in the Kyiv region. The shelled and burnt out museum in Ivankiv held a collection of the outstanding Ukrainian artist of naive art Maria Prymachenko. During the Russian shelling on 1 March, the windows and walls of the 1820s Round Court in Trostyanets were heavily damaged. The nineteenth-century manor Vasylivka historical and architectural museum-reserve “Popov Castle” (Zaporizhzhia region) was shelled and looted on 7 March. Also devastated was the museum devoted to the eminent eighteenth-century Ukrainian philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda (region of Kharkiv). A. Kuindzhi Art Museum in Mariupol was ruined by a Russian bomb on 21 March. The fate of the collection is currently unknown, although the museum housed more than two thousand exhibits, including paintings by Mykola Hlushchenko, Mykhailo Deregus, Tetyana Yablonska, and Oleksiy Hrytsai, which were reportedly “evacuated” to Russia. The reports of looting of Ukrainian museums in the occupied territories are numerous: this concerns a number of Mariupol and Kherson museums and, for instance, the Scythian gold collection from Melitopol16.
There were also cases when Russian occupation authorities and military deliberately destroyed Ukrainian places of memory. For example, in October 2022 occupation administration of Mariupol slashed and removed the memorial to the victims of Holodomor17, the Great Famine of 1932-1933, and political repressions. The Russian state, up to now, denies the artificial character of the famine and its interpretation as an act of genocide.
The destruction of cultural heritage objects attacked in Ukraine contravenes the Hague Convention, since they were not used for military purposes and their destruction was not a military necessity. The obliteration of these objects, like that of civilian targets in general, was directed against the civilian population of Ukraine and its cultural identity. A thorough, independent, and geographically comprehensive study of the crimes against cultural property is necessary. Such a study should include the collection of photographic and video evidence, an examination of the pre-war condition of cultural heritage property, the collection of eyewitness accounts, and more. Establishing the facts of direct and indirect harm to the civilian population and its heritage is part of giving a voice to thousands of victims of the war against Ukraine, whose cities are being destroyed. $
Photo de couverture : © Institut ukrainien. © des photos utilisees : Sergey Kozlov pour la photo "apres", find-way.com.ua pour la photo "avant".
- 1. Senior Defense Official Holds a Background Briefing (transcript). US Department of Defense, 21 March 2022.
- 2. Schneider Mark B. Lessons from Russian Missile Performance in Ukraine. US Naval Institute, Proceedings Vol. 148/10/1, 436, October 2022.
- 3. 1937 objects are destroyed in Kharkiv, including 1671 residential house – Terekhov, Objektiv, 13 April 2022.
- 4. Chernihiv is 70% destroyed by the Russian occupiers – the city mayor, TSN, 03 April 2022.
- 5. Dalton Bennett. In eastern Ukraine, Russian military razing towns to take them over ‘Scorched earth’ tactics seem deliberate as Russian forces try to consolidate control of the Donbas region. The Washington Post, 07 April 2022.
- 6. Report on direct infrastructure losses from the destruction caused by Russian aggression against Ukraine as of September 1, 2022, KSE Institute, September 2022.
- 7. Transcript: Vladimir Putin’s Televised Address on Ukraine, Bloomberg News, 24 February 2022.
- 8. Article by Vladimir Putin “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, Boris Yeltsin Presidential Library.
- 9. What should Russia do with Ukraine? [Translation of a propaganda article by a Russian publication].
- 10. Timothy Snyder, Opinion: Putin Has Long Fantasized about a World without Ukrainians. Now We See What That Means, The Washington Post, 23 March 2022.
- 11. 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict UNESCO.
- 12. Second Protocol to the Hague Convention of 1954 for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, The Hague, 26 March 1999, UnesDoc Digital Library.
- 13. Destroyed Cultural Heritage of Ukraine, Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine.
- 14. Damaged cultural sites in Ukraine verified by UNESCO, UNESCO, 25 October 2022.
- 15. Hereinafter, we hyperlink the description and photos of the destroyed and damaged cultural heritage of Ukraine from the webpage of the Ukrainian Institute’s project “Postcards from Ukraine”.
- 16. Barsukova Olena. Russians have indeed stolen Scythian gold – Office of the General Prosecutor, Ukrainska Pravda-Zhyttia, 10 May 2022.
- 17. Balachuk Iryna. Occupiers of Mariupol Have Removed the Holodomor Victims memorial, Ukrayinska Pravda, 19.10.2022.