Ukraine's architectural treasures risk destruction

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought vivid images of human tragedy to witnesses around the world: thousands of civilians killed and inju...


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought vivid images of human tragedy to witnesses around the world: thousands of civilians killed and injured; broken families, as mothers and children seek refuge while fathers and other men remain to defend their country; and millions of refugees who have already fled to neighboring countries after only two weeks of war.

To this human suffering is added a second tragedy: the destruction of the very culture of a country. Across Ukraine, dozens of historic buildings, priceless works of art and public squares are reduced to rubble by Russian rockets, missiles, bombs and gunfire.

In 2010, I saw a vibrant – and, sadly, often overlooked – part of Ukrainian culture while writing a travel article about the beautiful, centuries-old wooden churches in the western region of Zakarpattia. At the time, there was very little infrastructure for tourists in the region, despite the attraction of superb buildings such as the Church of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin, a huge wooden construction dating from 1619, which I visited in the village of Novoselytsia. A few years later, however, the wooden churches – or tserkvas – of the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine and neighboring Poland were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, which aims to showcase “the cultural heritage and nature of the world considered to be of exceptional value to humanity.”

This list currently includes seven sites scattered across Ukraine, all of which are clearly in serious danger, while many other important sites have already been damaged or even completely destroyed. The internationally recognized Babyn Yar memorial – a ravine near Kiev where the Nazis massacred more than 33,000 Jews in two days in 1941, followed by around 100,000 to 150,000 more in the following years – was close to a Russian missile attack on March 1 which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said killed at least five people.

In the northeastern city of Kharkiv, Russian assailants struck several landmarks, including the city’s sprawling Freedom Square, home to Derzhprom, or the Palace of Industry, a stunning Constructivist building dating back to 1928 which is currently on an “indicative” list from UNESCO to be considered as a World Heritage Site in the future. The nearby Kharkiv Academic Opera and Ballet Theater and the nearby Kharkiv Philharmonic were reduced to rubble.

In a televised address to the European Parliament, President Zelensky highlighted the destruction of one of Europe’s largest public squares.

“Can you imagine, this morning, two cruise missiles hit Liberty Square? Dozens were killed. This is the price of freedom. We are fighting, just for our land and for our freedom,” he said. “Every square after today, whatever it’s called, will be called Liberty Square, in every city in our country.”

Across Ukraine, teams are racing to protect important monuments. A medieval-era statue of Jesus Christ has been removed from Lviv’s Armenian Cathedral for what was believed to be the first time since World War II, and carefully transported to a bomb shelter to be stored there preserved.

Unfortunately, other jewels of Ukrainian culture were damaged before their safety could be assured. On February 28, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry announced that the museum in Ivankiv, a town northwest of Kiev, had been destroyed, including some 25 paintings by famous artist Mariia Pyrimachenko. The Church of the Ascension in the village of Bobryk, near Kiev, was badly damaged a week later. The bombing of another church and the targeting of a bakery were denounced in a video President Zelensky released on March 7, in which he said Ukraine would take revenge “for every civilian object destroyed.”

“Think about it: shooting at a bread factory. Who should you be to do that? He asked. “Or to destroy another church, in the Zhytomyr region, the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, built in 1862.”

Those of us watching the destruction wonder what’s next. Will Odessa’s Great Choral Synagogue – whose community has already been forced to flee – be hit by the next wave of rockets? Will the already threatened 17th-century Zhovkva Synagogue survive? Will the ornate, Habsburg-meets-Byzantine residence of the Metropolitans of Bukovina and Dalmatia in Chernivtsi come under fire? Will Carpathian wooden tserkvas last another year?

For Ukrainians, the destruction of cultural touchstones by an invading army is a blow to the heart. Oksana Pelenska, a journalist with the Ukrainian service of Radio Free Europe, called the loss of Pryimachenko’s paintings a “genocide of art”. Such attacks, she said, constitute an attempt to erase Ukrainian culture itself.

“What should we call it?” ” she asked. “It is the destruction of the history and the memory of the Ukrainian people. That’s how we take it. That’s how the Ukrainian people see it.

Among cultural sites, she said, her biggest fear was for the safety of Hagia Sophia in Kyiv.

“It’s been the memory of the nation for almost 10 centuries,” she said. “He holds the history of Ukraine. It holds our art history. And he holds the story of how he survived. The Saint Sophia Cathedral has survived, just as the Ukrainian nation survives.

Many have commented on Europe’s unusually unified response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine. This could stem from the nature of the country as a melting pot. Thanks to its location atop the busy Black Sea, wedged between the European Union and Russia, Ukraine is home to a number of ethnic groups, including one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe. Zakarpattia, where I visited, has a large Hungarian community, although much of the region was once part of Czechoslovakia, now creating bridges to neighboring Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Mariupol and other cities are famous for their Greek populations, while Donetsk and other areas have large Armenian communities. Although often of ancient origin, these cultural ties establish and sustain relationships between Ukraine and other countries, and help explain why so many people around the world are moved by what is happening to the Ukrainian people and their monuments. .

Or, as the mayor of Novoselytsia said when I complimented him nearly 12 years ago on the remarkable 400-year-old wooden tserkva in his village: “It’s not our culture. It’s everyone’s culture. He belongs to the world.


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