Inside the Efforts to Preserve Ukraine’s Cultural Heritage

Here’s how experts and civilians alike are working to protect the country’s art, artifacts and scientific specimens

Sandbags are piled high around a statue of the Duc de Richelieu in Odessa, Ukraine, on March 14, 2022.
Sandbags are piled high around a statue of the Duc de Richelieu in Odessa, Ukraine, on March 14, 2022. Photo by Scott Peterson / Getty Images

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Vladimir Putin’s forces have killed more than 1,179 civilians and forced some four million refugees to flee the country. In addition to committing war crimes like bombing a maternity hospital and a Mariupol theater where 1,300 civilians, including children, had taken shelter, the Russian military has targeted Ukrainian cultural institutions and heritage sites.

As Luke Harding and Harriet Sherwood write for the Guardian, many Ukrainians view these attacks as a personal project of Putin, who has publicly rejected Ukraine’s independent culture, language and traditions.

“The USSR was one big totalitarian regime,” Lviv museum director Olha Honchar tells the Guardian. “They tried to make everything the same. They had one kind of monument, and one kind of artistic style with socialist realism. Moscow wants to eradicate Ukrainian culture. It’s what defines us and our identity. It’s a memory of who we are.”

As the conflict stretches into its second month, here’s how Ukrainians at home and abroad are working to protect their country’s cultural heritage.

Protecting What Can’t Be Moved

Ukrainians on the ground are working to reinforce buildings and artifacts that can’t be easily moved. In Lviv, construction workers erected scaffolding around the city’s Latin Cathedral before boarding up its stained-glass windows with steel plates, reports Atika Shubert for CNN. Statues of Greek gods on four limestone fountains in the city’s old market square, meanwhile, have been cloaked in fire-resistant coverings.

“If we lose our culture we lose our identity,” Lilya Onyshchenko, head of the city council’s heritage protection office, tells the Guardian. “… Lviv has always been multicultural. Poles, Germans, Jews, Armenians and Hungarians built it. It’s Unesco listed.”

Pedestrians walk past a wrapped statue next to the Latin Cathedral in Lviv on March 5, 2022.
Pedestrians walk past a wrapped statue next to the Latin Cathedral in Lviv on March 5, 2022. Photo by Daniel Leal / AFP via Getty Images

Similar efforts—as well as debates over how best to allocate scarce resources—have unfolded across the country. Though staff at the Literary Museum in Kharkiv had hoped to protect a statue of Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Shevchenko, they ultimately decided to dedicate their time to humanitarian relief. Per Bloomberg CityLab, volunteers later covered the sculpture in sandbags.

To the south, in the port city of Odessa, volunteers created a comparable sandbag shield around the neoclassical Monument to Duc de Richelieu. (Kyrylo Lipatov, deputy director for research and exhibitions at Odessa’s National Art Museums, tells Bloomberg CityLab that the sandbags are unlikely to protect the monument from a direct hit but emphasizes that the measure boosted local morale.)

Russian forces have already damaged or destroyed a number of cultural sites in Ukraine, including the 11th-century city center of Chernihiv; a 19th-century wooden church in the village of Viazivka; and the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum, located north of Kiev.

“Not since Nazi Germany has a powerful European nation so blatantly targeted a people’s cultural objects for destruction,” writes Laura Ballman for Foreign Policy.

Moving Art and Specimens

Museums and cultural sites across Ukraine have also taken steps to protect their holdings. Earlier this month, workers removed a wooden altarpiece depicting Jesus, Mary and Mary Magdalene from a 14th-century Armenian church in Lviv and transported it to a bunker—the first time the artwork had been moved since World War II, according to the Guardian.

Employees of the Odessa Fine Arts Museum hid artworks in the building’s basement and put up barbed wire, while staff at the Kyiv-based National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War spent 12 hours moving the institution’s most significant artifacts to a safe location, as Valerie Hopkins and Alex Marshall reported for the New York Times in late February. Likewise, the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in central Kyiv moved artifacts including Scythian weapons and an Ice Age mammoth tusk bracelet to secure spots, per Science magazines Andrew Curry.

In Kharkiv, conservation biologist Anton Vlaschenko did what he could to preserve the Ukrainian Bat Rehabilitation Center—the largest bat rescue and research facility in Eastern Europe. When he heard shelling outside his apartment on February 24, Vlaschenko—fearful that the city would soon lose power—went to the center to release hibernating bats from their refrigerators. Against a backdrop of gunfire, he moved the center’s collection of over 2,000 Nyctalus noctula bat skulls, as well as rescued bats too sick to release, to his apartment.

“I didn’t know if we would return home, or what would happen next,” he tells Science. “But I understood the war had begun, and we needed to do something. … We had a huge explosion close to my home two days ago. You never know what moment you could be hit.”

Turning to Digitization

Led and staffed by volunteers from Europe and the United States, the Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online (SUCHO) initiative launched on March 1. The team has been working around the clock to preserve the data and technology of Ukraine’s cultural institutions, reports Sarah Cascone for Artnet. By March 14, SUCHO had backed up more than 1,500 websites, digital exhibitions, open-access publication and other digital resources.

“People forget that the internet is made up of physical things,” Quinn Dombrowski, an academic technology specialist at Stanford University and co-organizer of the project, tells Artnet. “There are physical servers that are located in the real world that need power, cooling and maintenance.”

Dombrowski adds, “The internet as a ‘series of tubes’ is a joke, but also real: Networking depends on physical cables that have to remain connected for things to work. War can disrupt all of those things. Anything from a power outage to a server being crushed in a building that’s been bombed can take websites offline, temporarily or permanently.”

SUCHO volunteers have learned that lesson firsthand. According to Science, just four hours after volunteers captured the State Archives of Kharkiv’s 105 gigabytes of data, including scans of rare books and scientific records, the whole website went down.

As of March 23, the team had secured ten terabytes of data, per Rayna Breuer of Deutsche Welle. The information is saved on servers outside the country, as well as on the nonprofit Internet Archive.

“Libraries, specifically university libraries, are meant to not only create knowledge and preserve the knowledge at their own institutions, but have a global outlook,” says Anna Kijas, head of the Lilly Music Library at Tufts University and a co-organizer of SUCHO, in a statement. “Our institutions have a responsibility to other libraries, not to take their collections, but to help preserve them.”