Unesco Sounds the Alarm Over Threats to Ukrainian Cultural Heritage

The agency is “gravely concerned” about the risk to historic sites amid intensifying violence

snowy view of a monument with a bronze statue of a man standing in front of a wall with Ukrainian writing
A view of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial in Kyiv. A Russian missile struck the building last Tuesday, killing five people nearby. Laurent Van der Stockt for Le Monde / Getty Images

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues to escalate, displacing more than a million people and causing hundreds of civilian deaths, Unesco says it is “gravely concerned” about threats to Ukrainian cultural heritage.

The Eastern European country is home to seven sites on Unesco’s World Heritage List, including the 11th-century Saint-Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv—considered “one of the finest” examples of early Rus-Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture, according to Encyclopedia Britannica—and the historic city center of Lviv. In a statement, Unesco specifically expressed concerns about recent damage to the cities of Kharkiv and Chernihiv, both of which are home to sites on Ukraine’s “tentative list” for potential nomination to World Heritage status.

Chernihiv boasts a historic center with roots stretching back to the ninth century. Kharkiv, meanwhile, is home to the Derzhprom building, one of the first concrete Soviet skyscrapers, notes Catherine Hickley for the Art Newspaper. The 14-story building stands in the city’s sprawling Freedom Square, which last week was hit by a missile that damaged an opera house, a concert hall and government offices. Per BBC News, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy cited the attack as an example of Russia’s “terror against Ukraine,” adding, “There were no military targets in the square—nor are they in those residential districts of Kharkiv which come under rocket artillery fire.”

Over the past 12 days, the risk posed to Ukrainian cultural sites has become readily apparent. In early March, a Russian strike hit the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, where the Nazis killed more than 33,000 Jews over a two-day period during World War II. The memorial didn’t sustain any critical damage, according to the Forward, but the attack sparked calls for the historic site to be protected.

white and green byzantine-style chapel with gold domes
Unesco says its concerned about several historic Ukrainian sites, including the 11th-century Saint-Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv. Chiara Salvadori / Getty Images

Ukraine’s museums—and the precious artworks they hold—also face threats of destruction and looting. The Ivankiv Museum, located around 50 miles north of Kyiv, was reportedly burned by Russian forces, leading to the loss of several paintings by the revered folk artist Maria Prymachenko. A local man ran into the building and saved about 10 of the 25 Prymachenko works stored there, reports Blanca Schofield for the London Times.

“The museum was the first building in Ivankiv that the Russians destroyed,” the artist’s great-granddaughter, Anastasiia Prymachenko, tells the Times. “I think it is because they want to destroy our Ukrainian culture—the museum is the only thing we have there, with lots of artifacts showing Ukrainian and Ivankiv culture.”

Amid the violence and chaos, civilians and experts alike have been scrambling to safeguard beloved cultural objects. Some museum workers raced to dismantle exhibitions before heading to the frontlines of the conflict. In Lviv, where residents have been bracing for a possible invasion, locals helped wrap centuries-old statues in plastic and foam.

International organizations have also offered aid. The Smithsonian’s Cultural Rescue Initiative, which strives to protect cultural heritage threatened by disasters, has been in touch with contacts in Ukraine who have trained in “first aid” for cultural heritage, says Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch in a statement.

Per a separate Unesco statement, the international agency is taking similar measures, including marking “key historic monuments and sites across Ukraine with the distinctive emblem of the 1954 Hague Convention, an internationally recognized signal for the protection of cultural heritage in the event of armed conflict.” Unesco will also monitor damage to cultural sites through satellite imagery. Staff are working to coordinate a meeting with museum directors in Ukraine, with the goal of helping them preserve their collections.

“We must safeguard this cultural heritage,” says Unesco Director-General Audrey Azoulay in the statement, “as a testimony of the past but also as a vector of peace for the future, which the international community has a duty to protect and preserve for future generations.”