The sprawling architecture of the Kharkiv State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater was once a sight to behold. Large posters of upcoming performances adorned the exterior walls and vibrant rose arrangements decorated tall water fountains on a symmetrical gray plaza. Inside, event goers would be ushered from a cathedral of art-filled walls into vast halls that could seat nearly 2,000 people.
But severe Russian shelling killed 10 people and disintegrated the building into rubble. The theater is not the only cultural landmark destroyed. Since the invasion began Feb. 24, UNESCO has registered at least 120 instances of damage or complete destruction of cultural sites, including museums, historic buildings, libraries and religious institutions.
The Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab, a collaborative monitoring project between the Virginia Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, estimates damage to 191 sites from the beginning of the invasion to April 2. In April alone, UNESCO recorded more than 50 Russian attacks on heritage sites.
Damage has become so widespread that some experts believe the sites are being targeted deliberately, putting the architecture of Ukraine’s identity at risk. They’re calling on the U.N. and U.S. government to protect and promote Ukraine’s cultural identity before it’s too late.
“In addition to a purely conventional military attack, Russia knows it to be more strategic to target Ukrainian culture with the primary aim of it being destroyed,” said Yuri Shevchuk, a lexicographer and lecturer of Ukrainian language at Columbia University. “They know that even if Ukraine wins, but Ukrainian culture loses and Ukrainian language disappears, there will be no Ukraine.”
It is against international law to intentionally target cultural heritage and property in war, according to the 1954 Hague Convention. Since Russia and Ukraine are among the 133 signatories, the damage to Ukraine’s cultural institutions could become evidence in a potential war crimes case.
“Ukraine is a country well known for its rich history, the place where cultures from the East and West joined,” Lazare Eloundou Assomo, director of UNESCO World Heritage Centre, told POLITICO. “We are seriously concerned because Ukraine is losing not only an important part of its cultural heritage, but also its identity. A piece of themselves and a piece of history is going to disappear if the war doesn’t stop.”
In a March letter to Moscow, which was obtained by POLITICO, UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay urged Russia to abide by the 1954 treaty.
“The need to ensure this protection results from the commitments made by the Russian Federation under the 1954 Convention and other relevant norms of international humanitarian law,” Azoulay said in the letter. “Any violation of these standards will engage the international responsibility of its authors.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov responded that Moscow was aware of its obligations under the treaty and remains committed to them, a spokesperson at UNESCO said.
There are seven UNESCO World Heritage sites in Ukraine, including St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, Lviv’s entire historic city district and the Struve Geodetic Arc. In the letter to Lavrov, Azoulay notes that coordinates for the heritage sites have been attached separately — while already available online — with some properties distinctively marked with the United Nations’ “Blue Shield” emblem.
None of the World Heritage sites in Ukraine have so far been damaged.
Whether the attacks are indiscriminate or targeted, the consequences of losing cultural heritage could be dire. Cultural centers such as the Mariupol Museum and the Makarivska Public Library in Kyiv that contain unique art and literature have been destroyed. Historic buildings and monuments dedicating Ukraine’s fight against Nazism in World War II, including the Drobitsky Yar Holocaust Memorial, have been damaged.
Despite several months of shelling, Eloundou explained that UNESCO is still in its preliminary assessment phase, which the organization describes as cross-checking reported incidents with credible sources. When completed, UNESCO will be “fully ready to cooperate” with the International Criminal Court and other judicial institutions and plans to produce and share a final assessment “as appropriate,” Eloundou said.
This isn’t the first time Russia has attacked antiquities in recent history. State Department funded research found airstrikes from Russia and other groups in Syria in 2011 damaged medieval cities, cultural centers and monuments. This not only led to the destruction of heritage and museums being looted of ancient artifacts, but it created a path for relics to be directed out of the Middle East.
“There might be acts of wars that would destroy areas [and] there was a concern about looting,” said Elizabeth Repko, a director in the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s physical infrastructure team who worked on a 2016 report analyzing the U.S. response to the protection of cultural property in Iraq and Syria. “One of the concerns of looting was not just that ISIS may sell the cultural property and it could finance terrorism but also that there could be trafficking of stolen art into the United States.”
Much like what happened in the Middle East seems to already be in motion in Ukraine. The mayor of Melitopol said that Russian agents had conducted a heist of ancient gold from the Scythian empire and other artifacts from a local museum. In Mariupol, officials reported Russian agents breaking into a museum to steal highly valued artifacts, paintings and art pieces.
It would take five years after the assault on cultural artifacts began in Syria for the U.S. to pass the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act in 2016, a law that created an interagency coordinating committee known as the Cultural Heritage Coordinating Committee, led by the Cultural Heritage Center within the State Department. While the 2016 law explicitly protects Syrian antiquities, the creation of the committee has given the State Department jurisdiction to address and prevent cultural destruction in Ukraine and other regions under threat.
There is no proposed legislation in Congress to protect Ukrainian cultural property. And it’s unclear whether the Biden administration’s recent $33 billion Ukraine request includes funding to save heritage sites.
In a recent news briefing, Cultural Heritage Center director Eric Catalfamo said it is “impossible” to know how many buildings, memorials and monuments have been destroyed or damaged in Ukraine.
“If we look back over a period of years, even before Russia's 2022 war against Ukraine, we know that Russia illegally exported artifacts from Crimea, and took them for display in Russia,” Catalfamo said.
He added that Russia “conducted unauthorized archaeological expeditions, demolished Muslim burial sites and damaged cultural heritage sites.”
For now, the center has been conducting remote monitoring and tracking, a State Department official told POLITICO. But experts on Ukraine say time is running out to protect Ukraine’s culture amid intense Russian bombardment.
“Culture is as powerful a weapon as a 155-millimeter Howitzer or a cruise missile,” Shevchuk said. “The difference is that culture has much longer-lasting consequences, and it is projected much farther.”
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