At Holy Trinity Church in the Ukrainian town of Zhovkva, Father Vasyl Batyuk presented one of the newest additions that is almost as precious as the rows of age-old religious icons that line its wooden walls: a red fire extinguisher .
“Have you seen how many churches the Russians bombed in the East? asked the Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest, referring to the region hard hit by Vladimir Putin’s war. “We have to be prepared.”
The 300-year-old church, a Unesco World Heritage Site, has been covered in fireproof material to offer some protection against Russian attacks now in their eighth week. Authorities were able to remove a particularly valuable work by master icon painter Ivan Rutkovych from the early 18th century and bring it to safety in nearby Lviv.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has devastated towns and villages, devastated communities and forced millions to flee their homes. The human suffering has been immense, but the damage to Ukraine’s cultural assets – its medieval churches, museums and historical monuments – has been of great significance at a time when its existence as an independent nation is under threat .
Across Ukraine, historical and cultural sites have been barricaded and covered with sandbags to protect them from missiles that could strike at any time. Monuments and statues were wrapped in padding or covered in protective tarps, while museums boxed up valuable works of art and took them to secret basements.
“The Russians are not only destroying military installations and infrastructure, they are also destroying cultural heritage sites,” said Pavlo Bohaychyk from the heritage office of the historical environment protection department of the city of Lviv.
The cobbled streets of Lviv’s Old Town are filled with historical sites related to the city’s Polish and Jewish heritage and an array of Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Ukrainian Greek Catholic churches.
For geographical reasons, the town, about 70 km from the Polish border, avoided devastation elsewhere in Ukraine, but Bohaychyk said he was proud of efforts to protect its history. “Lviv was one of the first cities to take measures to preserve cultural monuments and protect them from bombs,” he said.
UNESCO recently reported that at least 53 Ukrainian cultural sites had been damaged or destroyed since the February 24 invasion, with destruction continuing in areas besieged or bombarded by Moscow forces, including in the east of the country. where the fighting is concentrated.
“We have a damage control meeting every day and the list is growing,” said Ernesto Ottone, Unesco’s deputy director-general for culture. “We are very concerned about the situation, not only humanitarian but also for the protection of cultural heritage. The heritage of humanity is indeed in danger.
Experts say churches, often hundreds of years old and, in the case of the Holy Trinity, made of wood, are particularly vulnerable.
“Wooden architecture is very difficult to protect,” said Volodymyr Gerych of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, adding that “it would be a tragedy” if a site of such religious and historical significance were damaged or lost. He recalled how thousands of churches were destroyed following the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine, said last month that at least 59 buildings “of spiritual significance” had been damaged in the first four weeks of the Russian invasion. Although the fighting is concentrated in the east, Russian rocket attacks on military and oil infrastructure in Lviv late last month, and another last week in nearby Radekhiv, mean the threat is not never far.
At the National Art Gallery in Lviv, works by artists like Peter Paul Rubens and Myroslav Yahoda were packed up and moved to basements and warehouses at the start of the invasion, according to Andriy Rybka, its exhibitions manager. . “Nobody was prepared for a war of this magnitude, so it was improvised. But given our museum experience, we did it quite quickly,” he said.
In southern Ukraine, efforts to salvage the contents of the Odessa Museum of Western and Eastern Art have been helped by the fact that a restoration project began in January amid mounting war fears.
“Thus, the process of securing the works had already started,” explained Ekateryna Miheytseva, deputy director of the museum. “Museum employees were able to react quickly” to save hundreds of works by artists including Caravaggio and Qi Baishi. These were taken to “a safe place, the location of which we cannot divulge during the war”, she added.
In the capital kyiv, the green and gold Byzantine domes of Saint Sophia’s Cathedral, which dates from the 11th century and is one of the most important Christian sites in Europe, remained intact, a symbol of the country’s resistance.
Yet sites damaged or destroyed include no less than 29 churches, several museums and war memorials, as well as historic theaters in the besieged cities of Mariupol and Kharkiv.
In Chernihiv, recently liberated by Ukrainian forces, Dmytro Ivanov, deputy regional governor, said several important monuments, including an Orthodox church, had been shelled by Russian troops. “It’s a pity that these monuments were destroyed,” he lamented.
Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of Unesco, wrote last month to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reminding him of Moscow’s obligations to protect cultural sites under the 1954 Hague Convention, including the Russia and Ukraine are signatories. Unesco said Lavrov replied that Moscow was “well aware of its obligations”.
In Lviv, Father Nestor Kyzyk, a priest at the Saints Peter and Paul Garrison Church, extolled the urgency of “fighting for our future”, as the coffins of three of the soldiers killed in the fighting were carried to the outside.
“Our history is our memory,” he said. “And without the past, we will never have a future.”