Clues to the Fate of Five Damaged Cultural Heritage Sites in Ukraine

Ever since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the country’s curators and historians have busied themselves moving artefacts and works of art out of harm’s way. The stained glass windows of Lviv’s cathedral are now secured behind metal. Pyramids of sandbags protect statues in downtown Odesa. An army of online volunteers is even backing up the digital archives of the country’s museums.

But there are hundreds of sites across Ukraine which cannot be moved or protected in this way. Museums, churches, cemeteries and historic buildings are at risk of missile attacks, artillery and small arms fire. Although none of the country’s six (cultural) UNESCO World Heritage Sites have yet been hit, the UN agency has announced that at least 139 cultural sites have been damaged in some way during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine.

Putin’s decision to call into question Ukraine’s identity and statehood has raised the destruction of cultural heritage well beyond a niche issue – in fact, some Ukrainians see it as evidence of a campaign of cultural erasure.

“You clearly see that there is a plan to erase Ukrainian identity and culture if needed, together with Ukrainians physically. That’s not a question. When you look from Kyiv it looks like a deliberate action to get rid of anything which makes Ukrainian otherness from Russia”, said Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta, director of the Arsenal Cultural Centre in the Ukrainian capital.

It is often hard to conclusively establish intent and motivation behind incidents or attacks that have led to the damage or destruction of cultural sites – especially through open sources alone. If attacks on historic buildings are deliberate, that could amount to a war crime. What can be said is that the sheer number of cultural sites damaged or under threat indicates that it is highly unlikely they are being excluded from Russia’s bombardment.

In some instances, cultural sites that were being used to shelter civilians have been struck.

Bellingcat and its partner, Newsy, looked at several Ukrainian heritage sites that have been attacked or bombed during Russia’s invasion, but which have not yet received widespread attention in international media. The aim was to see what open source could tell us about the condition of the sites and the circumstances that led to their damage and destruction.