‘This is everyone’s culture’: Ukraine’s architectural treasures face destruction
By Evan Rail
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought searing images of human tragedy to witnesses around the world: thousands of civilians killed and injured; broken families, as mothers and children leave in search of refuge while fathers and other men stay behind to defend their country; and millions of refugees having already fled to neighboring countries, after just two weeks of war.
In addition to that human suffering, a second tragedy comes into focus: the destruction of a country’s very culture. Across Ukraine, scores of historic buildings, priceless artworks and public squares are being reduced to rubble by Russian rockets, missiles, bombs and gunfire.
In 2010, I saw some of Ukraine’s vibrant — and, sadly, often overlooked — culture firsthand while writing a travel article about the beautiful, centuries-old wooden churches in the western region of Zakarpattia. At the time, there was very little in the way of infrastructure for tourists in the area, despite the attraction of stunning buildings like the Church of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin, an immense woodwork construction dating from 1619, which I visited in the village of Novoselytsia. A few years later, however, the wooden churches — or tserkvas — of the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine and nearby Poland were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, which seeks to highlight “cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.”
That list currently includes seven sites scattered throughout Ukraine, all of which are obviously in grave danger, while many other important sites have already been damaged, if not destroyed. The internationally recognized memorial at Babyn Yar — a ravine near Kyiv where the Nazis massacred more than 33,000 Jews in two days in 1941, followed by an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 others over subsequent years — was near a Russian missile attack on March 1 that, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, killed at least five people.
In the northeastern city of Kharkiv, Russian attackers hit multiple landmarks, including the city’s sprawling Freedom Square, home to Derzhprom, or the Palace of Industry, an eye-popping constructivist building dating from 1928 that is currently on a UNESCO “tentative” list for consideration as a World Heritage site in the future. The nearby Kharkiv State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre and next-door Kharkiv Philharmonic were reduced to ruins.
In a televised address to the European Parliament, Zelenskyy highlighted the destruction of one of the largest public squares in Europe.
“Can you imagine, this morning, two cruise missiles hit Freedom Square? Dozens were killed. This is the price of freedom. We are fighting, just for our land and for our freedom,” he said. “Every square, after today, no matter what it is called, is going to be called Freedom Square, in every city of our country.”
Across Ukraine, teams are racing to protect important monuments. A statue of Jesus Christ dating from the medieval era was removed from the Armenian Cathedral of Lviv for what was believed to be the first time since World War II, and carefully transported to a bomb shelter for safekeeping.
Other statues in Lviv’s historic center — a setting so beautiful that it has its own entry on the UNESCO World Heritage List — were being wrapped in fireproof insulation. Both the Ukrainian Embassy to the Holy See and the Ukrainian Catholic Major Archeparchy of Kyiv-Galicia begged for Russia not to bomb the Cathedral of St. Sophia, a gold-capped, UNESCO-listed complex in Kyiv that dates to the 11th century. (Although it has not been damaged as of this writing, the cathedral’s location in central Kyiv is just a four-minute walk from the building of the Security Service of Ukraine, the country’s main counterintelligence and counterterrorism office, a potential target for Russia.)
Sadly, other flagships of Ukrainian culture were damaged before their safety could be ensured. On Feb. 28, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry announced that the museum in Ivankiv, a town northwest of Kyiv, had been destroyed, including about 25 paintings by celebrated artist Mariia Pyrimachenko.
For Ukrainians, the destruction of cultural touchstones by an invading army cuts to the heart. Oksana Pelenska, a journalist at the Ukrainian service of Radio Free Europe, called the loss of the Pryimachenko paintings “an art genocide.” Such attacks, she said, amount to an attempt to erase Ukrainian culture itself.
“What else should we call it?” she said. “It is the destruction of the history and the memory of the Ukrainian people. That’s how we take it. That’s how the people of Ukraine look at it.”
Among cultural sites, she said, her greatest fear was for the safety of St. Sophia in Kyiv.
“It is the memory of the nation for almost 10 centuries,” she said. “It holds the history of Ukraine. It holds our art history. And it holds the history of how it survived. The Cathedral of St. Sophia survived, just as the Ukrainian nation is surviving.”
Many have commented on Europe’s uncharacteristically unified response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine. That might stem from the country’s nature as a melting pot. Thanks to its location at the top of the trade-heavy Black Sea, wedged between the European Union and Russia, Ukraine is home to a number of ethnic groups, including one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe. Zakarpattia, where I visited, has a significant Hungarian community, although much of the region was once part of Czechoslovakia, creating bridges to nearby Slovakia and the Czech Republic today. Mariupol and other cities are famous for their Greek populations, while Donetsk and other regions have significant Armenian communities. Though often ancient in origin, those cultural ties build and maintain relationships between Ukraine and other countries, and help to explain why so many around the world are moved by what is happening to Ukraine’s people and its monuments.
Or, as the mayor of Novoselytsia put it when I complimented him nearly 12 years ago on the remarkable, 400-year-old wooden tserkva in his village: “This isn’t our culture. This is everyone’s culture. It belongs to the world.”