Ukraine fights to protect its churches and heritage from the ravages of war

At the Holy Trinity church in Zhovkva, Ukraine, Father Vasyl Batyuk introduced one of the newer additions that are almost as precious as the rows of centuries-old religious symbols that line its wooden walls: a vase red firefighter.

“Did you see how many churches the Russians bombed in the east?” asked the Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest, referring to the region hit hard by Vladimir Putin’s war. “We have to prepare.”

The 300-year-old church, a Unesco world heritage site, was covered with fireproof material to provide some protection from Russian attacks in the eighth week. Authorities were able to unload a particularly precious work by master icon painter Ivan Rutkovych from the early 18th century and move it to safety in nearby Lviv.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has decimated towns and cities, devastated communities and forced millions from their homes. Human pain is immeasurable, but the damage to Ukraine’s cultural assets – medieval churches, museums and historic sites – was significant at a time when the existence of a National independence is at stake.

Father Vasyl Batyuk at the Holy Trinity church in Zhovkva © Kasia Strek / FT

Volodymyr Gerych, of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, outside the Holy Trinity © Kasia Strek / FT

Across Ukraine, historical and cultural monuments have been erected and sandbagged to shield them from missiles that could strike at any moment. Monuments and statues were wrapped in padding or covered with protective sheeting, while museums boxed precious works of art and put them in secret basements.

“The Russians not only destroyed military facilities and infrastructure, they also destroyed cultural heritage,” said Pavlo Bohaychyk of the heritage office of the historical environmental protection bureau in 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 a variety of Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Ukrainian Greek Catholic churches.

For geographical reasons, the city, about 70km from the Polish border, has avoided devastation elsewhere in Ukraine, but Bohaychyk expressed pride in its efforts to preserve its history. “Lviv was one of the first cities to take measures to preserve cultural monuments and protect them from bombs,” he said.

The collections at Lviv’s Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum have been taken down from the exhibition spaces and placed in a secure area © Kasia Strek / FT

Across Ukraine, historical and cultural monuments have been built © Kasia Strek / FT

Recently, at least 53 Ukrainian cultural sites have been damaged or destroyed since the February 24 invasion, Unesco said, with devastation continuing to take place in areas occupied by Moscow’s forces. siege or bombardment, especially in the east of the country where fighting was becoming concentrated.

“We have a daily damage control meeting and the list is growing,” said Ernesto Ottone, Unesco’s assistant general manager for culture. “We are very concerned about this situation, not only in terms of humanitarian issues but also about the protection of cultural heritage. The heritage of humanity is indeed in jeopardy.”

Experts say churches, which are often hundreds of years old and, in the case of the Holy Trinity, made from wood, are particularly vulnerable.

“Wood architecture is difficult to protect,” said Volodymyr Gerych of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, adding that “it would be a tragedy” if a site had such historical and religious significance. so damaged or lost. He recalled how thousands of churches were destroyed after 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 focus of the fighting is moving east, Russian missile attacks on military and oil infrastructure in Lviv late last month and another attack last week in Radekhiv, which means the threat is never far away.

Ekateryna Miheytseva of Odesa Museum of Western and Oriental Art: ‘Staff can react quickly’ © Victor Sajenko

Andriy Rybka outside Lviv’s national art gallery: ‘Nobody prepared for a war of this magnitude’ © Kasia Strek/FT

At Lviv’s national art gallery, works by Peter Paul Rubens and Myroslav Yahoda were packed and moved to basements and storage facilities at the start of the invasion, according to Andriy Rybka, head of exhibition. “Nobody prepared for a war of this magnitude so it was improvised. But with our museum experience, we did it quickly enough,” he said.

In southern Ukraine, efforts to save the contents of the Odesa Museum of Western and Oriental Art have been helped by the fact that a restoration project began in January as war fears grew. .

Ekateryna Miheytseva, deputy director of the museum, explains: “So the process of making the works of art safe was started. “Museum staff were able to react quickly,” to save hundreds of works by artists including Caravaggio and Qi Baishi. These were taken to “a safe place, a location that we could not reveal during the war”, she added.

In the capital Kyiv, the green and gold Byzantine domes of Saint Sophia’s church, which dates back to the 11th century and is one of the most important Christian sites in Europe, remains untouched – an icon. of the country’s resistance.

Soldiers in Lviv attend the funerals of three compatriots killed in the war © Kasia Strek / FT

Debris outside a church damaged by shelling in Chernihiv © Serhii Nuzhnenko / Reuters

However, damaged or destroyed sites included 29 churches, several museums and war monuments, as well as historic theaters in the besieged cities of Mariupol and Kharkiv.

In Chernihiv, which had just been liberated by Ukrainian troops, Dmytro Ivanov, the regional deputy governor, said several important landmarks, including an Orthodox church, had been shelled by Russian troops. “It is unfortunate that these monuments have been destroyed,” he lamented.

Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of Unesco, last month wrote to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, to remind him of Moscow’s obligation to protect cultural sites under the 1954 Hague Convention which both Russia and Ukraine all signed. Unesco said Foreign Minister Lavrov replied that Moscow was “clearly aware of its obligations”.

In Lviv, Father Nestor Kyzyk, priest of the garrison church of Saints Peter and Paul, welcomed the urgency of “fighting for our future”, when the coffins of three of the soldiers were killed in the battle. the fighting is being brought outside.

“Our history is our memory,” he said. “And without the past, we will never have a future.”

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