Just in January this year, UNESCO not only declared the historic center of the Ukrainian port city of Odesa a World Heritage Site, but also added it to its list of endangered human heritage. Purpose? To save foreign cultures from destruction during the Russian war. The new Russian attack on the port city has now caused great outrage at UNESCO. In an interview with DW, Lutz Möller, deputy secretary-general of the German UNESCO commission, emphasized that the sites have “universal significance”.
Three popular museums in Odesa
In the buffer zone in the Old Town, which should have been protected, several museums were attacked and vandalized at the same time. He said that the Archaeological Museum, the Maritime Museum and the Museum of Literature were particularly affected. “The Archaeological Museum and the Literature Museum are right next to each other, while the Maritime Museum is in the harbour,” Möller said, adding that all three suffered damage. “Unfortunately, we still don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of whether the collection they hold is lost forever, because the inventory has yet to be completed.” Möller does not believe museum staff were injured or killed.
The Transfiguration Cathedral is in danger of collapsing
Other cultural sites on the outskirts of the Old City, such as the Church of the Transfiguration, founded in 1794, are also believed to have been damaged. Pictures of collapsed domes and roofs, as well as destroyed altars and icons inside, have gone viral online. “You don’t have to be an expert to see that the structural integrity of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is being seriously compromised,” says Möller. The Church of the Transfiguration was destroyed in 1936 by order of Joseph Stalin and rebuilt in 1999 to reconstruct as close to the original as possible. Catherine the Great, the founder of Odesa, once ordered the construction of the church and dedicated it to the Transfiguration of Christ. The church was most recently visited by Russian Patriarch Kirill in 2010.
The attack on Odesa was the second time a World Heritage city was shelled during the Russian war of aggression. Just two weeks ago, Lviv was hit by a missile.
Ukrainian cultural heritage has universal significance
Möller emphasized: “Not only Ukraine has an obligation to preserve these sites, but also to the whole world. “UNESCO protects them not only because of their importance to Ukraine’s national identity. Indeed, web pages go beyond the importance of a single state.”
Several thousand monuments considered important from the point of view of UNESCO and Ukraine have been marked with a white and blue shield to protect cultural property during armed conflicts. “We want to protect these sites with white and blue shields so they don’t come under shelling.”
Since the start of the Russian invasion on 24 February 2022, 270 incidents of damage to Ukrainian cultural sites have been recorded, as well as 3,500 educational facilities, such as schools or libraries.
UNESCO has pledged assistance in the form of personnel or financial assistance for reconstruction, the United Nations cultural agency said.
“It looks like the reconstruction is done under the coordination of UNESCO, depending on the extent of the damage. It could also be enough to raise funds to help Ukraine rebuild.”
The latest cultural attack in Odesa coincided with the destruction of the Art Education and Folklore Center in Mykolaiv, just over 100 kilometers away.
Claudia Roth: ‘Attack on every sector of Ukrainian society’
The German Minister of Culture and Communications, Claudia Roth, said that “the targeted Russian attacks on museums in Odesa show once again that this war is an attack on all sectors of Ukrainian society and democracy” with a particular focus on “their independent culture.”
In addition, by bombing the Old Town of Odesa, a World Heritage Site, Russia is “directing a direct attack on an important part of humanity’s cultural heritage,” Roth continued. “This criminal violence against the Ukrainian people, as well as their cultural property, must cease and be stopped by Russia immediately.”
She added that the German government continues to stand with the Ukrainian people and their culture.
This article was originally written in German, with additional information from news agencies.