In January this year, UNESCO had not only declared the historic center of the Ukrainian port city of Odesa a World Heritage Site, but also added it to the list of endangered human heritage. The aim was to save and protect foreign culture from destruction during the Russian war. The renewed Russian attack on the port city has caused great indignation at UNESCO. In an interview with DW, Lutz Möller, deputy secretary general of the German UNESCO commission, stresses that the sites are of “universal significance.”
Three museums in Odesa hit
In the buffer zone in the Old Town, which is supposed to be protected, several museums were attacked and damaged. He said that the Archaeological Museum, the Maritime Museum and the Literary Museum were especially affected.
“The Archaeological Museum and the Literature Museum are right next to each other, while the Maritime Museum is located at the harbor,” Möller said, adding that all three suffered damage. “Unfortunately, we don’t yet have comprehensive knowledge of whether the collection they hold are lost forever, because the inventory has not yet been completed.” Möller does not believe that museum employees were injured or killed.
Transfiguration Cathedral in danger of collapse
Other cultural sites on the outskirts of the Old City, such as the Transfiguration Cathedral, founded in 1794, are also said to have been damaged. Images of collapsed domes and roofs, as well as a destroyed altar and icons inside, have been circulating online.
“You don’t have to be an expert to see that the structural integrity of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is severely compromised,” Möller said. The Transfiguration Cathedral had already been destroyed in 1936 on Joseph Stalin’s orders and rebuilt in 1999 as close to the original as possible. Catherine the Great, founder of Odesa, once ordered the church to be built and dedicated it to the Transfiguration of Christ. The church was visited by the Russian Patriarch Kirill as recently as 2010.
The attack on Odesa is the second time that a world heritage city has been shelled during Russia’s war on Ukraine. Just two weeks ago, Lviv was hit by missiles.
Ukraine’s cultural heritage universally significant
“It is an obligation not only for Ukraine to preserve these sites, but for the whole world,” Möller emphasized. “UNESCO protects them not only because of the importance for the national identity of Ukraine. Indeed, the sites exceed the significance of a single state.”
Several thousand monuments considered significant from UNESCO’s and Ukraine’s point of view have been marked with a white and blue shield for the protection of cultural property in armed conflicts. “We would like to secure these sites with the white and blue shield so that they are not shelled,” Möller said.
Since the start of the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, 270 incidents causing damage to Ukrainian cultural sites have been recorded, as well as to 3,500 educational institutions, such as schools or libraries.
UNESCO has pledged support either in the form of personnel or financial assistance for reconstruction, the UN cultural body says.
“One possibility is that reconstruction is done under the coordination of UNESCO, depending on the degree of damage. It may also be enough to raise money to help Ukraine rebuild,” Möller said.
The latest attack on culture in Odesa coincides with the destruction of the Cultural Center for Folk Art and Art Education in the city of Mykolaiv, just over 100 kilometers (62 miles) away.
Claudia Roth: ‘Attack on all areas of Ukrainian society’
German Culture Minister Claudia Roth said that Russia’s “targeted attacks on the museums in Odesa show once again this war is an attack on all areas of Ukrainian society and democracy,” with a particular focus on “their independent culture.”
In addition, by bombing the World Heritage Old Town of Odesa, Russia is “directly attacking a significant part of the cultural heritage of humanity,” Roth continued. “This criminal violence against the people of Ukraine, as well as their cultural assets, must end and be stopped immediately by Russia.”
She added that the German government continues to stand firmly by the people of Ukraine and their culture.
This article was originally written in German, with additional information from news agencies.