Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, approximately 14 million Ukrainians have fled their country and more than 7 million have been displaced internally within Ukraine. According to the Conflict Observatory, potential damage to 1,602 cultural heritage sites (out of 28,500) in Ukraine has been identified. As of February 1, 2023, UNESCO has verified damage to 105 religious sites, 18 museums, 85 buildings of historical and/or artistic interest, 19 monuments, and 11 libraries. Despite the massive damage and destruction of physical buildings and cultural sites, no UNESCO World Heritage sites have been damaged at this time.
Collective efforts, including those of the Conflict Observatory, UNESCO, and the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine, among others, are monitoring damage and destruction of the natural and built environment, as well as the cultural landscape, through various approaches including satellite data, credible media sources, citizen crowd-sourced data, and on-the-ground analysis and reporting. This evidence and documentation can be used to charge Russia with war crimes according to the international law under the 1954 Hague Convention, which protects cultural heritage during armed conflict.
Throughout this invasion, scholars, librarians, archivists, and cultural workers in Ukraine and abroad have engaged in heroic efforts to protect Ukrainian cultural heritage from Russia’s intentional targeting and campaign against Ukrainian people, their identity, and their sovereignty. Collaborations have emerged to protect physical cultural heritage artifacts, safeguard digital cultural heritage, and provide financial assistance to cultural heritage creators and workers.
Organizations have formed to protect cultural heritage objects and directly help Ukrainian institutions, including the Komitet Pomocy Muzeom Ukrainy (Committee for Ukrainian Museums), Heritage Emergency Response Initiative (HERI), and the ICOMOS Ukraine Center to Rescue Ukraine’s Cultural Heritage. Cultural heritage workers across Ukraine have been hiding artworks, wrapping objects, erecting scaffolding, and doing everything they can to protect their collections.
Russian cyberattacks on critical infrastructure in Ukraine have revealed a need for the protection of digital cultural heritage (e.g. websites, digital collections, data), which is at risk of being damaged or destroyed as much, if not more, than the tangible cultural heritage. Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online, a global, rapid-response, volunteer initiative came together to archive digital cultural heritage and raise funds to purchase digitization equipment sent directly to Ukrainian institutions, mainly museums, libraries, and archives. Other initiatives, such as Backup Ukraine who created a mobile app for scanning buildings and monuments as full 3D models, are also making use of technology to help preserve digital representations of cultural heritage.
Lecture series – such as From Kyivan Rus’ to Modern Ukraine: Virtual Conversations on History, Art, and Cultural Heritage – have brought together experts in the fields of history, art history, religion, archaeology, heritage, sociology, as well as museum curators and conservationists, among others, to present the region’s rich historical and cultural complexity through its objects, sites, and monuments. There are many other efforts (more than we can list) underway across the globe to protect the cultural heritage of Ukraine, in addition to bringing awareness and visibility to Ukrainian culture and identity.
“1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.” UNESCO. https://en.unesco.org/protecting-heritage/convention-and-protocols/1954-convention.
“Damaged cultural sites in Ukraine verified by UNESCO.” UNESCO. February 1, 2023. https://www.unesco.org/en/articles/damaged-cultural-sites-ukraine-verified-unesco.
“Destroyed Cultural Heritage of Ukraine.” Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine. https://culturecrimes.mkip.gov.ua/.
Finkelstein, Claire, Derek Gillman, Frederik Rosen, eds. “Preface,” in The Preservation of Art and Culture in Times of War. Oxford University Press, 2022.
“Forced displacement from and within Ukraine.” OCHA. October 28, 2022. https://reliefweb.int/report/ukraine/forced-displacement-and-within-ukraine.
Gerntholtz, Liesl. “Ukraine Culture Under Attack: Erasure of Ukrainian Culture in Russia’s War Against Ukraine.” PEN America. December 2, 2022. https://pen.org/report/ukrainian-culture-under-attack/.
“How Ukraine is moving to protect its cultural heritage.” International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. April 7, 2022. https://www.iiconservation.org/content/how-ukraine-moving-protect-its-cultural-heritage-updated-7-april-2022.
Recker, Jane. “Inside the Efforts to Preserve Ukraine’s Cultural Heritage.” Smithsonian Magazine. March 30, 2022. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/inside-the-efforts-to-preserve-ukraines-cultural-heritage-180979840/
Marche, Stephen. “‘Our mission is crucial’: meet the warrior librarians of Ukraine.” The Guardian. December 4, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/dec/04/our-mission-is-crucial-meet-the-warrior-librarians-of-ukraine.
“Special Report: Ukraine. An Overview of Russia’s Cyberattack Activity in Ukraine.” Microsoft, Digital Security Unit. April 27, 2022. https://query.prod.cms.rt.microsoft.com/cms/api/am/binary/RE4Vwwd.