Ukraine’s cultural heritage in flames
Ukraine is steeped in art and history. For more than 1200 years, the people of this land have poured their souls into architecture, literature, paintings, and sculptures. But Russia’s brutal war has as little mercy for human art and passion as it does for people. Russian artillery and aviation destroy and endanger Ukraine’s museums, unique cultural landmarks, and irreplaceable historical architecture.
As of June 23, Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine has verified the destruction or damage of 391 cultural sites due to Russian bombings.
This number includes 70 religious sites, 12 museums, 30 historical buildings, 18 cultural centers, 15 monuments, 7 libraries. It’s important to note this is a very conservative estimate, as the war and Russian artillery fire continues in many regions. Reports and verification remain extremely difficult in embattled zones.
The above is based on fully verified attacks, backed up by government sources or satellite images. The real list is likely much larger. From gothic cathedrals to orthodox churches, from historic castles to art collections… as Ukraine burns, so do they. Russian state media has openly said it wants to launch “de-Ukrainization” as part of its aggression. This includes the destruction of the Ukrainian language, literature, and art.
Below is a list with just a handful of examples of Ukraine’s cultural landmarks that have been destroyed, damaged, or are in grave danger.
Mariupol Drama Theater (destroyed)
The Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater (located in Mariupol) is one of the oldest theaters in eastern Ukraine. It was built in 1960, the facade included Greek columns and an antiquity-inspired sculpture group near the roof. Mariupol has a history of theatrical culture dating back to 1847. The construction of this building was the crowning jewel of that tradition, finally giving theatrical troupes a stable place to perform.
On 16 March, Russian aviation bombed the theater, despite the sign “CHILDREN” which could be seen from the air. An investigation by Amnesty International has confirmed that Russian forces knew about the civilians inside and purposefully dropped two 500-kilogram (1100 pound) bombs on the theater. The bomb shelter held, some people started emerging later, but the fate of many in war-torn Mariupol (without water, food, heat, under constant Russian shelling) is unknown. Amnesty Interenational estimates 300 dead in the attack, while the Associated Press estimates 600. The theater itself was leveled.
“I heard the sound of an airplane above… Then I saw the roof of the building explode… I saw lots of smoke and debris. I couldn’t believe my eyes, the theater was a sanctuary. It had two giant signs saying ‘Children’”.Hryhoriy Holovniov, resident of Mariupol in an interview to Amnesty International
Maria Prymachenko exhibit – Ivankiv Historical-Ethnographic museum (burned)
Maria Prymachenko was a self-taught Ukrainian folk artist (naïve art style), working in painting, embroidery, and ceramics. In 1966, Prymachenko was awarded the Taras Shevchenko National Prize of Ukraine. UNESCO declared that 2009 was the year of Prymachenko. A street in Kyiv and a minor planet are both named after her. Pablo Picasso once said, after visiting a Prymachenko exhibition in Paris, “I bow down before the artistic miracle of this brilliant Ukrainian.” She is one of the most prominent cultural artistic symbols of modern Ukraine.
On March 28, the local Historical-Ethnographic museum was burned down by Russian invaders during the attempt to seize the village of Ivankiv. The museum contained 410 exhibits, including its most prized collection – the paintings of Prymachenko. Some paintings were saved by Anatoliy Kharitonov, a local who ran into the burning building to save the priceless cultural relics. Many other exhibits burned to cinders in the flames.
Sviatohirsk Lavra (damaged)
The Holy Mountains Lavra of the Holy Dormition is a major christian monastery near the town of Sviatohirsk in Donetsk region. The name comes from the surrounding Holy Mountains (currently – the Holy Mountains National Nature Park). The first monk settlements were made on the site in 1526, the construction of the major churches started in 1844. In 1917-1930 the communist regime looted the monastery, persecuted and killed many monks, and destroyed some of the churches. The monastery complex was restored/rebuilt in 1992 in independent Ukraine.
During the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the monastery provided shelter to civilians from Russian attacks. It was purposefully bombed by Russia several times:
- A Russian airstrike hit the monastery yard on 12 March 2022, wounding several of the 520 refugees
- On May 9, a rocket smashed into the St. George monastic chapel on the territory of the Lavra, collapsing half the building
- An airstrike on May 30 killed three people on the monastery grounds
- On June 4, Russian shelling of the monastery led to a massive fire within several of its wooden structures, At the time, 300 refugees still remained in the Lavra area, including 60 children.
Tarnavskyy House (badly damaged)
Tarnavskyy House, part of the Chernihiv Historical museum, is a historical building (1902) that belonged to Vasyl Tarnavskyy, a civic and cultural activist, dedicated to preserving Ukrainian culture. His collection of original manuscripts (including those of Taras Shevchenko), paintings and ethnographic relics was a unique time capsule of Ukrainian heritage. Tarnavskyy donated his collection to the Chernihiv museum via his last will. The building survived under fire during the communist revolution and World War 2, but did not survive the Russians in 2022.
On 11 March, Tarnavskyy House was hit by Russian artillery and nearly destroyed. Its walls collapsed, windows shattered, and priceless museum pieces were obliterated. Chernihiv region is land full of old Ukrainian traditions, legends and historical figures. It was one of the hardest hit by the Russian aggression, with 70% of Chernihiv city itself demolished by Russian bombings.
Babyn Yar memorial park (damaged)
Babyn Yar is a ravine in Kyiv where Nazis executed at least 33,771 Jews (and many other undocumented victims) during the occupation of Kyiv. In indepedent Ukraine, the ravine is a memorial park with many monuments to the victims of Nazi crimes and heroes of World War Two: The Gypsy wagon monument to the executed Roma, the monument to children killed in Babyn Yar, the Menorah monument to the executed Jews and many others.
On March 1, a Russian missile strike hit the territory of the Babyn Yar memorial park. The missile was likely aimed at the nearby Kyiv TV tower. Five innocent passers-by were killed. Russian fire damaged the building of the Holocaust Museum which was still under construction. The shelling also hit the park itself, which is a burial site of an estimated 70-100 thousand victims of Nazi crimes.
Church of Resurrection of Christ (badly damaged)
The Church of Resurrection of Christ is one of the prominent religious and architectural landmarks in Chernihiv region. Built in 1800 in Lukashivka village, it was a site of culture, community and history. In 1781 in its place stood a wooden church constructed for the funds of the villagers themselves and later replaced with the beautiful stone temple.
Russian troops occupied the village during their advance on Chernihiv region. It was used as a base of operations, to interrogate prisoners and to store explosive munitions. One such munition detonated, badly damaging the church. Residents of Lukashivka reported that Russian soldiers executed the local men and terrorized the women.
Slovo House (damaged)
Slovo Building is a residential house located in Kharkiv (“Slovo” means “word” in Ukrainian, a reference to the literary heritage of the house). Built in the late 1920s, it was home to dozens of Ukrainian writers and poets, including legendary figures like Ivan Bahrianyy and Mykola Bazhan. Many of them, known as the Executed Renaissance, were killed in 1930s by soviet firing squads in Sandarmokh forest (the site of Stalin’s Great Terror and thousands of executions), others committed suicide. The building is a national protected landmark of Ukraine.
On March 8, Russian shelling damaged the facade of the building. As Kharkiv (along with Mariupol and Chernihiv) remains the target of non-stop brutal artillery fire from the Russian army, its fate, along with many other historical landmarks, remains uncertain.
Kharkiv Karazin University, School of Sociology (badly damaged)
The Kharkiv National University (or Karazin University) is one of the oldest and most prominent universities in Ukraine, established in 1804. It’s a major academic institution with schools of biology, law, physics, history, linguistics and many others. For more than 200 years, this was one of the blossoming centers of culture and sciences in Ukraine (alongside Kyiv Mohyla Academy and Taras Shevchenko University). It also has a history of anti-Russian resistance: in 1951, 800 university students suffered from soviet persecution after they refused to pass exams in Russian.
On March 2, Russian artillery hit the building of the School of Sociology of the university (built in 1925), badly damaging and setting it on fire. Fire crews rushed to save the structure, put out the flames and pull out any people if necessary, but the damage was already done.
Church of the Birth of the Virgin Mary (badly damaged)
The Church of the Virgin Mary was among the oldest and best-kept wooden religious structures in Ukraine (built in 1862, located in the village of Viazivka, Zhytomyr region) and was a protected national landmark by the Ukrainian government. Wooden churches of this kind were rarely found in such excellent condition, as wooden historic structures are notoriously hard to preserve, especially those that are nearly 200 years old. This architectural landmark was well cared for by local residents and authorities.
On March 7, Russian troops fired upon the building, inflicting heavy damage to the wooden structure by mortar shells. The walls and roof collapsed, destroying one of the few pristine wooden churches in Ukraine. Repairs are likely impossible and full reconstruction might be needed after the war ends.
National Literary and Memorial Museum of Hryhorii Skovoroda (badly damaged)
Hryhorii Skovoroda was one of the most prominent Ukrainian poets and philosophers, often called “the Ukrainian Socrates”. He was also a teacher and composer of church music. Skovoroda had a profound impact on Ukrainian culture, literature and education as he traveled the country in the 18th century.
The museum dedicated to his life and works is located in the village of Skovorodynivka, Kharkiv region. The building dates back to the 18th century, the exhibit is located in the estate where Skovoroda spent the last years of his life. He is buried there as well. Ukraine will celebrate the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Ukrainian philosopher this winter.
On the night of 6-7 May, a Russian rocket smashed into the building, setting it on fire and injuring a museum worker. The museum was renovated just before the war. Now it lies in complete ruins, a burned-out husk. Ukrainian Minister of Culture Oleksandr Tkachenko offered only one point of solace: the exhibits were evacuated when the war began, and they survived.
Chernihiv Korolenko Library (damaged)
The Chernihiv Korolenko library is the main and largest scientific library in the Chernihiv region. It was based on the Chernihiv Public Library of 1877 and had a history of Russian imperial cultural repressions, eventually closed down in 1909 for ‘hiding illegal literature’ deemed dangerous by the Russian Empire. The library was burned by communists in 1921, then completely destroyed during WW2 in 1941, restored by German authorities and burned again by Russians in 1943. The book collection was replenished during the late Soviet period and during independent Ukraine and contained many rare texts.
The current building is a historic landmark built by architect Von Gogen and engineer Afanasiev in 1913. On March 30, the Russian aggressors shelled the library, damaging its facade, roof and blowing out the windows. No information on damage to the book collection is available so far.
Kharitonenko Memorial Sculptures (in danger)
The sculptures on the memorial of the Kharitonenko family in Sumy are an example of truly unique, irreplaceable works of art that are in danger in Ukraine due to Russian aggression (along with hundreds of other priceless landmarks of cultural heritage). Made by famed French sculptor Aristide Croisy in 1894, they are believed by many to be among the most beautiful tombstone monuments in the world; replicas are kept in the Louvre. Other works of Croisy can be seen in the Paris city hall and other prominent landmarks in France.
The Sumy region is still (as of 2 April) the site of fierce battles, shelling by Russian artillery, and Russian fire against civilian and residential areas. While Sumy itself has not been targeted as extensively as other Ukrainian cities, villages in the region have sustained damage from artillery and mortar shelling. Civilian casualties are still taking place.
Odesa and Lviv (preparing for attacks)
Odesa and Lviv are preparing to save their cultural heritage from Russian artillery and aviation strikes as well. Odesa has yet to be attacked en masse, but Russian ships are blockading its seaports and have already fired upon the city outskirts. The city is preparing for a siege, fortifying its coast and arming its citizens. Paradoxically, the Odesa Fine Art Museum has had to evacuate works of prominent Russian artists to protect them from Russian artillery. The museum has more than 10,000 art pieces, among them many by Ivan Aivazovsky, and early paintings by Wassyli Kandinsky, but also many by Russian artists of the 19th and 20th centuries. Lviv’s residents are also evacuating works of art into shelters, safeguarding monuments via protective covers and sand bags, and reinforcing church windows with steel plates.
Almost all exhibits of the Lviv National Art Museum have been evacuated to bomb shelters. Priceless paintings were also removed from the Odesa National Fine Art Museum, transferred to underground storage.
Update: as of the time of finalizing this article, on 18 April, exactly World Heritage Day, Russia has launched 5 missile strikes at Lviv. Local authorities report that they hit civilian infrastructure. No additional information is available yet, but fear remains of damage to landmarks and more importantly – the loss of human lives.
Each of us can take action and make our voices heard to save Ukraine’s culture. Its soul bleeds. Its people die. Its history and art are in flames. Tell Ukraine’s story, support with donations, social media coverage or activism.
Don’t let Ukrainian heritage die in silence.
Don’t let violence triumph over beauty.