Russia has destroyed thousands of our cultural artefacts, Ukrainian politician says

Kateryna Chuyeva tells Abu Dhabi forum that heritage sites were attacked despite assurances given to Unesco

Kateryna Chuyeva, UkraINE'S Deputy Minister of Culture, speaks at the Aliph forum in Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa / The National
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Many of Ukraine’s cultural sites have been destroyed by Russian missiles in the past year, a Ukrainian politician has alleged.

Kateryna Chuyeva, Deputy Minister of Culture and Information Policy, told The National the Russian invasion had wrecked Ukraine’s cultural heritage, with thousands of valued objects damaged or looted.

“We have so far registered or verified at least 1,300 damaged or ruined objects of cultural infrastructure including museums, libraries, archives, regional art hubs, music and art schools in different regions,” said Ms Chuyeva on a visit to Abu Dhabi on Monday.

We know that thousands of objects were looted and transported to Crimea and other unknown locations
Kateryna Chuyeva, Ukraine's Deputy Minister of Culture

“At least 400 immovable objects of cultural heritage are completely ruined in the invasion."

Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a so-called special military operation against Ukraine on February 24 last year that has killed thousands and displaced millions.

A year later and the war continues with wanton destruction and damage to lives and properties in Ukraine.

“Unfortunately, the level of damage is unprecedented since the Second World War," Ms Chuyeva said. "We have a number of cities, which are totally destroyed, including many cultural heritage sites.

“And, we have also lost a huge amount of archival documents after missile strikes. Valuable collections from a number of museums in territories under Russian occupation were looted.

"This includes gold and silver objects from archaeological excavations and paintings from Mariupol.”

She said the number of artefacts wrecked or looted was expected to rise.

“Unfortunately, it's difficult to estimate the full extent of the damage now," she said.

As of March 1, Unesco has verified damage to 245 heritage sites in Ukraine since the invasion.

This includes 106 religious sites, 20 museums, 88 buildings of historical and/or artistic interest, 19 monuments and 12 libraries.

There are 38 damaged cultural and religious sites in Kyiv region and 54 in Kharkiv region, among others.

In a letter sent on March 17 last year, Unesco director general Audrey Azoulay urged Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to protect cultural heritage during conflict under an international convention.

“Any violation of these norms will see the perpetrators brought to international responsibility,” Mr Azoulay had said.

But Ms Chuyeva said despite Russia’s assurances, many of its museums were attacked.

“At least two museums in the Kyiv and Kharkiv region were targeted and destroyed by Russian missiles only because they were cultural sites,” she said.

"We have around 12 million objects in municipal and national museums in addition to the vast number of private collections.

"We have a huge amount of archival documents, too, in addition to 2,000 national and regional museums. It is an important work.”

What Russia has gained and lost in Ukraine

What Russia has gained and lost in Ukraine

International funding

Earlier on Monday, speaking at a panel during the Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (Aliph) forum held at the Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi, the minister said Ukraine had received funding of €3.8 million ($4.05 million, Dh14.89 million) from the foundation.

“Aliph is supporting 160 cultural institutions in Ukraine,” Ms Chuyeva said. "So, in fact, you help us save all these objects and I am very grateful for it.

Speaking about the challenges of heritage preservation during a full-scale conflict, she said there had been a massive exodus of professionals from the country.

“We have a deficit of professionals for the moment and we are faced with empty museums,” she said.

Ms Chuyeva said many of her staff had been sheltering in bomb shelters with no internet connection during the early months of the war.

“But from the very first day of the invasion, Ukrainian culture authorities started communicating with international partners like Aliph Foundation to obtain support to protect Ukrainian cultural heritage and also to make it more visible,” she said.

She said as it is a war against Ukraine’s cultural identity, it is as important to protect lives and territory as it is to fight for their heritage.

"We have to do it despite challenges on the ground," she said.

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Updated: March 07, 2023, 12:21 PM