Crimes against history: mapping the destruction of Ukraine’s culture
US-based lab documents destruction of churches and theatres
A destroyed church which served as a military base for Russian soldiers in the village of Lukashivka, Ukraine. Photograph: Anastasia Vlasova/Getty Images
Sun 24 Apr 2022 08.00 BST
Satellite scrutiny of Ukraine is not just focused on military hardware. Thousands of miles away from the fighting, an international group of archaeologists, historians and technicians are quietly coordinating another high-stakes monitoring effort: the tracking of the mounting losses to Ukraine’s cultural landscape.
Now an impact summary, released this month from their lab at a museum in the US state of Virginia, has revealed the bleak truth.
So far, signs of damage to 191 cultural landmarks and venues have been detected. Most of the destruction – believed to have been carried out by invading Russian troops – has concentrated on Ukrainian memorials and places of worship. Fifty-eight churches, mosques, temples and cathedrals have now been listed, along with 111 memorial sites and nine public monuments. The war has also seen two arts venues attacked – including the theatre at Mariupol, images of which went around the world – and one archaeological site. Violence directed at monuments and buildings might seem insignificant compared to the growing toll of injury and death inflicted on Ukrainian families, but for a country in the shadow of a threatening neighbour, culture and heritage can play a crucial role. The deliberate targeting of religious and cultural sites is also prohibited by the 1954 Hague Convention, although individual perpetrators have rarely been punished.
The destroyed Drama Theatre in Mariupol. Photograph: Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA
The Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab, at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville, is the hub for coordinating worldwide attempts to register and protect landmarks at risk. The network was set up last year in partnership with the acclaimed Smithsonian Institution Cultural Rescue Initiative, founded in response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which works to train museum curators around the world to react to conflict.
News of any affected site goes back to Ukraine immediately in case the damage to artefacts can be limited, or at least documented on the ground. Inside Ukraine’s museums, many cabinets containing Byzantine icons and Scythian gold have been moved. Valuable artwork has been hidden in basements or moved secretly to supportive foreign museums. Other national collections are guarded by wardens who are now armed and ready to repel looters.
The operation in Virginia draws on the expertise of curators from America and Europe and is led by archaeologist Hayden Bassett. “It’s a 24/7 operation,” he recently told the Washington Post. “Even though we might not be staring at a screen at 3am, our satellites are imaging at 3am.”
Brian Daniels, an anthropologist working with the team in Virginia, said the rate of attacks had increased dramatically since the report’s publication. He told the Observer: “The violence is now concentrating on civilian infrastructure and this means museums and cultural heritage are targeted in this scorched-earth policy.”
Bassett has seen significant cultural damage to the more densely populated areas, including the complete destruction of a museum in Ivankiv two months ago.
The 26,000 cultural sites checked by the lab this month via a combination of remote sensing, open-source research and satellite imagery, include Ukraine’s seven world heritage sites. The best known of these is Kyiv’s golden-domed Cathedral of St Sophia, which remains intact. Ukraine’s ministry of culture has also urged witnesses to send photographs to its cultural crimes website, culturecrimes.mkip.gov.ua, so that verified evidence can be sent to the International Criminal Court.
The lab’s new impact report defined cultural heritage broadly, covering venues and historical sites and monuments, but not libraries and archives. A detected “potential impact” means a sign of possible damage based upon remote sensing methods. Other, smaller impacts may not be visible to geospatial technology.
The Russian-controlled territories of Donbas and Crimea were an early concern, according to Damian Koropeckyj, a senior analyst , who has found evidence that destroyed monuments there are being replaced by new ones supporting a Russian version of the areas’ heritage.
“We’re a remote project. But it’s certainly very real to me. Believing we can make a difference here is important,” Koropeckyj said.