Heritage in War: A Key to Define the Future of Ukraine

By Dóra Mérai

The right of everyone to their heritage is a key element in relevant international law focusing on heritage in armed conflict (O’Keefe 2006, 305-307). International policy documents have focused on looting or collateral damage on cultural property[1] and recognize that heritage can be deliberately targeted in armed conflict.[2] This aspect is rightly emphasized by Ukraine, accusing Russia of deliberately attacking identities and memories by destroying material heritage. On the other side, Russia accuses Ukraine of depriving their ethnic minorities of practicing their human rights in terms of culture and provides this as a reason for the military invasion.

Culture and heritage are used in this conflict by both sides because it is symbolic of national identities, power relations, and has the potential to produce and reproduce boundaries, mobilize masses in the service of political goals (Viejo-Rose and Stig Sørensen 2015). But this is not the only way heritage in Ukraine has been reframed in the past few years. I argue that though heritage is used in this conflict to produce divisions, but it is also used to develop empathy, express solidarity, and help people cope with the difficulties. Heritage is not just a victim that is misused and destroyed. In this paper, I will look at what else is done to heritage, by whom, and how these actions shape what the heritage of Ukraine is.

Various actors reacted quickly to Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine in the field of heritage too. The first initiatives were about awareness raising. UNESCO published a statement calling for the protection of cultural heritage, with specific emphasis on World Heritage Sites, and condemning any attacks against cultural property.[3] The statement by ICOMOS reiterated the fragility of cultural heritage and the responsibility of care with reference to the relevant international conventions.[4] These were followed by numerous statements by various organizations with reference to heritage in Ukraine as part of the heritage of all humankind, as an essential element of Ukrainian identity and as a human right of every Ukrainian individual. The Red List of Cultural Objects at Risk in Ukraine was issued by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) in 2022 summer to present those types of objects such as manuscripts, icons, religious artifacts, and jewelry, in total more than 50 object types, that are the most likely to be looted and sold on the international art market.[5]

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee inscribed the Historic Centre of Odesa (Ukraine) on the World Heritage List in January 2023 as the 8th World Heritage Site of Ukraine, despite the opposition of Russia.[6] Part of the site was immediately added to the List of World Heritage in Danger. While the World Heritage listing aims to protect the material fabric of the historic city center in Odessa, the process of listing itself is also recognized as meaningful. UNESCO director general, Audrey Azoulay, referred to the ways in which the war impacted Odessa as an argument for the inclusion: “There was first a symbolic aspect which is that of saying this city belongs to the world heritage, it concerns us all, we are all looking at it, we all see it, and we recognize its history and its contribution to the heritage.”[7]

The listing is not just a symbolic act though. UNESCO implemented emergency measures: repairing damage to the museum buildings to protect the collections, and digitization of artworks and archival materials.[8] This is just a part of UNESCO activities in Ukraine: in partnership with local authorities and non-governmental organizations, they monitor damage and loss in terms of heritage assets, the impact of war on the cultural sector, support artists, and so on.[9] Heritage is not treated as a distinct field but as part of the general actions by UNESCO, where people and communities are the focus.

Many other actors took the initiatives to monitor war damage on heritage. These activities are often based on the cooperation of international and Ukrainian organizations and involve online and offline volunteers.

Since the destruction of heritage can be investigated as a war crime by the International Criminal Court, documentation also fits into the range of online crowdsourcing projects that generally address war crimes based on the principle of Open Source Intelligence.

The initiatives monitor damage to built heritage, archaeological sites, and document looting from Ukrainian museums by the Russian forces. The Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab (CHML)[10] is the initiative of the Virginia Museum of Natural History. In cooperation with the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative (SCRI)[11] they apply remote sensing, open-source research, and satellite imagery to monitor 26,000 heritage sites and record war damage. The Archaeological Landscapes Monitoring Group is an initiative of archaeologists working in various Ukrainian organizations mapping war damage in archaeological sites caused not only by looting and intentional attacks but also by earthmoving related to military operations, which often take place even in sites of previously unknown archaeological significance.[12]

The Ministry of Culture and Information Policy in Ukraine launched a crowdsourcing project under the title „Save Ukrainian Culture” to record damaged objects of cultural heritage and cultural institutions.[13] They have recorded more than 1100 objects by 2023 February,[14] and they invite citizens to contribute to this collection.[15]

This project demonstrates an approach to heritage that is novel in Ukraine: they do not only focus on protected or listed monuments, but invite citizens to define what they consider to be their heritage – even if they do not use the term – by recording the damage.

Reukraine, a project run by the Anti-Corruption Headquarters NGO with the Renaissance Foundation also works based on the principle of crowdsourcing and in cooperation with local authorities and partner organizations, monitoring and mapping destroyed as well as restored objects of public infrastructure.[16] Cultural objects of historical, cultural, or architectural significance are a distinct category in their database. International expert organizations monitor the art market for looted artifacts: a well-known case is the package of 86 precious metal objects seized in transit by the UK Border Force in July 2021, identified by curators from the British Museum and the National Museum in Kyiv, and returned to Ukraine.[17]

Local professionals and volunteers are the key actors in saving heritage: wrapping up public monuments, protecting architecture with sandbags, and moving museum and archival collections to safe spaces.

The story of the Chernihiv Historical Museum and an interview with its Director spread in the online media in spring,[18] but most Ukrainian museum employees are in silent about their actions for reasons related to the safety of people and the collections. International cooperation with heritage institutions helps them in solving practical problems, developing methods, and getting access to materials, for example, in the framework of the program “Museologists for Ukraine.”[19] The Heritage Response Initiative (HERI) was launched by Ukrainian museum workers, in cooperation with a range of international actors including UNESCO and ICOM, to provide immediate aid to museums in saving their collections and to coordinate the activities of public and civic actors in the field.[20] The Lviv Center for Urban History has had a long-term cooperation with local history museums all over Ukraine, and now these connections saved, for example, a part of the collection of the Mariupol Museum of Local History in a digital form.[21] Safeguarding digital collections is a specific segment of these endeavors by identifying such collections and moving them to servers outside Ukraine. SUCHO is an initiative of over 1,500 international volunteers archiving websites and digital data of Ukrainian cultural institutions, from national archives to local museums and art centers.[22] They have also launched a digitization project within Ukraine providing equipment and training for locals.

Such international cooperation contributes to the resilience of Ukrainian heritage organizations as well as of professionals.

The latter is especially important since the impact of the large-scale emigration of experts cannot even be estimated in the long run for the heritage sector. These initiatives are also manifest in the form of grants for residents, such as the call by the European Commission within the Creative Europe program to fund international collaborative projects for the resilience of Ukrainian artists and cultural heritage professionals.[23] The Museum Crisis Center (MCC) initiated by the Director of the Territory of Terror Museum in Lviv in cooperation with two NGOs, help local and regional museums and their employees in the southern and eastern areas that are the most exposed to the impact of military operations.[24]

Heritage experts on-site document war experiences, collect images, and oral histories. A new layer of heritage emerges due to the war, and old heritage sites also gain new meanings, for example, by serving as bomb shelters for the locals.

The large-scale movement of people creates new communities but also breaks up the old ones – as of 31 January 2023, 3.6 million Ukrainian citizens have registered as Internally Displaced Persons, but the estimates are that around 8 million people have relocated within the country since the beginning of the military actions in 2014 February. The documenting initiatives address these experiences and are relevant for heritage in terms of creating new collections but also for discussing new values and new meanings. They bring those heritage values into focus that are attributed to sites and intangible assets by various communities. The “Documenting Experiences of War” initiative of the Lviv Center for Urban History runs a set of projects collecting testimonies, visuals, diaries, and dreams, and archiving the content of Telegram, currently the most important online communication channel.[25] They also organize workshops, exhibitions and create various other forums to discuss what heritage is and its role in and after the war. This type of discourse, with an open and flexible approach to heritage, has the potential to use heritage to work across boundaries, within or outside Ukraine.

The discourse around heritage in Ukraine is in transformation at the level of experts too. With the increased mobility of professionals as refugees and the intensification of international interest, cooperations have multiplied, and the visibility of Ukrainian scholars and Ukrainian heritage has increased. Many scholars are hosted by various academic institutions in Europe and the US with special scholarships.

These institutions also organize international workshops and conferences addressing heritage in Ukraine and often integrating it not only in the international heritage discourse but also in the discourses on public policy, human rights, and various other disciplines.[26]

A new generation of experts is shaped with skills, knowledge, and networks. The Invisible University for Ukraine initiated by CEU, with its programs on cultural heritage, promotes this transfer and a future-oriented way of thinking while acting against the brain drain by engaging students residing in Ukraine.[27]

Though the end of the war is not in sight, various actors have already started to think about the future of Ukraine in terms of post-war reconstruction.[28] The reconstruction is on the international agenda, and large funds have been designated for this purpose by actors such as the European Commission and the World Bank. The modernization of the country at various levels, transparency, and the involvement of public, private, and civic actors are among the basic expectations on the donors’ side. Governance mechanisms are crucial even in this big picture, but what will happen on the ground requires preparation and capacity building, even if immediate action is needed. Planning the future of Ukraine when the war is over is about new, green, smart infrastructure and liveable cities. However, what Ukraine inherited from the past defines what it is today, including what is the difficult heritage, and there remains the collective trauma of this war to work with rather than neglecting or oppressing it.

This is the approach implemented by Ro3kvit, a coalition of over 80 Ukrainian and international professionals in the field of urban planning, architecture, energy, transport, sociology, heritage, and other related disciplines. The NGO develops knowledge and methodologies for rebuilding the urban and rural environment and infrastructure in Ukraine.

Their integrated approach to heritage and planning is tied to citizen involvement: priorities defined and plans co-created with Ukrainian citizens, stakeholders, and experts define the principles and values of what to preserve and what to change in cities.[29]

The extent to which the local communities will be able to influence the reconstruction process is at the core of criticism towards the new Law on Urban Planning issued by the government in December 2022.[30] The law decentralized the related decision-making processes and loosened the control over that at every level of public governance, favoring private developers.[31] This approach is also expected to have consequences on heritage through hasty, uninformed, and development-led decisions made about the historic and more modern urban environments that have been the space for pre-war life and the current traumatic experiences.

 Which parts of this past should be part of the future, that is, what is the heritage of Ukraine, is a question to be decided jointly by all stakeholders as an integral part of the question of what this future should be like.

The actions of awareness raising, monitoring, saving, supporting, documenting, and discussing the past and its material and non-material remains in the context of urban planning, as well as exploiting it as an argument in the conflict, all determine what is passed on as heritage to a future Ukraine, thus, to defining what kind of future this will be.


Kulyk, Volodymyr (2018) Shedding Russianness, recasting Ukrainianness: the post-Euromaidan dynamics of ethnonational identifications in Ukraine.  Post-Soviet Affairs, 34:2-3, 119-138, DOI: 10.1080/1060586X.2018.1451232

Loshkariov, Ivan D. & Andrey A. Sushentsov (2016) Radicalization of Russians in Ukraine: from ‘accidental’ diaspora to rebel movement. Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, 16:1, 71-90, DOI: 10.1080/14683857.2016.1149349

O’Keefe, Roger. The Protection of Cultural Property in Armed Conflict. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Viejo-Rose, Dacia and Marie Louise Stig Sørensen, Cultural Heritage and Armed Conflict: New Questions for an Old Relationship. In: The Palgrave Handbook of Contemporary Heritage Research, eds, Emma Waterton and Steve Watson, 281-296. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015

[1] https://en.unesco.org/protecting-heritage/convention-and-protocols/1954-convention

[2] https://international-review.icrc.org/sites/default/files/irrc_854_unesco_eng.pdf

[3] https://www.unesco.org/en/articles/ukraine-unesco-statement-following-adoption-un-general-assembly-resolution?hub=701

[4] https://www.icomos.org/en/78-english-categories/105671-icomos-statement-on-ukraine

[5] https://icom.museum/en/resources/red-lists/

[6] https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1703/

[7] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-64408145

[8] https://www.unesco.org/en/articles/odesa-unesco-supports-cultural-institutions-protect-cultural-heritage

[9] https://www.unesco.org/en/ukraine-war

[10] Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab – Virginia Museum of Natural History (vmnh.net)

[11] Safeguarding the Cultural and Historical Heritage of Ukraine | Smithsonian Institution (si.edu)

[12] http://vovkcenter.org.ua/en/projects/archaeolandscapes/

[13] Save Ukrainian Culture (mkip.gov.ua)



[16] Карту Відновлення та Руйнувань (shtab.net)

[17] http://www.britishmuseum.org/sites/default/files/2022-05/British_Museum_UK_Border_Force_work_together_return_items_Ukraine_press_release.pdf

[18] https://www.thecitizen.org.au/articles/the-longest-night-at-the-museum-how-determined-ukraine-locals-saved-their-heritage#:~:text=First%20day%20and%20night.,at%205am%20on%20February%2024

[19] https://polishhistory.pl/establishment-of-committee-for-aid-to-museums-of-ukraine/

[20] https://www.facebook.com/109558158344811/posts/109662735001020/

[21] https://uma.lvivcenter.org/en/collections/147/photos

[22] Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online | SUCHO

[23] https://culture.ec.europa.eu/news/creative-europe-in-2023-supporting-resilient-cultural-and-creative-sectors

[24] https://hyperallergic.com/719347/this-group-is-helping-museum-workers-in-ukraine/

[25] Documenting Experiences of War | Lvivcenter

[26] Most recently: https://www.sal.org.uk/event/31379/

Forthcoming: Ukrainathon 2023 (Feb. 24-25) – PONARS Eurasia

[27] https://www.ceu.edu/non-degree/Invisible-University

[28] Financing and governing the recovery, reconstruction, and modernization of Ukraine (brookings.edu)

[29] https://ro3kvit.com/

[30] https://ro3kvit.com/news/2022-12-15

[31] https://tosics.eu/en/the-trilemma-of-ukraines-recovery-centralised-decentralised-or-private-sector-led/

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