This report is part of ongoing coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Visit our dedicated page for more on this topic.
Overshadowed by the human toll of the war in Ukraine is another tragedy: The loss—potential and, in some cases, already realized—of historic monuments, architecture, artwork, and public squares.
“It almost seems trite to worry about physical structures when there are human lives at stake that can’t be replaced in any way,” says Lucy Maulsby, associate professor of architectural history at Northeastern. “But buildings and places are more than their materials—they’re reminders of shared, collective history and memories. They’re monuments to hopes and dreams, and that is also what people see in their damage or destruction. It’s why the loss of a building or a monument or a significant public space can be so impactful.”
Ukraine is home to a number of important cultural spaces and historic buildings, most of which date back many hundreds of years. The Cathedral of St. Sophia in Kyiv is perhaps the country’s most famous landmark, recognizable by its gold-capped domes. The complex is more than 1,000 years old, and both the Ukrainian Embassy to the Holy See and the Ukrainian Catholic Major Archeparchy of Kyiv-Galicia have appealed to Russia not to bomb it.
The cathedral is one of seven sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, a compilation of places around the world that are “of outstanding universal value to humanity” and as such are “to be protected for future generations to appreciate and enjoy,” according to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.
Faced with widespread, no-holds-barred bombing from Russia, all of these sites are in grave danger.
Already, in the northern city of Kharkiv, Russian attackers hit “Freedom Square,” one of the largest public squares in Europe, and home to Derzhprom, or the State Industry Building. The 20th-century building is under consideration by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Two important buildings nearby, the Kharkiv State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre and the Kharkiv Philharmonic, were reduced to ruins during the bombing, the New York Times reports.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in an address to the European Parliament, said, “Every square of today, no matter what it’s called, is going to be called Freedom Square, in every city of our country. Nobody is gonna break us.”
Maulsby says that the deliberate attack of cultural artifacts is a strategy sometimes deployed in wartime.
“Destruction of cultural patrimony is a strategy because it’s particularly demoralizing,” she says. “When people leave their houses in an emergency, they take their photos, or the memento from their grandmother.”
Targeting cultural or historic sites, Maulsby says, “ensures a loss of access to that history.”
Unless, that is, archivists, librarians, and others in the digital humanities can secure documents, blueprints, literature, photographs, and other materials that serve as a record of community. And that work is already underway, says Dan Cohen, dean of libraries and vice provost for information collaboration at Northeastern.
A group of “cultural heritage professionals” including librarians, archivists, researchers, and programmers, is working feverishly to archive “at-risk [web]sites, digital content, and data in Ukrainian cultural heritage institutions while the country is under attack,” according to the group’s website. The organization is called Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online, or SUCHO.
Volunteers can sign up to help digitize important, historic, or otherwise unique documents, photos, and websites for posterity.
“There’s a long history of these digital libraries that synthesize, preserve, and make widely available the records of regions, states, nations, people, and communities—SUCHO is just the latest version,” Cohen says.
Indeed—and this is something Maulsby notes as well—the destruction of cultural and historic sites and materials in Ukraine is also just the latest in a long history of deliberate erasure.
“This story has been playing out in the Middle East for decades, and the destruction there reaches back far deeper in time,” Maulsby says. The Council of Library and Information Resources runs a program similar to SUCHO that’s dedicated to digitally archiving materials from Middle Eastern countries, Cohen says.
And while architecture can’t be archived online, highly detailed digital scans and renderings of historic buildings and monuments can be. A painstaking laser scan of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris turned out to be essential to rebuilding parts of it after a fire in the structure in 2019.
“A major part of human expression takes the form of writing, art, architecture, music—these essential parts of culture and history,” Cohen says. “Those materials are the glue of society. Preserving them means preserving reference points that people feel connected to.”