Ukraine’s churches are the hardest hit of all heritage sites in the war city country, according to new data. But a coalition of priests and religious leaders are working together — and overcoming ideological divides and historical allegiances — to document the damage to Ukraine’s most historic and treasured places of worship.
As of June 24, religious sites accounted for 144 of 396 places classified as war-damaged on the Ukrainian government’s cultural crimes list, which officials are compiling in hopes of one day prosecuting war crimes against Russian invaders.
Other places of worship have been damaged since: on July 14, the Church of St. Gregory in Vinnytsia was damaged by a deadly bombardment in the city of Vinnytsia in central Ukraine, and a church in Kiselivka, near the southern city of Mykolaiv, was reportedly completely destroyed by a Russian military strike earlier this week.
In an address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said of people brave enough to leave their homes and gather in churches: “Cultural services are forced to be held in the basement.”
World Monuments Fund (WMF) Ukrainian heritage specialist Kateryna Goncharova says “two churches were damaged every day” at the start of the war after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. Goncharova notes how ‘shocking images of burning wooden churches in Donetsk, Kyiv and Chernihiv regions’ have become viral visual metaphors for the impact of war on the Ukrainian people after President Zelensky posted images fires on his official Telegram channel.
On June 4, dramatic images circulated of the Hermitage of All Saints at the Svyatohirsk Lavra Monastery swollen with flames
On June 4, dramatic images circulated from the Hermitage of All Saints at the Sviatohirsk Lavra Monastery, a holy site in the Donetsk region, swelled with flames. The multi-domed wooden church was built in the early 2000s in the style of 16th-century Russian church architecture, on the site of a hermitage (the two original buildings were destroyed in the soviet era). That evening, President Zelensky said in a video address that Russian shelling was responsible for the fire.
“This is one of the three lavras in Ukraine,” Zelensky said in his speech. “This is the Lavra of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is still considered in Moscow to be connected with the Russian Orthodox Church. [But] even that doesn’t stop the Russian military,” he said.
The Diocese of Sumy has compiled a compelling dossier of photographs and descriptions of damage sent in by priests
Archpriest Georgiy Taraban, a Ukrainian Orthodox priest from the Sumy region that borders Russia, said The arts journal the sometimes frantic efforts of the country’s priests and other religious figures to protect precious sites of worship from Russian attacks and to document the destruction already wrought.
“What happens next is hard to say,” Taraban wrote in an email on June 15. “As the shelling increases, many people are rushing to carry out repairs. The windows of the houses are covered with plywood or something else instead of glass. We know that there may be new bombardments and that everything will have to be redone. This is also true for churches. The Diocese of Sumy has compiled a compelling dossier of photographs and descriptions of damage sent in by priests.
Documenting the destruction isn’t always easy, due to strained relations between the various Orthodox churches in Ukraine – some churches have historical ties to the Russian Orthodox hierarchy, which complicates the information-gathering process. Oleksandr Tkachenko, Ukraine’s culture and information policy minister, nevertheless said in a television interview in June that the government would help restore all Ukrainian churches, including those belonging to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC ) related to Moscow.
Whether churches are being actively targeted is obscured by conflicting accounts and disputed information. Sviatohirsk Mayor Volodymyr Bandura, for example, blamed the Ukrainian army, rather than the invading Russian forces, for the attack on the Hermitage of All Saints. The Ukrainian government, in turn, accused him of treason.
But that hasn’t deterred an international effort to help protect Ukraine’s religious heritage. In June, Taiwan, the island nation that lives under constant threat from China, donated $1.2 million to the rival Ukrainian Orthodox Church (OCU) for reconstruction work. Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu announced the donation during a conference with OCU chief Metropolitan Epiphane. “Now more than ever,” Wu said, “Ukrainians need the comfort and strength of religion.”
Private donations also help. A $500,000 seed grant from the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation will be spent to verify the extent and cause of damage to religious sites, but more funds are needed for an ‘urgent conservation project’, says World Monuments’ Kateryna Goncharova Fund, which is an authority on the application of the restoration principles of the Venice Charter.
Talk to The arts journal from Cherkasy in central Ukraine, where her family is a refugee, Goncharova says: “At the moment, no one knows the exact number of religious sites affected by the war.” Some of the sites listed in the government’s cultural crimes database, Goncharova says, “are in the immediate vicinity of the battlefield, in occupied territories” and therefore currently inaccessible to heritage specialists. But eventually, the information collected with the help of international agencies will help to develop “a recovery and rehabilitation strategy when the situation is more stable and secure”, she says.
In the short term, several immediate measures are taken to prevent damage or to preserve religious and conservation sites at risk of conflict, Goncharova explains. “In a series of historic wooden churches, known as ‘tserkvas’, WMF supplied specialist water mist extinguishers that are sensitive to the monumental painting and historic wooden iconostasis, with instructions in Ukrainian to guide their use,” she says. “At the wooden Church of the Holy Trinity in Zhovkva, for example, we are working to protect the fragile structure from deterioration until we can resume a restoration project.”
Another project, called Backup Ukraine, creates 3D scans of Ukraine’s architectural heritage, including its churches. The project was conceived by Tao Legene Thomsen, a Danish marketing manager. Project partners include Unesco, heritage conservation network Blue Shield Denmark, digitization app Polycam and Skeiron, a Lviv-based cultural heritage organization that digitizes monuments.
Thomsen calls Backup Ukraine both a “passionate project” and a “moral obligation” and describes the churches as “a reflection of [Ukraine’s] historic power. He praises Skeiron’s fascinating scans as “incredibly detailed.” He is now looking for footage of the Svyatohirsk Lavra Church, filmed before the fire, to create a scan of the site. Backup Ukraine is working with volunteers such as Maxim Kamynin, a young architect from Kyiv “who managed to do a good scan with just a phone” of the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Pirogoshcha in Kyiv and will also test screenshots of drones.
“Churches are one of Ukraine’s most important historical values,” Kamynin said. The arts journal. “Some buildings are over 1,000 years old; an incredible heritage that we must preserve and pass on to future generations. Because this is what forms the common history of Ukraine.
On Friday 15 July, the United Nations Security Council held a session devoted to the destruction of cultural heritage in Ukraine.