Ukraine’s churches are the hardest hit of all heritage sites in the war-town country, new data suggests. But a coalition of priests and religious leaders are working together—and overcoming ideological divisions and historic allegiances—to document the damage caused to Ukraine’s most historic and precious places of worship.
As of 24 June, religious sites accounted for 144 of the 396 places categorised as damaged by the war on the Ukrainian government’s Culture Crimes list, which officials are compiling in the hope of one day pursuing war crimes against the Russian invaders.
More sites of worship have been damaged since: on 14 July the Church of St Gregory in Vinnytsia was damaged in deadly shelling in the central Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia, 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, the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said of the people brave enough to leave their homes and gather in churches: “Worship services are forced to be held in the basement.”
Kateryna Goncharova, a specialist in Ukrainian heritage from the World Monuments Fund (WMF), says about “two churches were damaged each day” in the early period of the war after Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February. Goncharova notes how “the shocking images of burning wooden churches in Donetsk, Kyiv and Chernihiv regions” have become viral visual metaphors for the impact of the war on the Ukrainian people after President Zelenskyy posted footage of the fires on his official Telegram channel.
On 4 June dramatic footage circulated of the All Saints Hermitage of the Sviatohirsk Lavra monastery, a sacred site in the Donetsk region, billowing 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 (both original buildings were destroyed in the Soviet era). That evening, President Zelensky stated in a video address that Russian shelling was responsible for the blaze.
“This is one of the three lavras of Ukraine,” Zelensky said in his address. “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 this does not stop the Russian army,” he said.
Archpriest Georgiy Taraban, a Ukrainian Orthodox priest in the Sumy region that borders Russia, told The Art Newspaper of the sometimes frantic efforts priests and other religious figures in the country are making to protect precious sites of worship from Russian attack, and to document the destruction already wrought.
“What will happen next is hard to say,” Taraban wrote in an email on 15 June. “As the shelling increases, many people are hurrying with repairs. Windows in houses are covered with plywood or something else instead of glass. We know there may be new shelling and everything will have to be done again. This is true with churches too.” The Sumy diocese has compiled a compelling dossier of photographs and descriptions of damage sent in by priests.
Documenting the destruction is not always easy, because of tense relations between different Orthodox churches in Ukraine—some churches have historic ties to the Russian Orthodox hierarchy, complicating the process of information gathering. Oleksandr Tkachenko, the Ukrainian minister for culture and information policy, nevertheless said in a television interview in June that the government would help restore all Ukrainian churches, including those belonging to the Moscow-linked Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC).
The question of whether churches are being actively targeted is clouded by conflicting accounts and disputed information. Sviatohirsk’s mayor, Volodymyr Bandura, for example, has blamed the Ukrainian military, rather than the invading Russian forces, for the attack on the All Saints Hermitage. The Ukrainian government, in turn, has accused him of treason.
But this has not 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 $1.2m to the rival Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) for reconstruction work. Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu announced the donation in a conference with OCU leader Metropolitan Epiphanius. “Now more than ever,” Wu said, “Ukrainians need the comfort and strength of religion.”
Private donations are also helping. A $500,000 seed grant from the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation will be spent on verifying the extent and cause of damage to religious sites, but further funds are needed for an “urgent conservation project”, says Kateryna Goncharova of the World Monuments Fund, who is an authority on the application of Venice Charter principles of restoration.
Speaking to The Art Newspaper from Cherkasy in central Ukraine, where her family is sheltering, Goncharova says: “For now, no one knows the exact number of religious sites impacted by the war”. Some of the sites listed in the government’s Culture Crimes database, Goncharova says, “are in close proximity to the battlefield, on occupied territories” and therefore currently inaccessible to heritage specialists. But ultimately, the information gathered with the help of international agencies will make it possible to develop “a strategy for recovery and rehabilitation when the situation is more stable and safe”, she says.
In the short term, several immediate measures are being taken to prevent damage or to preserve religious and conservation sites at risk of conflict, Goncharova says. “At a series of historic wooden churches—known as ‘tserkvas’—WMF has provided specialised water mist fire extinguishers that are sensitive to 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, is creating 3D scans of Ukraine’s architectural heritage, including its churches. The project was devised by Tao Legene Thomsen, a Danish marketing executive. Project partners include Unesco, the heritage conservation network Blue Shield Denmark, the Polycam scanning app, and Skeiron, a Lviv-based cultural heritage organisation that scans landmarks.
Thomsen calls Backup Ukraine both a “passion project” and a “moral obligation” and describes churches as “a reflection of [Ukraine’s] historical power”. He praises Skeiron’s mesmerising scans as “incredibly detailed”. He is now seeking footage of the church at Sviatohirsk Lavra, filmed before the fire, to create a scan of the site. Backup Ukraine works with volunteers such as Maxim Kamynin, a young Kyiv architect “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 be testing out drone captures.
“Churches are one of the most important historical values that Ukraine has,” Kamynin tells The Art Newspaper. “Some buildings are over 1,000 years old; an incredible heritage that we must preserve and pass on to future generations. For 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.