Unesco has voted to add the historic city centre of the Ukrainian Black Sea port city of Odesa to its list of endangered World Heritage sites.
“I’m grateful to partners who help protect our pearl from the Russian invaders’ attacks!” the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, tweeted on 25 January after the decision of an extraordinary session of the World Heritage Committee of Unesco, the United Nations’ Paris-based cultural agency. Zelensky appealed to Unesco last October, eight months after the Russian invasion on 24 February 2022, to grant the Black Sea port city World Heritage status.
Odesa is often referred to as the “pearl of the Black Sea”. It has been inscribed on the World Heritage list as the Historic Centre of Odesa in recognition of “the outstanding universal value of the site and the duty of all humanity to protect it,” and further designated as endangered, giving access to additional technical and financial assistance. In a statement, Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of Unesco, described Odesa as “a free city, a world city”. “While the war continues,” she said, “this inscription embodies our collective determination to ensure that this city, which has always surmounted global upheavals, is preserved from further destruction.”
Catherine Colonna, the French Foreign Minister, visited Odesa on 26 January in a show of solidarity. Russian missile attacks had damaged two Odesa power plants immediately preceding her visit. Ukraine now has eight sites on the World Heritage list. They have survived since the Russian invasion, but as of 23 January Unesco had verified damage to 236 cultural sites in Ukraine.
The cosmopolitan city, which has ancient Greek roots and was under Ottoman control for centuries, is known for its architectural landmarks such as the Odesa Opera House and the giant harbour stairway immortalised in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin.
Odesa is strategically located along the coast west of Crimea, the archaeologically rich peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the port has been regarded as one of Vladimir Putin’s main targets. Russia, pointing to Catherine the Great’s role in establishing the modern city of Odesa in 1794, claims it as its own and has denounced the removal of a contemporary copy of a monument to the empress as destruction of cultural heritage by Ukraine.
A majority of committee members abstained and Ukraine is not yet on the committee. Russia’s Unesco commission claimed in a statement that the decision to award Odesa endangered status is “politically biased and scientifically unsubstantiated” and had been pushed through with only minority support.
“We do not question the cultural heritage and the glorious past of Odessa in the Russian state, and it is logical that it has been inscribed as a heritage site in the face of destruction,” said the statement, which persists in using the Russian-language transliteration of Odesa. “However, it should be clarified that the only threat to that city with a rich history comes from Ukraine’s nationalist regime, which has been systematically destroying monuments to the great founders and defenders of Odessa, namely, Empress Catherine II and her associates.”