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Ukraine’s cultural sites under threat from Russia’s invasion

Transcript

Judy Woodruff: The drama theater in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol that was reduced to rubble when it was bombed by Russian forces yesterday is just one example of the damage the war is doing to that country's important cultural sites.

Besides the terrible human toll, memorials, museums and churches, places that speak to Ukraine's very identity, are all also under threat from Russia's invasion.

Jeffrey Brown reports for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: A strike near the Babi Yar memorial commemorating a mass murder of Jews by Germans during World War II. A fire at a beloved folk museum housing precious paintings. Shelling damaging a 16th century monastery and cave complex.

Ihor Poshyvailo, director of the new Maidan Museum in Kyiv, shown here in a model of its future hoped-for construction, says this is also a war on heritage.

Ihor Poshyvalio, Director, Maidan Museum: The heritage war for identity means that the target is not only territory or some military or civil objects. The target is our historical memory, our cultural traditions, our national and individual identity, our memory and identity as a nation.

Jeffrey Brown: That heritage is seen throughout the country in these pre-war images. Ukraine is home to seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the 1,000-year-old Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, often described as the spiritual home of the capital.

And it has a wide range of old and new museums and cultural institutions.

Ihor Poshyvalio: For a few centuries, when Ukraine was dominated by Austro-Hungarian, Polish, Russian empire, Soviet empire, our culture lay dormant, imprisoned.

And only since regaining our independence in 1991, Ukrainian culture survived its rebirth, revival. And, today, we are rediscovering our culture in many forms and ways.

Jeffrey Brown: Now there's devastation in Kharkiv's Central Square, with its architecturally and culturally important buildings, including an opera house.

And in Lviv's historic center, itself a UNESCO Heritage Site, monuments and sculptures are protected with sandbags, museum collections packed and stored as much as possible.

Ihor Poshyvailo was able to move part of his museum's collection to an undisclosed location. He's now in Lviv, where he has helped form a cultural protection coalition to help institutions around the country.

Ihor Poshyvalio: This aid has different forms, depending upon the situation there.

For example, our colleagues need some pocket money, or they need for food, for water, or they need some equipment for example, generators for light, some packaging materials to prepare their collections for evacuation or for keeping them in safer locations, in safer storages.

Jeffrey Brown: International organizations, including the Smithsonian Institution, are also involved.

Corine Wegener heads the Smithsonian's Cultural Rescue Initiative.

Corine Wegener, Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative: This really is sort of the worst-case scenario. Your country is invaded, and your heritage is there for the taking and for that damage that's caused by the giant kind of munitions that we're seeing being used here.

Jeffrey Brown: Wegener, an art historian and former Army Reserve officer, has worked on cultural preservation efforts in conflict zones like Iraq and Syria, as well as natural disasters, such as Haiti's 2010 earthquake.

Corine Wegener: People are more important, obviously. But culture should come quickly thereafter, because it's the type of resource that you can't replace.

Jeffrey Brown: What is your main focus right now?

Corine Wegener: So far, we're focused on technical advice about packing and crating, about best practices for evacuation of archival materials, for example,

We're trying to work more on logistics of getting materials to Ukraine as best we can through channels in Europe. And then, finally, a later focus will be on this issue of documenting damage and helping colleagues do that in a way that they can be used for future evidence for accountability.

Jeffrey Brown: The immediate emergency and, later, accountability. The latter means gathering evidence for possible war crimes violations under the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in Armed Conflict, to which both Russia and Ukraine are signatories.

Some of the monitoring and documentation is occurring here at the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab at the Virginia Museum of Natural History.

Director Hayden Bassett, an archaeologist, now uses remote sensing and satellites as eyes on the war in Ukraine.

Hayden Basset, Virginia Museum of Natural History: Our job, as we see it, is to minimize the time it takes from going from identification to response, because that's the window where cultural heritage is most vulnerable.

Jeffrey Brown: Bassett showed us a database map of cultural sites.

Hayden Basset: As you can see right here, the blue dots represent an individual cultural heritage site.

Jeffrey Brown: Some 20,000 sites in all, using a broad definition of culture, to include statues, libraries, churches, cemeteries and much more. He then focused on the Ivankiv Museum about 50 miles north of Kyiv.

Hayden Basset: This is February 14, 2022, and this is the museum here. As you can see, there's a lot of snow cover on the ground, but clearly identifiable that the museum is intact.

Jeffrey Brown: The next image is from February 27.

Hayden Basset: In the center is that same building, minus the roof, and the interior of the building has clearly been destroyed. But I would like you to focus a little bit broader surrounding the building.

And, as you will notice, there aren't any impacts immediately surrounding the building. The other structures, residential, are still intact.

Jeffrey Brown: That could be evidence, he says, of direct targeting of the museum.

In the meantime, work on the ground continues, ever more dangerous.

Ihor Poshyvailo says there's no choice.

Ihor Poshyvalio: All our cultural heritage, all our collections, they help us not only to rediscover our past, but to strengthen our identity, to feel us as one nation with common past. This is very important to fight for our future.

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: So many awful things coming from this war.

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