War in Ukraine: Photos to preserve endangered cultural sites

DW 18 January 2024
By Stefan Dega

Besides people, Ukraine's cultural heritage has also been a major casualty of the war. A German photo project is documenting destroyed and endangered buildings in a race against time.

This monument to the partisans and underground fighters in Kharkiv is among the works documented by the photo project

Churches, museums, monuments, mosaics: Russia's war of aggression is also targeting Ukrainian cultural assets. Well over 800 cultural sites have already been damaged or destroyed since the start of the offensive in February 2022, including 120 of national importance, the Ministry of Culture in Kyiv has just announced.

UNESCO, the cultural organization of the United Nations, classifies numerous World Heritage Sites in Ukraine as endangered, including St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv and the old town of Lviv. "The destruction continues to increase," says Christian Bracht, Director of the Documentation Center for Art History (DDK) — Bildarchiv Foto Marburg, "because there is no end to the war in sight."

This is one of the reasons the Marburg archive has dispatched up to 20 local photographers into the field since October 2022, equipped with digital cameras and special lenses.

They have been charged with photographing around 250 historically or culturally significant buildings in cities such as Kyiv, Odesa, Mykolayiv and Zaporizhia. Several thousand exterior and interior photos have been taken. "In the event of their destruction, the images serve as a basis for reconstruction, as scientific documentation and for cultural remembrance," Bracht told DW. 

Art historian Christian Bracht is the director of the German Documentation Center for Art History

Focus on historic wooden churches

The art historian decides what to photograph together with a Ukrainian colleague, who in turn consults national and regional lists of monuments. As a result, the focus has already shifted to many buildings that were previously barely documented or not documented at all outside the UNESCO World Heritage List — historic wooden churches around Lviv, for example, a modern partisan memorial and sprawling wall mosaics in Kharkiv, besides palaces and manor houses.

Bracht cites the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in Kharkiv, one of the oldest Orthodox churches in the city, as an outstanding example of the "Ukrainian Cultural Heritage" project. It dates to the end of the 17th century and became famous for the "Oleksandrivska" bell tower, which was erected to celebrate Tsar Alexander I (1777-1825) and his victory over Napoleon in 1812.

In March 2022, the cathedral suffered significant damage during the battles for Kharkiv. The interior, icons, windows, stained glass and decorations on the exterior facade were destroyed.

The Odesa Cathedral was also massively damaged, coming under fire at the end of July 2023. Its dome and roof collapsed. Reconstruction seems almost impossible for now, but at least the Marburg archive contains photos from before and after the destruction.

Targeted attacks on cultural heritage?

It is not just rocket fire that has affected many buildings but also widespread drone attacks.

But are the Russians deliberately attacking cultural monuments? Christian Bracht is not sure: "It's more likely to be collateral damage from attacks on infrastructure or military facilities," he suspects. "Unlike the Allied attack on the historic centre of Lübeck in 1942 during the Second World War or the destruction of the Frauenkirche in Dresden, which struck at the heart of Germany as a cultural nation." The aim of the Russian attackers has also been to demoralize the population.

Bracht, director of the Marburg Archive, has yet to visit Ukraine in person. Nevertheless, he has become an expert on Ukrainian culture — thanks partly to the photo project, which is co-financed by the German government and various foundations. "We suddenly have a new picture of Ukraine," says Bracht. To him, the photos of buildings and monuments display a blend of different architectural styles previously unknown in the West.

This is due to its geographical location between Russia and the West: Ukraine has always absorbed cultural influences from all directions. "Like a sponge," says Bracht. "Without the Russian invasion, we might not have had such good reason to take a closer look at this culturally rich country," he says, as he wonders why a research institute on Ukrainian culture wasn't set up in Germany years ago.

With around 2.6 million original photographs, the German Documentation Center for Art History — Image Archive Photo Marburg is one of the world's largest image archives on European art and architecture. The holdings range from the 1870s to the present day and can be found on glass plate negatives as well as on flat films, 35mm negatives, or in digital image files. The archive is open to the public. The image archive and research institute are now part of the Philipps University of Marburg.

No coordinates for Russia

Nevertheless, the Marburg photo project does not want to play into the hands of the Russian attackers. "As long as the war continues, we will not publish our image and research data, otherwise the Russian army could use the geographic coordinates in the building datasets alone to build a military map with just a few mouse clicks," explains Christian Bracht.

The risks may be obvious to him, but the importance of the Marburg photo project is even more so. "This is about the value of human creation, the protection of culture under international law — about culture as an identity-shaping factor in Ukrainian society."

He is well aware that documentation cannot prevent the destruction of cultural sites: "We can't preserve the object itself, we can only enable visual remembrance and thus reconstruction." Nevertheless, Bracht hopes to be able to complete the project, in which the Leibniz Information Center for Science and Technology (TIB) in Hanover is also involved, soon. "We hope the war will come to an end!"
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