UNESCO has condemned in “the strongest terms” the recent Russian bombardment of the Ukrainian port city of Odesa, an attack which has left several beloved cultural sites in shambles.
The historic center of the city was declared an endangered World Heritage Site earlier this year.
Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO’s director-general, said in a statement: “This outrageous destruction marks an escalation of violence against cultural heritage of Ukraine. I strongly condemn this attack against culture, and I urge the Russian Federation to take meaningful action to comply with its obligations under international law, including the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and the 1972 World Heritage Convention.”
Azoulay added that UNESCO was preparing a field mission to Odesa “to conduct a preliminary assessment of damages”.
The Russian attacks on Odesa this weekend damaged, among other architectural landmarks, the famed Transfiguration Cathedral. The Orthodox cathedral was first completed by the Italian architect Francesco Frappoli in 1808. It was destroyed in 1936 amid conflicts with dictator Joseph Stalin’s regime and rebuilt in the 2000s.
In the aftermath of the most recent Russian attack, the Odesa diocese shared video footage of city residents picking through the rubble in an attempt to save icons.
The Art Newspaper reported Monday that Russia’s Ministry of Defense denied that the cathedral was targeted, saying its military was only concerned with “military and terrorist infrastructure of the Kyiv region.” He claimed that the damage was likely due to a stray defense missile fired by Ukrainian forces.
Yuri Kruk, leader of the Ukrainian military command in Odesa, said in a statement that it was “the largest blow of the enemy across the historic center of the city of Odesa since the beginning of the war.”
Odesa is a key strategic port city on the Black Sea and has been the target of Russian bombing since its invasion of Ukraine began in 2022. Last October, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a formal appeal to the United Nation’s cultural organization to place the city center under its protection—a move which promises Odesa additional international aid along with potential consequences for its destruction.
The city, a centuries-old crossroads for European and Asian cultures, is renowned for its architectural landmarks, including the Odesa Opera House and the 19th century Tolstoy Palace. In July 2022, an aerial assault on the city resulted in the destruction of part of the Odesa Museum of Modern Art and Odesa Museum of Fine Arts. UNESCO funded repairs to both museums and financed efforts to digitize artworks and provide protective equipment.
The Odesa Museum of Fine Arts housed more than 12,000 works before the war, but nearly the whole collection was transported for safekeeping by the museum employees in February.