Technology helps Ukraine, South Caucasus reclaim culture destroyed by war

Journalist: Anastasia Kuznietsova

Edition: War in Ukraine
Topic: Activism

Culture is increasingly being recognized as a silent casualty of conflict. 

Over the past three decades, hundreds of monuments and historical sites have been destroyed in Ukraine and the South Caucasus due to war. As a result, entire communities face the loss of important links to their culture and history. 

While governments face myriad pressing demands during conflicts and their immediate aftermath, the importance of preserving cultural sites has been gaining significance in the region. Over the past three decades, all four countries have developed different methods to identify, document, preserve and/or plan for the reconstruction of sites and objects of cultural importance. 

An estimated 553 objects of cultural importance, including ancient churches, libraries and other priceless artifacts, have been destroyed in Ukraine since the 2022 Russian invasion. The trend follows patterns already documented in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, where historians and activists estimate hundreds of monuments and sites have been destroyed by fighting in the region.  

From the first days of the war, saving Ukrainian culture was on agenda. Different cities found their own methods for cultural protection.

In Odessa, a monument to Duke Richelieu was hidden behind sandbags; defensive structures of around 50 monuments were installed in Kharkiv; and in the Dnipro Historical Museum, women from Polovtsy were wrapped in "armor vests'  made of sand. Also, the stained-glass windows at the University of Chernivtsi, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, were covered with three-layer "armor" made of mesh, and wooden or metal shields. 

But despite these efforts, there is still the risk of important sites and monuments being destroyed. In response, Ukrainians are looking for different methods of preserving buildings, such as 3D scanning of buildings. The Lviv-based Skeiron team has created the #SaveUkrainian Heritage project, which aims to digitalise heritage for future restoration in the case of combat damage. “Our task is to engrave as much of Ukraine's architectural and artistic heritage as possible and preserve historical memory from the destructive influences of the time,” Andriy Hryvnyak, the manager of the project, says. 

The goal of the project is not only to create a 3D base of Ukrainian heritage, but it is also to save memories and preserve Ukrainian culture. 

This includes plans to aid the reconstruction of the destroyed Mariupol Drama Theater.Our people and culture cannot be destroyed by any bombs and missiles. In March, using photogrammetry, we created a 3D model of the building. We can make even more models, and make them better, but we lack photos and videos,” Hryvnyak says.  

A 3D replica of the Mariupol Drama Theater

In Georgia, a local non-government organization is also using photos and memories to ensure cultural sites and monuments are not forgotten despite ongoing conflicts within the country, in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. 

Blue Shield started the “Preserving the Cultural Heritage of the Occupied Regions (Tskhinvali Region- PCHOR)” Project with support of the US Embassy in Georgia. The primary goal of the project is to empower Georgians who have been displaced by the conflicts by promoting awareness of their cultural heritage, investing in the resilience of cultural identity, and encouraging investment in the cultural heritage of Georgia’s occupied regions.

"When we meet these communities and organize the meetings, we try to observe and see what they value, and what they perceive as their loss, what they lost,  we are learning about their intangible heritage that survived the forced displacement,” notes Blue Shield Chairperson Manana Tevzadze.  

“We see that people are ready to start over, when they return home, they will try to reconstruct all important sites.”

Conducting interviews for the Preserving the Cultural Heritage of the Occupied Regions (Tskhinvali Region- PCHOR)” Project .

Similar efforts are also underway in Armenia and Azerbaijan, which have been embroiled in a conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region since 1988. Both sides have registered significant cultural losses for cultural heritage. 

In Armenia, there are ongoing efforts to gather information and data to restore the sites in the future. For example, until 2016, the Julfa Cemetery Digital Repatriation Project focused on uncovering primary sources—photographs, maps, satellite images, documents—to create a virtual Julfa 3D cemetery, a digital heritage reconstruction. The results of the research became a collection of photographs, which was published in the ebook Recovering a lost Armenian cemetery.

Azerbaijan is also collecting the data and information regarding the amount of destroyed sites in order to have a chance to manage the restoration later.

Azerbaijani architect Elchin Aliyev thinks that reconstruction is possible.

“Fortunately, Azerbaijani scientists for decades…studied the monuments of national architecture quite well: photographed, measured and documented. Therefore, the archives contain information that is now can be used in the restoration of architectural monuments,” he notes. 

“The main efforts concentrate on compiling a detailed list of monuments and monitoring and fixing their today's state. Later, a program will be adopted, which will clearly indicate in which timing and in what year the restoration work on a particular monument will be done.”

Today, there is hope that this type of work can also help Ukraine rebuild once the fighting is over, notes the Skeiron project’s Andriy Hryvnyak.

"We understood that the destruction of our history hurts us,” she says. “We saw that our work could be used in the future for the restoration and conservation of cultural objects, so we had to continue." 

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