The Conversation
Essay / Crisis

Spotlighting War’s Cultural Destruction in Ukraine

An archaeologist, anthropologist, and film expert examine the staggering amount of damage to cultural heritage caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine.
The toppled steeple of a church lies on the ground among other pieces of collapsed metal. A large blue and white building with a gold object on its roof towers in the background.

The photo shows what remains of the Church of the Holy Mother in the village of Bohorodychne, Ukraine, which was attacked by Russian forces in May 2022 and occupied for two months.

Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images

This article was originally published at The Conversation and has been republished under Creative Commons.

WAR DOESN’T JUST DESTROY lives. It also tears at the fabric of culture.

And in the case of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, now about to enter its third year, the remarkable destruction of Ukrainian history and heritage since 2022 hasn’t been a matter of collateral damage. Rather, the Russian military has deliberately targeted museums, churches, and libraries that are important to the Ukrainian people.

It’s impossible to document the full extent of the destruction, particularly in the active military zones in eastern and southern Ukraine. However, as archaeologists and filmmakers, we wanted to do what we could. This meant traveling to liberated villages, museums, and churches in northern and eastern Ukraine, adjacent to regions with ongoing fighting.

Working closely with Ukrainian colleagues, we ended up making two nine-day trips—one in March 2023 and another in October 2023.

Here is some of what we found:


In liberated parts of Ukraine, the bodies of the dead have long been carried away and, for the most part, buried in local cemeteries. But enter any formerly occupied city or town, and you’ll immediately notice that the scars from battles that took place from March 2022 to July 2022 remain starkly visible.

A person wearing a red coat walks down a sidewalk in front of a tall green fence. A black car drives by them, and a building with a collapsed roof is visible on the other side of the fence.

In the background is the Ukraine Hotel in Chernihiv after it was bombed in March 2023.

Ian Kuijt, CC BY-SA

A person rides a bike past a large beige building with a yellow dome and cross on top of it.

In October 2023, a person bikes past the Church of the Ascension in Lukashivka, a village near the city of Chernihiv.

Ian Kuijt, CC BY-SA

Driving around Chernihiv, a city in northern Ukraine, we witnessed hundreds of burned-out buildings and many more that are riddled with bullet holes and damaged by shrapnel.

As we wound through small farming villages, we were struck by the ferocity and randomness of modern military firepower. One part of a village could be completely flattened, while a block down the road, the houses were untouched.

During a wet day in the middle of October 2023, we drove through small, tree-lined roads to see the remains of the Church of the Ascension in Lukashivka, a village about eight miles from Chernihiv.

Previously home to about 300 people, Lukashivka was occupied by the Russians in March 2022 and later recaptured by the Ukrainian military.

Built in 1913 with a two-tiered belfry that can be seen for miles, this large, white-brick church is now a shell of what it once was. Its wood flooring has been scorched, and its brick roof blown open. In a few sections of the wall, the original plaster and paintings are preserved.

Inside the place of worship, we traversed the detritus of war, hearing the crunch of spent cartridges, rocket cases, broken bottles, and heaps of burned cans.

The authors explore the Church of the Ascension, which was destroyed when intense fighting took place.

Witness in Film/ YouTube

We’ll never really know how many soldiers and civilians died fighting over Lukashivka and the church.

We do know, however, that cultural heritage has few friends during war.

The partially preserved church at Lukashivka is one of hundreds of cultural and religious buildings that have been damaged or destroyed over the last two years. This includes the Cathedral of the Transfiguration in Odesa, the Mariupol Drama Theater, and the Korolenko Kharkiv State Scientific Library, one of the largest libraries in Europe.


If traveling in Ukraine has taught us one important lesson, it’s that the digging of trenches can erase history.

While the destruction of churches, libraries, and museums viscerally evokes a sense of loss, there’s an entire unseen world below the ground surface—filled with untold numbers of artifacts, bones, and buried buildings—that is exposed when trenches are created.

In fact, it’s likely that this war has destroyed more history and archaeology buried below the ground than above it.

As armies did during World War I, the Ukrainian military built deep trenches and bunkers along rivers and high ground in the early months of the war. Two years later, these defensive trench systems are a central element of the ground war and demarcate the front lines.

In many cases, the trenches were dug into the remains of buried archaeological sites, most of which were previously unknown and untouched.

In March 2023, for example, we visited sites around Iripin and Bucha, two villages on the northern edge of Kyiv, to document how medieval and Bronze Age sites buried below the surface had been destroyed by trenches or, in other cases, are now blanketed by minefields to stop Russian military units.

We also went to the 11th-century archaeological site of Oster. Perched on a small hill, southeast of Chernihiv, Oster was an important regional center in the medieval period. It had a brick-and-stone church and a large settlement nearby. As part of the siege of Chernihiv in March 2022, Ukrainian troops built deep trenches and bunkers around the edges of Oster, since the site overlooks rivers and crossing points.

A pile of rocks sits in front of a brown fence on the side of a dirt road. A few houses line the other side of the fence.

As armies did during World War I, the Ukrainian military built deep trenches and bunkers along rivers and high ground in the early months of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Two years later, these defensive trench systems are a central element of the ground war and demarcate the front lines.

Yevhen Zinchenko/Global Images Ukraine/Getty Images

When we visited Oster a year after the invasion, we noticed that the trench system around the church was dug into a large 11th-century settlement and burial ground. Lying exposed on the dirt piles along the trenches were medieval human skeletal remains. The more we studied the system of trenches and bunkers, which encircles an area of about 650 feet, the more human bones we saw.

A crew of archaeologists has returned to photograph the destruction of these burial grounds. But given the ongoing war, it isn’t possible to fully document the destruction, let alone fill in the trenches, which still may be needed by soldiers.

The previously unknown burial ground at Oster is one of hundreds, if not thousands, of similar sites that have been damaged or destroyed in central and northeastern Ukraine.


Even after the fighting ends, large areas of Ukraine will remain inaccessible for years, given the widespread use of mines and environmental contaminants.

Surviving collections and museum exhibits inside and outside Ukraine have assumed greater importance: They may represent the sole evidence of ancient cultures originating from these damaged territories.

We can confidently say that Europe has not experienced destruction of this magnitude, let alone this quickly, since World War II.

The bombings of churches, libraries, and residences have destroyed major areas of Ukraine. As with the Nazis’ pilfering of paintings, bronze sculptures, and art in the last few years of World War II, in the first months after the invasion, the Russian army looted museums, stole art, and destroyed churches with missiles and tank shells.

A person wearing a black shirt and jacket stands in front of a wall painted to look like a grassy field beneath a blue sky. Several wooden boxes line the wall, and clear acrylic boxes sit beside them on the floor.

Russian military forces looted the Kherson Regional Museum, pictured above, as well as another museum, cathedral, and national archive in Kherson during an eight-month occupation of the city in 2022.

Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

A partially destroyed L-shaped white building is shown in front of a pale blue sky. Rocks, a large tree stump, and other debris lie on the ground in front of it.

Make no mistake: At its core, the Russian full-scale invasion is a military attempt to erase Ukraine’s history, culture, and heritage.

Seemingly entrenched in a 1950s geopolitical framework, President Vladimir Putin and other representatives of the Russian state dispute that Ukraine is a sovereign nation. Ukraine’s churches, museums, and libraries are a threat to Russia, for they are the material and symbolic fabric that holds together Ukrainian identity and resistance.

That’s why this war is as much about culture as it is about land.

A person with facial wrinkles and short brown hair wearing a blue collared shirt smiles slightly in front of a dark gray background with pink graphics drawn on it.

Ian Kuijt is a professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, who specializes in the social geography of village life within small-scale ancient and historical communities. Drawing on ethnography, social theory, and archaeology, his scholarship focuses on emerging social inequality, identity, and the construction of community through ritual and economic means. Kuijt is the author or co-editor of seven books, including Transformation by Fire: The Archaeology of Cremation in Cultural Context and People of the Middle Fraser Canyon: An Archaeological History. His co-authored book Island Places, Island Times uses photographic-recognition software to play 23 linked 2-minute films that he designed, filmed, and produced with William Donaruma. Kuijt has written numerous articles in scholarly publications, including the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Current Anthropology, American Antiquity, Economic Anthropology, and the Journal of Archaeological Science.

A person with brown hair, mustache, and graying beard wears a feathered black and gray sweater in front of a white background.

Pavlo Shydlovskyi is an associate professor in the department of archaeology and museum studies at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. Previous appointments include the Institute of Archaeology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine; the Kyiv Regional Center for the Preservation of Monuments of History, Archaeology, and Art; and the Scientific Research Institute of Monument Protection Studies under the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine. He founded the Center for Paleoethnological Research and is the scientific editor of VITA ANTIQUA. Beginning in February 2022, Shydlovskyi participated in the Territorial Defense Force of the Kaniv District and became an employee of the Ukrainian State Institute of Cultural Heritage to implement the monitoring of archaeological sites during the war on Ukraine.

A person with short brown hair and a graying mustache and beard wears a brown collared, sherpa-lined jacket and a blue t-shirt in front of a gray ombre background that fades vertically from dark to light.
William Donaruma is a professor of the practice in filmmaking at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, and is also the creative director for the Office of Digital Learning. He began his career as a grip and stuntman at Universal Studios before moving to production management, camera editing, and teaching. Donaruma continues to make films, primarily using the RED cameras.

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