UNESCO declared Odesa a world heritage site due to war threats News from art and culture

The United Nations Cultural Agency has decided add the historic center of Ukraine’s Black Sea port city of Odessa to its list of World Heritage Sites to recognize the site’s “outstanding universal value and the duty of all humanity to protect it” as the city faces the threat of destruction.

The 21 member states of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee approved the decision with six votes in favor, one against and 14 abstentions.

Russia, which invaded Ukraine in February last year and bombed Odesa several times, has repeatedly tried to postpone the vote.

“While the war continues, this inscription embodies our collective determination to ensure that this city, which has always weathered global unrest, is preserved from further destruction,” UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said after the decision.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who requested the listing in October, welcomed the designation.

The status aims to help protect the cultural heritage of Odessa and provide access to financial and technical international assistance.

“Today, Odesa received UNESCO protection,” Zelenskyy wrote on Twitter.

“I am grateful to the partners who help protect our pearl from the attacks of the Russian invaders.”

“Glorious historical past”

Founded in the last years of the 18th century near the site of an occupied Ottoman fortress, Odesa turned it into one of the most important ports in the Russian Empire due to its location on the Black Sea coast.

People walking in the glass-topped shopping arcade in the historic center of Odessa.  The buildings on each side are decorated and covered with statues.
Odesa, once one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan cities, was attacked during World War II, but its historic center of 19th-century buildings survived largely intact. [Serhii Smolientsev/Reuters]

Its status as a commercial center brought it considerable wealth and made it one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Eastern Europe.

The city’s best-known historic sites include the Opera House, which became a symbol of resilience when it reopened in June 2022, and the giant harbor staircase, immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film, Battleship Potemkin.

Although Odessa suffered considerable damage in World War II, its famous central square with low-rise buildings from the 19th century survived largely intact.

Since the Russian invasion, Ukrainians have rushed to protect the city’s monuments and buildings with sandbags and barricades.

In July 2022, parts of the large glass roof and windows of the Museum of Fine Arts, inaugurated in 1899, were destroyed.

UNESCO said it had already helped with repairs to the building, as well as the Museum of Modern Art in Odessa, which was also damaged in the conflict.

In Moscow, Russia’s foreign ministry accused a group of Western countries of pushing through what it called a “politically motivated” decision in violation of standard procedures.

“It was prepared hastily, without respecting UNESCO’s currently high standards,” the foreign ministry said, noting that only six countries had voted in favor.

Moscow pointed to Odessa’s “glorious historical past as part of the Russian state” and insisted that the “only threat” Odessa faced was from the “nationalist regime in Ukraine” which demolished a number of monuments in the city.

Following a survey of residents, city authorities last year removed a monument to Russian empress Catherine the Great, considered the city’s founder, as part of efforts to ‘derussify’ it.

Ukraine has argued that the city, the country’s third largest, thrived long before the arrival of Catherine the Great and that Odessa dates back to the 15th century when it was known as Hadzhybei.

Ukraine is not a member of the UNESCO committee, which is currently chaired by Saudi Arabia.

Under the 1972 UNESCO Convention, ratified by both Ukraine and Russia, signatories undertake to “assist in the protection of the listed sites” and “are obliged to refrain from taking any deliberate measures” that could damage the World Heritage sites.

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