Ukraine’s Lviv Hides Away Priceless Heritage Amid Russian Invasion 


As Russian shelling has devastated other parts of Ukraine, the picturesque western city of Lviv is bracing for war behind closed doors. In Lviv’s galleries, museums and churches, a huge operation is under way to safeguard the city’s cultural heritage. 

Thousands of artworks and artefacts have been carefully removed and taken to secret underground locations, or down to basement storage rooms.

Ihor Kozhan, the director of the National Museum of Lviv informed that nearly every one of the 1,500 artefacts on display has now been removed from the museum. The other 97% of the collection – 180,000 pieces in total – was already in storage in some form.

“Everything, everything is gone,” Kozhan said.

Despite overseeing the operation, Kozhan was amazed by the speed with which the 17th-century Bohorodchany Iconostasis – a grouping of religious paintings measuring 10m by 8m and one of the museum’s most valuable pieces – had been dismantled by his team. It had taken six months to hang, piece by piece, he said, and less than six days to pull down from its scaffold and store away.

Constructed and painted over seven years beginning in 1698, the iconostasis represents the high watermark of the work of the icon painter Yov Kondzelevych. It has been in Lviv since 1924, when the archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church brought it back to Ukraine from Poland.

It was dismantled and hidden from the Nazis in 1939, forbidden from display during the Soviet era, painstakingly restored in 2006, and now dismantled once more.

There was no plan in place for the evacuation of the museum’s artefacts before the invasion began two weeks ago, Kozhan said – not even after Russia began months ago to mass troops along Ukraine’s borders.

“There was no plan because no one could imagine this would happen,” he said. “We had no plan at all – not before the war, not even in December. You must understand, we did not believe it could come to this.”

Around Lviv, cultural and religious officials are running complex operations to wrap up statues, seal off stained glass windows and spirit away sacred artefacts.

In the city’s main square, fountains with sculptures of Greek gods and goddesses have been wrapped in flame-retardant fabric and covered with scaffolds to protect them from falling masonry.

“At first it was a bit chaotic but it has become more organised,” said Liliya Onischenko, the head of Lviv’s city council heritage protection office.

“We are photographing everything before we take it away and we are photographing all the pieces in their hidden places,” she said

Onischenko said the priority was protecting the stained glass windows in the city’s historical old town, a Unesco world heritage site whose architecture was built over centuries by different nationalities – Poles, Austrians, Hungarians, Germans, Armenians – as the region changed hands.

At the Armenian cathedral, a prized 15th-Century wooden sculpture of Christ on the cross was removed for the first time since World War Two and taken to a secret, safe place.

The institutions of Lviv have had the benefit of time to prepare. And they may yet escape the violence. But there are grave fears for the cultural, religious and architectural treasures in the parts of Ukraine under attack.

There has already been significant damage. The stained glass windows and nave of the assumption cathedral in Kharkiv were damaged by Russian shelling. Russian troops have reportedly destroyed a 19th-century wooden church in the village of Viazivka in Zhytomyr. And a museum in Ivankiv, north of Kyiv, was razed, destroying 25 works by the Ukrainian folk artist Maria Prymachenko.

Ihor Kozhan, the national museum director, said he feared that destroying Ukraine’s cultural fabric was part of Russia’s goal, and he feared greatly for Lviv.


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