Threatened by war in Ukraine, historic center of Odessa World Heritage Site

The historic center of Odessa, a famous Ukrainian port city on the shores of the Black Sea, was inscribed on UNESCO’s list of world heritage in danger on Wednesday because of the “threats of destruction” hovering over this site since the beginning. of the Russian invasion.

During a sometimes stormy extraordinary session of the World Heritage Committee in Paris, the inscription of this city, in the middle of the war, was voted by six votes in favor, one against (Russia) and 14 abstentions.

“Odessa, a free city, a world city, a legendary port which has left its mark on cinema, literature and the arts, is thus placed under the reinforced protection of the international community”, welcomed the Director General of the United Nations Organization United for Education, Science and Culture (Unesco) Audrey Azoulay.

Although generally spared since the start of the Russian offensive in February 2022, Odessa, known in particular for its monumental Potemkin staircase and its architecture, has however been hit several times by Russian bombardments.

– A “diplomatic victory” –

The conflict constitutes “a danger for the historic center of Odessa”, whose “cultural heritage is threatened with destruction”, had estimated the representative of Icomos, a specialized NGO partner of Unesco, presenting the file. She also insisted on the multiethnic, multiconfessional and multicultural character of Odessa.

The famous Potemkin staircase in Odessa, Ukraine, August 19, 2022 (AFP/Archives – BULENT KILIC)

The Russian Federation, which multiplied procedural maneuvers during the session, for its part protested against a “superficial file”, accusing the Ukrainian authorities of having put together a candidacy on the basis of “a copied- pasted from the Wikipedia page on Odessa”. She also claimed that Ukraine had “itself destroyed monuments” in this city.

It is “a diplomatic victory”, reacted Wednesday the first Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Emine Djeppar on the side of Ukraine, whose President Volodymyr Zelensky had announced in October the candidacy of the historic center of Odessa.

“Given the threats that have weighed on this heritage since the beginning of the war, the World Heritage Committee has had recourse to an emergency procedure”, underlined in a press release Unesco, recalling also “having ensured the reparation damage inflicted since the beginning of the war on the Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Modern Art in Odessa”.

-Catherine II-

Given the context, the file was eminently political. Even before the opening of the session, Ukraine had protested in an open letter to the members of the committee against the reference made to Empress Catherine II of Russia as the founder of Odessa at the end of the 18th century.

“The development of Odessa as a port city dates back to the 15th century,” protested the Ukrainian authorities in their open letter.

Last November, the Odessa city council voted to unbolt the statue of Catherine II, based on the result of a local consultation. The monument to the tsarina, which has become for many a symbol of Russian oppression since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, was removed at the end of December.

A bulk carrier loaded with corn leaves the port of Odessa for Tripoli, Lebanon, on August 1, 2022 (AFP/Archives - Oleksandr GIMANOV)
A bulk carrier loaded with corn leaves the port of Odessa for Tripoli, Lebanon, on August 1, 2022 (AFP/Archives – Oleksandr GIMANOV)

Odessa, located 500 km south of the Ukrainian capital kyiv, is very symbolic for Russia. It was the third city of the Russian Empire and its second port.

In April 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted that it was historically not part of Ukraine but of Novorossia (New Russia) which he would like to see established.

The listing of Odessa as a World Heritage Site is one of the highest levels of protection that the international community offers to a heritage site, recalls Unesco. The “in danger” list opens access to reinforced mechanisms for emergency, technical and financial international assistance, she adds.

The World Heritage Committee meets once a year and is composed of representatives of 21 States Parties to the Convention.

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