Ukrainians are protecting their cultural landmarks with their phones. Here’s how

Almost a year on, the human cost of Russia’s war in Ukraine tragically continues.

Almost a year on, the human cost of Russia’s war in Ukraine tragically continues. Image: Unsplash/gilleslambert

Stefan Ellerbeck
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  • Concerted efforts are ongoing to protect and preserve Ukraine’s cultural heritage during the conflict with Russia.
  • This include an app which can be used by Ukrainians to make 3D scans of significant objects and places before they are damaged or destroyed.
  • The 3D models can then be uploaded to form a permanent historical digital library called Backup Ukraine.

Almost a year on, the human cost of Russia’s war in Ukraine tragically continues. The US military estimates that around 40,000 civilians have lost their lives and as many as 200,000 military personnel on both sides have been killed or injured.


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Alongside the human tragedies, Ukraine’s cultural heritage is also at risk of being destroyed by the war. As of January 2023, UNESCO says it has verified damage to 235 sites of cultural importance since the Russian invasion in February. These include 104 religious sites, 18 museums, 83 buildings of historical/artistic interest, 19 monuments and 11 libraries.

Cultural heritage damaged in Russia's war against Ukraine
UNESCO has been documenting the cultural heritage sites damaged in Ukraine. Image: EU/UNESCO

Empowering citizen archivists

Among ongoing efforts to safeguard Ukraine’s cultural heritage is an initiative called Backup Ukraine, which allows anyone to become an archivist. The Polycam app allows citizens to make 3D models of buildings and monuments in case they are damaged or destroyed. It can be used for 3D scanning by mobile phones, DSLR cameras and even drones. The scans can then be uploaded and preserved online in a permanent digital archive.

The app allows all Ukrainians to have free access to the scanning technology without any training. Previously, 3D scans could only be carried out by experts with specialized knowledge and equipment.

However, the people behind the project say that for now it’s limiting the recording of ‘public works’, such as major cultural assets, to a volunteer corps authorized by the authorities. Other citizens are being encouraged to record things and places near to where they live, such as local statues, meeting places and indoor locations like shelters.

The project is a partnership between UNESCO, Blue Shield Denmark and VICE Media Group’s Virtue agency.

“During an ongoing war, traditional methods of cultural preservation are under pressure. So innovative technologies are a very welcome assistance,” Elsebeth Gerner Nielsen, Chair of the Danish UNESCO National Commission, said in a statement.

She added, “This is why the Danish UNESCO National Commission strongly supports Backup Ukraine. It is our hope that it will help preserve Ukraine's cultural heritage for posterity during this time of unbearable loss.”

Preserving Ukraine’s cultural treasures

The Backup Ukraine project is also enlisting professional help to preserve the country’s biggest and most important cultural sites. Skeiron is a team of 3D scanning experts who use their own specialized equipment to make large-scale scans.

It says its 3D modelling archive already includes more than 100 important heritage sites as part of its #SaveUkrainianHeritage campaign.

“Across the country, Ukraine also has thousands of wooden churches, which are especially vulnerable to fire, and many also have important paintings in their interior - which is why it is important not only to laser scan them, but to get high-quality photogrammetry as well,” the team told Geo Week News.


UNESCO’s efforts to help Ukraine

Shortly after the war in Ukraine began, UNESCO implemented a series of emergency measures to prevent as much destruction as possible. These included providing technical advice to protect buildings and begin inventories, moving precious objects to shelters and advising on fire-fighting measures. Seven UNESCO World Heritage sites are in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian authorities were also given assistance to mark cultural sites with the blue shield emblem. This indicates it is protected by the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Any infringement is considered to be a violation of international law, and both Russia and Ukraine are signatories.

Kyiv’s Saint Sophia’s Cathedral is one of seven UNESCO World Heritage sites in Ukraine.
Kyiv’s Saint Sophia’s Cathedral is one of seven UNESCO World Heritage sites in Ukraine. Image: Unsplash/voj

The Backup Ukraine initiative is another layer of protection. As Nielsen of UNESCO says: “War claims more than lives. It can cost a country irreversible damage to its national spirit. By destroying the symbols of its values, pride, and history - the very things its identity is built upon.”

Which is why “saving a country’s cultural heritage is the best path to reconstruction and revival of society,” agrees Søren la Cour Jensen, Chair of Blue Shield Denmark.

“Total loss is our greatest fear, and Backup Ukraine provides a new and important tool that can prevent that.”

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