UNESCO Moves to Protect Odesa, Designating the City a World Heritage Site

Sandbags in front of Odesa’s Opera and Ballet Theater in June last year.Credit…Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times
The view from the restaurant Oblaka, located in the center of Odesa.Credit…Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

The United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO, designated the historic center of Odesa as a World Heritage Site and classified it as being “in danger” during a committee session in Paris on Wednesday, in a nod to the historic importance of a Black Sea port that Russia has battered with missiles as it tries to reconquer Ukraine.

France’s foreign minister, Catherine Colonna, traveled to the city on Thursday in a show of support, but her plans were interrupted by the threat of a Russian missile strike.

“Thanks to a Russian missile, I experienced my first diplomatic bilateral meeting in a shelter,” Ms. Colonna wrote on Twitter, sharing a photo with Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs.

President Volodymyr Zelensky called on the United Nations to designate Odesa as an endangered World Heritage Site in October, and the process was fast-tracked at the U.N. agency out of concern for the damage being done to the city’s many cultural sites. Including the city on the UNESCO list is intended to put pressure on Russia to refrain from attacking Odesa and gives the city access to more financial and technical assistance.

Gennadiy Trukhanov, the mayor of Odesa, has said the city “is the intercultural capital of Ukraine,” making it a symbol of the Ukrainian identity that President Vladimir V. Putin has denied exists and is intent on destroying. Mr. Trukhanov expressed gratitude to UNESCO after the announcement on Telegram, adding that he hopes for “a new level of development, new opportunities and a new Odesa.”

According to the agency, at least 236 cultural sites in Ukraine have been damaged since the Russian invasion began, including religious buildings, museums, monuments and libraries.

With access to the Black Sea, the southern port city has always been a place where different cultures have met and mingled. Founded in the late 18th century by Russia’s Empress Catherine the Great, it is home to hundreds of buildings of architectural and cultural importance both to Russians and Ukrainians, making it a prize in the war.

Odesa has come under significant Russian aerial strikes, but Russian troops were unable to capture it the last year, as their offensive was stopped as the city of Mykolaiv about 80 miles to the east. As attacks on Odesa have mounted, volunteers and Ukrainian forces have made efforts to fortify specific buildings, cover monuments with sandbags and erect barricades.

The Odesa Museum of Fine Arts and the Odesa Museum of Modern Art have both been damaged in shelling since the beginning of the war, which UNESCO promised to repair.

The city has “left its mark on cinema, literature and the arts,” Audrey Azoulay, the director general of UNESCO, said in a statement. “This inscription embodies our collective determination to ensure that this city, which has always surmounted global upheavals, is preserved from further destruction.”

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