by Eugene Simonov
A year ago, when Russian tanks were heading for Kyiv, the international community voiced concern about many Ukrainian historic heritage sites and cultural relics threatened by the invasion. In March 2022, UNESCO adopted the Declaration on the protection of cultural heritage in Ukraine and started systemic support for preservation, damage assessment, and evacuation of cultural relics. As of 8 March 2023, UNESCO has verified war-time damage to 246 cultural sites since 24 February 2022 – 107 religious sites, 20 museums, 88 buildings of historical and/or artistic interest, 19 monuments, and 12 libraries in Ukraine. (Sources in Ukraine list at least 550 damaged cultural sites). According to UNESCO none of Ukraine’s seven cultural sites inscribed on the World Heritage List before the war appear to have been damaged. Those include St. Sophia Cathedral and Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra Monastery in Kyiv, historic Old Town Lviv, Residence of Bukovinian and Dalmatian Metropolitans and Wooden Tserkvas of the Carpathian Region, and a monument marking a point of the Struve Geodetic Arc that helped determine the exact size and shape of Earth. However the Ancient City of Tauric Chersonese in Crimea has remained under Russian occupation since 2014 and its actual status is poorly known, while the The Historic Centre of Odesa was inscribed in 2023 on the List of World Heritage in Danger, seeking to shield it from potential damage caused by continuous Russian bombardment.
Photo 1-2. Churches of Ascension hit by Russian War. Left: Voznesenska Tserkva, 20 km from Kyiv, March 2022. Source: Twitter @TimLeBerre. Right: Vozneseniya Church, 20 km from Kremlin, March 2023. Source: The Insider.
As of January 2023 we have witnessed military damage to cultural and natural relics not only in Kyiv, but also in Moscow, albeit by the same Russian army and supporting agencies. In recent months the historic Timiryazev (Petrovskaya) Agricultural Academy and Losiny Ostrov (Moose Island) National Park have suffered from placement of massive anti-missile systems and other military equipment, making surrounding areas potential military targets. Additionally, a radar system was mounted on the old Salaryevo Landfill – the largest in the capital, priming a potential “dirty bomb” in case of an attack.
For many years, Russian propaganda has accused the Ukrainian army of “using civilian shields” when placing artillery near civilian buildings (e.g. Russia’s objection to the inscription of the Historic Center of the Port City of Odesa on the World Heritage List in January 2023 contains such a statement). But now Russia is adopting the same tactics it condemns in its own capital. More troubling, these actions likely serve propaganda purposes to intimidate and subdue citizens. The City of Moscow already has a comprehensive air defense system, one that is unlikely to be improved by stationing several pieces of additional equipment in highly visible locations. Moreover, any sizable long-distance rocket attack on Moscow is highly unlikely. Despite this, Muscovites see this visible “threat” and cling ever closer to the government for protection.
Photos 3-4.Placing missile complex in Losiny Ostrov National Park. Left: Clearing forest land, Moscow, January 2023. Source: Moskvich Mag. Right: Anti-missile rockets stationed on the cleared site, March 2023. Source: Telegram @Tsaplienko.
However the latest and greatest damage has been caused to Kolomenskoye Park-Museum, the old abode of tsars and a site that hosts several outstanding pieces of architecture, including one World Heritage property. According to the Operational Rules of the World Heritage Convention, any concerned citizen or organization may relay to UNESCO World Heritage Centre information on threats and damages caused to a cultural or natural World Heritage Site, and the UNESCO has to react by verifying this information and taking measures to press the responsible State Party to remedy the situation. We did. Our letter to the Director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre follows below.
20 March 2023
To: Lazare Eloundou Assomo
Director, UNESCO World Heritage Centre
Re: The Church of the Ascension at Kolomenskoye (#634): destruction of the surrounding landscape.
Dear Mr. Eloundou Assomo,
On behalf of the Ukraine War Environmental Consequences Work Group, we are submitting to Your attention information on alarming developments at the Church of the Ascension in Kolomenskoye, Moscow (World Heritage property #634). In our opinion, the facts presented significantly affect the Outstanding Universal Value of the property and its connection to other heritage areas.
In accordance with §174 of the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention we request that the World Heritage Center verify our information.
Russian aggression in Ukraine has been long associated with the destruction of the Ukrainian people’s historical and natural heritage, as noted by UNESCO on a number of occasions. Our Ukraine War Environmental Consequences Work Group studies and publicizes both the direct and indirect impacts of this war on the environment in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and worldwide. In particular, we have reported on war consequences for Wrangel Island, Lake Baikal and other World Heritage sites, affected by war-time policies. In January-February 2023, we witnessed unprecedented damage caused to historic and natural sites in Moscow under the guise of “defense operations”.
The Church of the Ascension in Kolomenskoye is one of Moscow’s most precious historical landmarks, built on a steep hill above the Moscow River floodplain. The UNESCO webpage describing the site’s ”Outstanding Universal Value” emphasizes that the “Church is of great importance for town planning, dominates the surrounding architectural structures and landscape, and provides visual unity to all the elements of the estate.” At the time the World Heritage property was listed in 1994, the opposite bank was predominantly covered by agricultural fields, which were soon abandoned and gave way to woody vegetation and tall-grass meadows. The outstanding beauty of the Church has been reinforced by the near-natural floodplain backdrop of the Moscow River, retaining wide belts of green vegetation on both banks. Those lush floodplain groves also masked the fact that the Moscow city government once built the giant Kuryanovo Wastewater Treatment Plant (including its conservation zone that extends to the riverbank) across the river from the Church.
In late January, Moscow municipal government sent logging machinery and bulldozers to clear approximately 100 hectares of the forested area opposite the Church of the Ascension. Before this clearing, the destroyed natural vegetation, along with Pererva waterworks, and Nikolo-Perervinsky Monastery were forming a single scenic complex that served as a historical riverscape surrounding the Kolomenskoye Park-Museum, including the Church of the Ascension.
Now barren land and wastewater ponds form the backdrop for this majestic architectural ensemble. At present, construction rubble is being brought from other locations to fill the floodplain and then the area will be paved over with asphalt. Neither the expert community nor local residents has been consulted prior to this radical alteration of the landscape. The damage occurred over fewer than ten days (January 25-February 5), so quickly that concerned citizens were unable to organize a meaningful response to halt the clearing.
This area falls into several legally established national and municipal protection zones, which partially compensate for the absence of a World Heritage “buffer zone”, the creation of which was requested by the WH Committee in 2014. In 2018, Moscow’s municipal government refused to establish a special “buffer zone” for the World Heritage (as reflected in bureaucratic correspondence appended to the 2018 WH property’s Management Plan). The entire affected area fell within the conservation zone No. 350 of the federal heritage site “Ensemble of Kolomenskoye Estate, XVI-XVII centuries”. The devastated area has also been protected since 2012 by Moscow as “Green zone in natural complex #127” and constitutes part of a 200-meter-wide water-protection zone along the Moscow River. All those legally bunding protection regulations have been violated by the destruction of riverside landscape.
Municipal officials verbally made excuses for hasty devastation to concerned citizens, asserting an alleged need to protect Moscow from air enemy raids by installing anti-missile complexes. So, if this “military” explanation is truthful, the UNESCO World Heritage property is being converted into the most visible military target in front of a giant militarized complex, occupying up to 100 hectares (the World Heritage site is 7 hectares, Kolomenskoye Park-Museum is 250 hectares in size). Such use likely conflicts with the Second Protocol of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict signed in 1999, which prohibits “using cultural property under enhanced protection or its immediate surroundings in support of military action.”
Photos 8. Before: Sentinel satellite image shows abundance of dark vegetation, 20 December 2022. Source: Sentinel Hub. Photo 9. After: barren, snow-covered field, 7 March 2023. Source: Sentinel Hub.
However, no presently known anti-missile complexes require more than 1-3 hectares of land (as illustrated by machinery already placed at other locations – see The Insider article from March 14), while 100 hectares have been hastily cleared under this disguise. Eight weeks after the barbarous activity started, no official explanation has been offered, but journalists found out that Moscow Municipal Utilities Department plans to use those riverside lands to station machinery and equipment for a dozen different municipal services: gasification, water supply, wastewater repair and sludge burning, general machinery repair, etc. So, it is quite possible that, under the guise of “military necessities”, a large land grab for municipal needs has been undertaken, while military needs are 5 hectares at maximum (see 14 March article in The Insider). This seems to be the most likely hypothesis for the cause of this massive destruction. An alternative hypothesis regarding a land-grab for residential development near a giant wastewater treatment ponds is less likely, while development of a municipal transport system is planned on other land plots.
There was also information in the media that the Head of the Investigation Committee of Russian Federation Mr. Bastyrkin ordered a special investigation of this case. However, no further detail was provided, and illegal filling of the floodplain continues.
This illegal activity must be stopped, and a remediation plan must be developed and implemented. The best outcome at this point is to halt construction of municipal park services and revegetate the area as a green zone. This may partially restore the landscape and visual perception of the Church of the Ascension and Kolomenskoye Park-Museum. To ensure that these remediation measures are completed and restored and that landscape is included into a new World Heritage buffer zone, we suggest enlisting this property in the List of World Heritage in Danger, a move which will spur development of a rectification plan.
Eugene Simonov, Expert, Ukraine War Environmental Consequences Work Group
Eugene Simonov is listed as a “foreign agent” by the Ministry of Justice of Russian Federation.
Main image source: Zabytye Moryaki blog.