The historic center of the Ukrainian Black Sea port city Odesa has been added to UNESCO’s list of endangered World Heritage sites.
The key strategic port city, known for its cosmopolitan history and architectural landmarks, has been the target of Russian bombing since its invasion of Ukraine began in 2022. Last October, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a formal appeal to the United Nation’s cultural organization to place the city center under its protection—a move which offers Odesa additional international aid along with potential consequences for its destruction.
“I’m grateful to partners who help protect our pearl from the Russian invaders’ attacks!” Zelensky tweeted after UNESCO voted in favor of the inscription during a special meeting of its World Heritage Committee on January 25.
In a statement, Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, described Odesa as “a world city, a legendary port that has left its mark on cinema, literature and the arts”.
“While the war continues, this inscription embodies our collective determination to ensure that this city, which has always surmounted global upheavals, is preserved from further destruction,” she said.
The city, a centuries-old crossroads for European and Asian cultures, is renowned for its architectural landmarks, including the Odesa Opera House and the long harbor staircase immortalized in the 1925 silent classic Battleship Potemkin. According to Azoulay, Ukraine’s application for Odesa described the city as “a melting pot of exchange and migration” with “a heritage and a history that resonates with people around the world and stands as a powerful symbol.”
Odesa is a main target of the Russian military given its access to the Black Sea—a key transit hub for Ukraine’s grain exports—and is significant to Ukraine’s national identity. The city has suffered from a fierce Russian bombardment, but continues to resist occupation.
Last July, an aerial assault on the city resulted in the destruction of part of the Odesa Museum of Modern Art and Odesa Museum of Fine Arts. UNESCO funded repairs to both museums and financed efforts to digitize artworks and provide protective equipment. The Odesa Museum of Fine Arts housed more than 12,000 works before the war, but nearly the whole collection was transported for safekeeping by the museum employees in February.
Russian empress Catherine the Great’s role in the founding of modern Odesa in 1974 has become a point of controversy. Russia has pointed to the city’s imperial history as a defense of its attempted annexation, even as Odesa’s residents denounce the connection. In December, a towering monument to the empress was removed overnight from Odesa’s central square.