At Large  July 25, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

Russian Attack Damages Historic Cathedral in Odesa

Wikimedia Commons

The Transfiguration Cathedral, the largest Orthodox cathedral in Odesa, Ukraine, which was badly damaged during a recent Russian attack.

A Russian airstrike on the Ukrainian port city of Odesa Sunday morning, killed one civilian and injured 22 others, and badly damaged several buildings including an historic Orthodox cathedral.

The missiles targeted the Centre of Odesa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site destroying 25 architectural monuments, according to the Odesa regional administration’s reporting, the most significant of which was the historic Transfiguration Cathedral, the first Orthodox church in Odesa. Founded in 1794, the cathedral’s stunning blue and white exterior and intricate interior frescoes, which once stood as a testament to the city’s spiritual and artistic legacy, were destroyed in the attacks. 

“The destruction is enormous, half of the cathedral is now roofless," Archdeacon Andrii Palchuk told the Associated Press. Over the past few days, volunteers gathered the rubble and remains, trying to salvage whatever artifacts they could find, including an icon of the patron saint of the city.

Odesa is an important city for “world heritage sites and a vital port for global food security,” said Bridget A. Brink, United States Ambassador to Ukraine, in a Twitter post. Odesa has been a repeated target of Russian attack since Moscow pulled out of a grain deal last week that would permit the export of Ukrainian grain from the city’s ports in the Black Sea.

Founded in the final years of the 18th century, the city of Odesa has a rich history. Its location, near the site of a captured Ottoman fortress on the shores of the Black Sea, has transformed it into a powerhouse port city connecting Ukraine to the global economy.

Wikimedia Commons

Transfiguration Cathedral after missile attack on 23 July 

Because of the Russian invasions over the past two years, the entire city center has been listed as among the World Heritage in Danger sites by UNESCO. The city center is home to many world renowned sites, including the Opera House, The Russov House, the Potocki Palace, and the infamous Potemkin stairs, which having been immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s iconic film “Battleship Potemkin," have become an emblematic symbol of the city.

The attacks in Odesa came after an already difficult week with other attacks that impacted many other protected cultural heritage sites in Lviv. “This outrageous destruction marks an escalation of violence against cultural heritage of Ukraine," UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said about the attacks in a statement. "I strongly condemn this attack against culture.”

Wikimedia Commons

The Potemkin Stairs as seen in Battleship Potemkin 

Palchuk said that the building was destroyed by a Russian missile that made its way to the cathedral’s basement, but Russia’s Defense Ministry denies this in a statement, claiming it was likely due to “the fall of a Ukrainian anti-aircraft guided missile.” 

This is not the first time that Russians have attacked the Transfiguration Cathedral. In 1936, the Soviets demolished the structure. But despite the odds, the Cathedral has remained for the past eight decades as a symbol of Odesa’s multi-ethnic past and spiritual traditions, as it showcased the convergence of diverse cultures in the region. Though the structure has been completely destroyed, the efforts to save the intact remains show that the citizens of Odesa are strong and will try to rebuild. Palchuk said, “With God’s help we will restore it."

Wikimedia Commons

Transfiguration Cathedral after missile attack on 23 July 

This attack on Odesa comes after several bombings of the city since Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. In July 2022, the Odesa Museum of Fine Arts was damaged from an attack, where the large glass roof and windows were destroyed. Other sites damaged in the Odesa region include the Archaeological Museum, the Maritime Museum, the Literary Museum, and St. Nicholas Church.

This week’s attack also comes after a long list of sites that have been damaged or destroyed from the Russian-Ukraine war. According to UNESCO, there has been verified damage to 270 sites since February 2022 including 116 religious sites, 27 museums, 95 buildings of historic or artistic interest, 19 monuments, 12 libraries, and one archive. 

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