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UNESCO adds Ukraine’s ‘pearl of the Black Sea’ to World Heritage list

Ukrainian navy musicians play the national anthem last March near the Odessa National Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

PARIS — The historic center of the southern Ukrainian port city of Odessa was named a World Heritage site Wednesday and immediately classified as “in danger,” after an accelerated inscription process by the U.N. cultural agency that may pave the way for more financial and technical assistance.

Odessa, which is often also described as Ukraine’s “pearl of the Black Sea,” has faced repeated Russian strikes since the war began last February.

“This inscription embodies our collective determination to ensure that this city, which has always surmounted global upheavals, is preserved from further destruction,” Audrey Azoulay, director general of UNESCO, said in a statement after the agency’s World Heritage Committee convened for an extraordinary session in Paris. Azoulay called Odessa “a world city” that “has left its mark on cinema, literature and the arts.”

Western officials hope that Odessa’s inscription will put more pressure on Russia to refrain from attacking it. On Thursday, one day after the UNESCO decision, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna traveled to the city in a visit timed to “welcome the inclusion of Odessa” and to “highlight the strong cultural ties that unite France and Ukraine,” according to a ministry statement.

But Colonna’s visit coincided with reports of Russian strikes on several Ukrainian targets on Thursday, including near Odessa. While the city has been spared attacks on the scale of those that have flattened other Ukrainian communities, concerns for the city’s heritage prompted UNESCO to fast-track its application, which was officially submitted in October. Over the summer, fighting damaged parts of the city’s Museum of Fine Arts, more than a century old.

The city’s rich history dates to when it was the crown jewel of Imperial Russia. Today, UNESCO considers it “a unique example of a city” in Ukraine that combines “different cultural traditions and a harmonic architectural polyphony.”

It was once considered one of the country’s more Russia-friendly cities, but attitudes have changed. As Russian attacks against the city mounted last year, Ukrainian forces and volunteers rushed to fortify the city’s storied buildings — many of them built in the Italian baroque style — including the iconic opera and ballet theater, which is one of Ukraine’s oldest.

Monuments were covered with sandbags, and barricades were erected across the city. In December, local officials removed a statue of Russian empress Catherine the Great — often seen as a founder of the city — as part of an effort to remove signs of historical Russian influence in Ukraine.

Odessa’s beloved opera house plays starring role in wartime drama

Russian representatives at UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee on Wednesday repeatedly sought to stall a vote, but the city’s inclusion on the list was eventually passed by the 21-member committee. Archaeological sites in Yemen and a fair in Lebanon were also added to the World Heritage list.

Wednesday’s decision to inscribe Odessa underlined how Ukrainians are mourning not just a huge loss of life but also the destruction of cultural heritage across their country. At least 236 cultural sites in Ukraine have been damaged since the Russian invasion almost a year ago, according to UNESCO.

Among the damaged sites are monuments, libraries and historical buildings, Krista Pikkat, director of the agency’s Culture and Emergencies Entity, said in an interview with The Post in December. The tally represents “the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

In Kharkiv, a city in northeastern Ukraine, fighting heavily damaged the opera and ballet theater last year, and in Mariupol, in southeastern Ukraine, Russian attacks destroyed the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater, which had been used as a shelter for hundreds of people.

I always dreamed of visiting my ancestral home of Odessa. But not like this.

Odessa’s historic center is the eighth UNESCO World Heritage site in Ukraine, joining St. Sophia’s Cathedral in the capital, Kyiv, and the historic center of Lviv in western Ukraine. All are “considered to be of outstanding value to humanity” by the U.N. agency.

When Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky formalized Odessa’s candidacy in October, he called on the U.N. agency to “provide a clear signal that the world will not turn a blind eye to the destruction of our common history.” Russia is a state party to the 1972 UNESCO convention that obliges it “not to take any deliberate measures which might damage” World Heritage sites.

But in his speech in October, Zelensky also suggested that the designation of Odessa as a World Heritage site might by itself be insufficient to deter Russian attacks, citing strikes that only narrowly missed St. Sophia’s Cathedral that month.

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