Russia's invasion of Ukraine threatens a cultural heritage the two countries share, including Saint Sophia Cathedral

More than 160 Ukrainian cultural sites have been damaged or destroyed since Russia invaded the country in February 2022, according to UNESCO.

The Ukrainian government claims the number of damaged sites is far higher. Russia denies these charges.

Ukrainian officials accuse Russia of deliberately targeting cultural sites, half of which are churches, monasteries, prayer houses, synagogues and mosques. Such a targeting would be a violation of international law.

As a scholar who has spent over 30 years studying Russian and Ukrainian religion and culture, I’m deeply concerned about the cultural destruction of this war, which has already claimed thousands of lives and has turned over 12 million Ukrainians into refugees.

An important monument under threat is Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv. Built in the 11th century, the church is one of Ukraine’s seven World Heritage sites recognized by the United Nations. It represents the common Orthodox Christian faith that many Russians and Ukrainians share.

Saint Sophia and the Byzantine model

Saint Sophia Cathedral was built under the reign of Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise, whose father, Volodymyr – also known as Vladimir – had adopted Orthodox Christianity in 988.

According to a legend in the early 12th-century “Primary Chronicle,” Volodymyr chose Orthodoxy for the beauty of its worship services. The envoys he sent to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, visited the famous Church of Holy Wisdom, the Hagia Sophia. Built by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century, the Hagia Sophia is devoted to the Divine Wisdom, who is personified as a woman in the biblical “Book of Proverbs.” Convinced by his envoys’ favorable report, Volodymyr decided to be baptized and to convert his subjects.

After Volodymyr’s death, Yaroslav invited Byzantine architects and artists to build an impressive cathedral for Kyiv just like the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Yaroslav, who had fought a civil war to succeed his father, deliberately imitated the Byzantine capital to buttress his legitimacy. His new cathedral, Saint Sophia, even took its name from the imperial church in Constantinople.

Christian symbolism in the Cathedral

With 13 cupolas and a central dome that rises 29 meters (about 95 feet) into the air, Saint Sophia is an imposing structure that served as a testament to the power and piety of its ruler. Elaborate mosaics decorate the sanctuary and dome. Portraits of Yaroslav and his family are prominently displayed in the cathedral’s princely gallery, where the ruler attended services.

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