Ukrainian Odesa, the ‘Pearl of the Black Sea’, added to the UNESCO World Heritage List Ukraine

The United Nations’ cultural agency, UNESCO, has added the historic center of the Ukrainian city of Odessa to its World Heritage List, describing it as “the duty of all humanity” to protect it.

The status, awarded by UNESCO at a panel meeting in Paris on Wednesday, is designed to help protect the port city’s cultural heritage, which is under threat from the Russian invasion.

“As the war continues, this inscription embodies our collective determination to ensure that this city, which has always risen from the broken heart of the world, is preserved from further destruction,” UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said in a statement.

The 21 member states of the World Heritage Committee approved the designation with six votes in favor, one against and 14 abstentions.

Russia repeatedly tried to postpone the vote and condemned the final decision, saying the only threat to Odessa came from the “nationalist regime in Ukraine.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who requested the listing in October to protect the city from Russian bombing, welcomed the decision.

“I am grateful to the partners who help protect our pearl from the attacks of the Russian invaders,” tweeted on Wednesday. Odessa is often described as Ukraine’s “Pearl of the Black Sea”.

Since the Russian invasion, Ukrainians have rushed to try to protect the city’s monuments and buildings with sandbags and barricades.

The city has also been added to the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger, which UNESCO says “gives it access to enhanced technical and financial international assistance” for protection or, if necessary, rehabilitation.

The agency added that it has already helped repair the Odessa Museum of Fine Arts and the Odessa Museum of Modern Art after damage caused since the start of the war.

Odessa flourished after Russian empress Catherine the Great decreed it to be the country’s modern sea gateway in the late 18th century.

Its location on the Black Sea coast allowed it to become one of the most important ports in the Russian Empire, but the extent of Russian cultural influence on the city is a matter of dispute.

A draft decision ahead of the UNESCO vote described Empress Catherine II as “founding” the city, drawing criticism from Ukraine, which objected to what it saw as a “politicized” description of the city.

Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko and Odessa Mayor Gennady Trukhanov, in an open letter seen by Agence France-Presse, disputed this, saying the city had prospered long before the arrival of the Russian empress.

“Odesa’s continuous development as a port city dates back to the 15th century,” they said, and it was known as Hajibey.

In Moscow, Russia’s foreign ministry accused a group of Western countries of pushing through what it called a “politically motivated” decision in violation of standard procedures.

“It was prepared hastily, without respecting the current high standards of UNESCO,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced, noting that only six countries voted in favor.

Moscow pointed to Odessa’s “glorious historical past as part of the Russian state” and insisted that the “only threat” Odessa faced was from the “nationalist regime in Ukraine” which demolished a number of monuments in the city.

In December, Ukrainian authorities in Odessa tore down a statue of Catherine II as part of their efforts to de-Russify the city, after polling residents on what to do with it.

Six other Ukrainian sites are already inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, including the Saint Sophia Cathedral in the capital Kyiv and the historic center of the western city of Lviv.

Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.

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