Aya Elamroussi, CNN | Seán Federico-O’Murchú, CNN
The last time Vladimir Putin’s forces approached a capital, they razed it to the ground.
As the invasion of Ukraine enters its second month, Russian forces are digging into the outskirts of kyiv – and there are fears they are preparing for the same indiscriminate scorched-earth tactics used in the Chechen capital of Grozny in 1999.
Fighting near the capital continues, although a senior Russian general said on Friday that forces were focusing their efforts on eastern Ukraine. Russia’s inability to crush the Ukrainian army has only heightened fears that it will become even more blind with tactics on the ground.
Putin, during his first year in power, was determined to crush an insurgency in Chechnya, a republic in Russia’s Caucasus region. Subsequent footage showed a city in ruins – and strikingly similar to beleaguered Syrian cities such as Aleppo, which would come under intense bombardment by Russian warplanes after Putin launched a military intervention there in 2015.
Russia eventually took control of Chechnya, with Putin installing a pro-Kremlin government.
Now in Ukraine, the survival of a nation hangs in the balance as Russian forces advance, destroying towns and residential areas, disrupting lives and forcing over 3 million Ukrainians to flee the country.
Kyiv is one of its many gems – a city over 1,500 years old, a once bustling capital of 2.8 million people and home to irreplaceable international treasures including architectural landmarks and cultural landmarks.
“If Putin levels kyiv like he leveled Kharkiv and other cities, a lot will be lost forever,” said Olenka Z. Pevny, associate professor of Slavic and Ukrainian studies at the University of Cambridge.
As protracted urban warfare threatens to devastate Ukraine’s capital, here are some of the sites that experts say are at risk.
Saint Sophia Cathedral
Topped with sparkling golden domes, Saint Sophia’s Cathedral sits in the center of kyiv, drawing visitors to its brilliantly colored mosaics and frescoes of various saints and angels. Built in the 11th century, it reflects the architecture of that era and the interior art remains preserved until today.
The magnificence of the structure lies in its preservation of the gold and glass mosaics inside – one of the few from the 11th century, Pevny said. Local builders and Byzantine masters worked together to build it.
“The walls of this structure are lined with yards and yards of glass mosaics as well as images and frescoes from the 11th and 12th centuries,” Pevny told CNN.
Above the ancient mosaics are layers of paintings. “You can see how the medieval past interacts with the early modern period, with the 19th century, with the contemporary period just by entering Saint Sophia Cathedral,” Pevny explained.
Saint-Michel cathedral and monastery with a golden dome
When this church was first built in 1108, it was the only one in kyiv with golden domes.
Located just northeast of Saint Sophia Cathedral, it played a major role in the Dignity Revolution, also known as the Maidan Revolution, when protests erupted in 2014 against the then Russian-leaning president. Viktor Yanukovych.
The church served as a refuge for those injured in the violence that broke out, welcoming those who needed medical attention, said Serhy Yekelchyk, professor of Ukrainian history at the University of Alberta.
A memorial service and candlelight vigil was then held there to honor those who died in 2014 while protesting against the government of Yanukovych, a leader who later fled the country.
The Monastery of the Caves
Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Cave Monastery includes underground churches and other structures that symbolize architectural and artistic styles from the Middle Ages to the modern era.
“There are beautiful churches on the grounds of this monastery dating from the 11th century to the present day,” Pevny said.
The monastery also houses relics of saints dating back to the 10th century.
Founded in the 11th century, it is rich in the Cossack Baroque architectural style, which is unique to Ukraine and has been targeted by Russian leaders in the past because it uniquely symbolizes Ukrainian identity, Pevny said.
Over time, the caves have become a spiritual and cultural focal point for Christians around the world.
The majestic Baroque-style Mariinsky Palace is the ceremonial residence of the President of Ukraine and is located near the Parliament.
The architectural monument was built at the end of the 18th century under Russian rule and has been rebuilt several times since. The building underwent a comprehensive restoration between 2003 and 2017 during which the palace’s facade and its interior were fully restored, according to the palace’s website.
Since important events including summits, official receptions, ambassadorial ceremonies and meetings of foreign delegations are held there, Yekelchyk warned that the palace could become a target during the ongoing war.
“Looking at the palace today, one would think that the Ukrainian authorities intentionally painted it in the colors of the national flag, but this color scheme – a combination of soft, muted yellow with turquoise, with columns in white – is actually typical of the Baroque period,” Yekelchyk said.
monument of the homeland
Standing at 203.4 feet (62 meters), the Motherland Monument is a towering statue of a woman with a sword in one hand and a shield in the other.
It was built during the height of the Cold War, when it was crucial for the Soviet Union to project military might, Yekelchyk said. Today, the National Museum of the History of Ukraine during World War II sits at the base of the statue.
Recently, the meaning of the sculpture has been rethought in light of the current war, particularly because it faces east.
“I think it’s becoming a ‘Ukrainian motherland’…which now finally has an explanation of why it faces east…because the enemy is coming from the is,” said Yekelchyk, who was born and raised in Kyiv.
On February 4, the monument was illuminated with blue and yellow lights, the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
“With this act, we also demonstrated the national unity and willingness of Ukrainians to defend and repel external enemies,” the monument’s website said.
National Holodomor-Genocide Museum
The candle-shaped monument commemorates 10.5 million Ukrainians who fell victim to a man-made famine deliberately directed against Ukraine between 1932 and 1933 by Joseph Stalin under the Soviet Union. “Holodomor” means starved to death in Ukrainian.
“Russia and Ukraine now have a very different attitude towards the Soviet past, and this candle is a symbol of what the Soviet past means to Ukrainians: tragedy, terror, death, attempted to erase the cultural individuality of the nation,” Yekelchyk said.
Babyn Yar is one of the largest mass grave sites commemorating the genocide by the Nazis in Europe.
In the early 1940s, the Nazis slaughtered between 70,000 and 100,000 people in Babyn Yar, killing almost all of kyiv’s Jewish population, the memorial’s website says.
A Russian missile attack earlier this month approached the site, which features a menorah-shaped monument.
“You’re walking in the past there,” Yekelchyk says. “And when modern rockets get there, then ghosts are summoned from past atrocities of all kinds.”
The National Opera of Ukraine
Opening its doors in 1867, the opera has seen the best Russian and Ukrainian singers of the early 20th century. A theater ballet troupe was created in 1897, which enabled it to expand the line-up and enrich the dance performances. The neo-Renaissance design of the building includes high arches and ornamental stuccowork.
“I think the value of the building for Ukrainians is linked to the development of a national singing school. Ukrainians see themselves as a singing nation and their beautiful folk songs are often seen as the foundation of national identity,” Yekelchyk told CNN.
The main mission of the theater is to “spread the beauty and grandeur of opera and ballet art and contribute to Ukrainian and world culture,” according to its website.
Over the past decade, Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot” and “Manon Lescaut” and William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” have been performed there, the website notes.
National Art Museum of Ukraine
The museum houses some of the most important works of art in the country, including religious paintings from the Middle Ages as well as rare portraits of historical figures.
Medieval icons from the 12th century as well as a collection of Cossack portraits from the Baroque period of the 17th and 18th centuries can be seen here.
The museum also houses major works by 19th-century Ukrainian realist painters, who expressed their love for Ukraine by depicting its nature and peasants, Yekelchyk said.
Some of the best examples of Ukrainian avant-garde painting are also displayed here.
“Many avant-garde artists faced Soviet repressive measures in the 1930s and their works were destroyed, which makes surviving examples all the more valuable,” according to Pevny.
Statue of Taras Shevchenko
Taras Shevchenko is considered one of the greatest Ukrainian poets. Born in the 19th century, his work focused on the independence of his country. He spent time in exile and in prison for his work which criticized authoritarianism.
Several structures have been built in honor of Shevchenko, signifying the historical impact he had in his country. In kyiv, there is a monument dedicated to him as well as a museum and a park dedicated to his legacy.
Taras Shevchenko Kyiv National University was founded in 1834 and is considered “the leading contemporary academic and educational center in Ukraine”, according to its website.
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