UNESCO added the historic center of Ukraine’s port city Odessa, often described as “the pearl of the Black Sea,” to its World Heritage List on Wednesday, overcoming opposition from Russia.
The 21 member states of the agency’s world heritage committee approved inscribing designated areas of the city with six votes in favour, one against and 14 abstentions.
Russia, which invaded Ukraine in February last year, repeatedly tried to delay the vote to recognise the site’s “outstanding universal value” and “the duty of all humanity to protect it.”
“While the war continues, this inscription embodies our collective determination to ensure that this city, which has always surmounted global upheavals, is preserved from further destruction,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay after the decision.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who requested the listing in October to shield the city from Russian bombardment, welcomed the decision.
“Today Odessa got UNESCO protection,” he tweeted.
“I’m grateful to partners who help protect our pearl from the Russian invaders’ attacks.”
Since the Russian invasion, Ukrainians have rushed to try to protect the city’s monuments and buildings with sandbags and barricades.
Odessa – located about 500 kilometers (310 miles) from capital Kyiv, which sees frequent air strikes from Russian forces – was also added to the List of World Heritage in Danger.
That designation “gives it access to reinforced technical and financial international assistance” to protect or, if necessary, rehabilitate it, UNESCO said.
The agency added it had already helped with repairs on the Odessa Museum of Fine Arts and the Odessa Museum of Modern Art after damage since the beginning of the war.
France praised UNESCO’s decision, highlighting in a foreign ministry statement “the exceptional value of this port city, its architecture and its history for Ukraine and for humanity.”
“The decision to inscribe Odessa underlines the danger posed to Ukrainian heritage by Russia’s war of aggression,” the ministry said.
It added that since the invasion, over 230 cultural sites have been damaged or destroyed.
Odessa blossomed after Russian Empress Catherine the Great decreed in the late 18th century that it would be the country’s modern maritime gateway.
But the extent of Russian cultural influence on the city is a contentious topic.
Tensions had risen ahead of the UNESCO vote, with Ukraine objecting to what it viewed as a “politicised” description of the port city in a draft decision that described Empress Catherine II as having “founded” the city.
Ukraine’s Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko and Odessa mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov contested this in an open letter seen by AFP, saying that the city thrived long before the Russian empress’s arrival.
“The continuous development of Odessa as a port city dates back to the 15th century,” they said, adding that it was known as Hadzhybei.
But Russian President Vladimir “Putin’s propaganda used the myth of the ‘founding of Odessa by the empress’, which appeared in the 19th century, as one of the grounds for Russia’s territorial claims on Ukrainian cities and the beginning of its armed aggression,” they added.