70th Anniversary of Ukraine in UNESCO: History and Legacy

Photo: 70th Anniversary of Ukraine in UNESCO, Source: Collage The Gaze \ by Leonid Lukashenko
Photo: 70th Anniversary of Ukraine in UNESCO, Source: Collage The Gaze \ by Leonid Lukashenko

On May 12, 1954, Ukraine, which was then part of the USSR, became a member of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) – a specialized agency working within the framework of the UN and tasked with international cooperation in the fields of culture, science, education, and heritage preservation.

Despite UNESCO's role within the UN system being strictly humanitarian and seemingly distant from politics, the Soviet Union actively used this organization as a platform for ideological confrontation with the capitalist camp and for promoting its own ideology.

Membership Under Soviet Oversight

Ukraine's entry into UNESCO was primarily driven by the political calculation of the Soviet Union – it provided more votes, as alongside the Ukrainian SSR, the organization also welcomed the Byelorussian SSR (Belarus) and the USSR itself.

In 1966, on the organization's 20th anniversary, a special agenda item titled "UNESCO's Contribution to Peace" sparked sharp debates between representatives of the capitalist and socialist blocs. The USSR not only pressured its "colonies" in the form of Soviet republics with UNESCO membership but also influenced other developing nations under the economic and political sway of the Soviet bloc. During this time, many African and Asian countries closely aligned with Moscow joined UNESCO and were compelled to support its policies. Consequently, the USSR actively utilized not only its own votes but also those of proxy states to harshly criticize the actions of the "hostile camp," particularly the United States (which incidentally paid the highest membership dues to UNESCO).

The criticism and opposition to the "Soviet bloc" led to the United States withdrawing from UNESCO in 1984, although they continued to pay dues and participate in certain programs and institutions under UNESCO's auspices. The Americans only returned in 2003 (until 2017), and interestingly, Ukraine played a pivotal role in supporting their bid for executive council elections at UNESCO, highlighting Ukraine's authority and active engagement within the UN and UNESCO.

Window of Opportunities

Membership in the UN agency for education, science, and culture opened a range of opportunities and constraints for the then Ukrainian SSR.

Through humanitarian cooperation, the country not only preserved its identity, national culture, language, and traditions but also made itself known to the world. For example, from 1971, Ukraine participated in the program "Study and Dissemination of Slavic Cultures." Despite the Soviet government's lukewarm attitude towards "nationalist projects involving union republics," prohibiting Ukraine from participating would have been absurd – how could this program function without the participation of one of the most significant representatives of Slavic culture in Europe? Within this project, a monograph on the works of Taras Shevchenko was published in English, an album titled "Wooden Sculpture and Architecture" was released, and an international conference titled "Modern Slavic Cultures: Development, Interaction, International Context" was held in Ukraine.

However, Soviet "curatorship" imposed certain restrictions. For instance, all representatives of member countries had the status of "national commissions," but Ukraine (and then Belarus) did not have the "national" status. These limitations insinuated to both Soviet republics and their international partners that in a socialist state, there could only be one "nationality" – Soviet. Only in 1995, by decree of the President of Ukraine Leonid Kravchuk, did the Ukrainian representation in UNESCO gain National Commission status.

Mutually Beneficial Cooperation

Ukraine actively participated in implementing programs across all humanitarian areas under the competence of the UN. The Ukrainian representation was involved in the International Coordinating Council of the Man and Biosphere Programme, the Intergovernmental Council for the Information Programme, the Intergovernmental Committee for the World Decade for Cultural Development, the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin, and more.

Participation in numerous UNESCO scientific programs, including oceanography, hydrology, geology, and informatics, allowed Ukrainian Soviet scientists to engage in international exchanges, thereby spreading information about our country as a nation with powerful scientific potential. This mutually beneficial cooperation provided a significant boost to the development of Ukrainian science, and the working contacts established during Soviet times continued into the post-Soviet era.

Participating in UNESCO programs also provided material benefits – Ukrainian specialists received new scientific literature, equipment, and machinery through UNESCO grants (in dollar equivalent). For example, in the 1980s, this opportunity enabled the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences to acquire 13 modern photocopying machines.

Although during Soviet times Ukraine was perceived as part of the USSR, it was thanks to UNESCO programs and opportunities that Ukrainian diplomats and scientists disseminated information about the country and its cultural heritage – including through publications in periodicals such as "UNESCO Courier" and the journal "Museum," which featured articles about Bohdan Khmelnytsky, Les Kurbas, Taras Shevchenko, and other Ukrainian figures, as well as Ukrainian architectural monuments and museum collections.

Ukrainian Initiatives in UNESCO

The Ukrainian representation also initiated several programs. For instance, in the 1970s, at the 12th session of the UNESCO General Conference, the Ukrainian SSR proposed launching a worldwide campaign aimed at eradicating illiteracy. This later became one of Ukraine's priority areas within UNESCO's program activities. Ukraine also played a role in proposing the use of mass media to strengthen peace and prevent war propaganda, hatred among peoples, and violence. Ukraine was one of the authors behind the development of the UNESCO Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice adopted in 1978. This document emphasizes that all people belong to one race, share a common origin, and are an integral part of humanity.

As current events related to the full-scale invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine demonstrate, Russia either did not read this Declaration, did not understand it, or back then decided that it did not apply to them, and they could act contrary to universal humanistic values and common sense by waging an aggressive genocidal war on the territory of a sovereign Ukrainian state.

Ukrainian Objects and Monuments Under UNESCO Protection

The list of UNESCO World Heritage sites serves as a comprehensive guide to Ukraine. To be included, these sites undergo rigorous selection based on various criteria, ensuring they are worth visiting.

Ukraine's UNESCO World Heritage List includes 7 cultural and architectural monuments and 1 natural site:

  • Saint Sophia Cathedral, Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, and associated monastery buildings (since 1990)

  • Historic Centre of Lviv (since 1998)

  • Struve Geodetic Arc (since 2005)

  • Residence of Bukovinian and Dalmatian Metropolitans (currently Chernivtsi National University, since 2011)

  • Ancient City of Tauric Chersonese and its Chora (since 2013)

  • Wooden Tserkvas of the Carpathian Region in Ukraine and Poland, a joint Ukrainian-Polish nomination (since 2013)

  • Historic Centre of Odesa (since 2023)

  • Natural site - "Ancient and Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians and Other Regions of Europe" (since 2011)

Due to the full-scale invasion of Russian occupation forces, three sites (the Historic Centre of Odesa, Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra and Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, and the Historic Centre of Lviv) were added to the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2023. Additionally, as of 2023, 16 sites within Ukraine are candidates for inclusion in the World Heritage List, including objects located in temporarily occupied territories (Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions).

A Taste of Intangible Cultural Heritage

Photo: In 2022, Ukrainian borscht was added to the list of dishes requiring urgent protection, Source: Freepik

In addition to architecture and monuments, UNESCO also protects intangible culture such as festivals, traditions, craftsmanship, and even cuisines of specific countries and individual dishes. Inclusion in the list signifies humanity's commitment to safeguarding these elements from extinction.

Notable dishes on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List include Neapolitan pizza, Armenian lavash, Uzbek and Tajik plov, Korean kimchi, Turkish coffee, Georgian qvevri wine, Belgian beer, dolma (found in various Middle Eastern countries), Croatian gingerbread, and several cuisines such as Mexican, French, and Japanese.

In 2022, Ukrainian borscht and French baguette were added to the list of dishes requiring urgent protection. The Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage included the Ukrainian borscht in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in July 2022. This event was significant for Ukraine, following debates on the ownership of borscht in social media since 2019, triggered by a provocative statement from Russia's official MFA Twitter account claiming borscht as Russian cuisine.

UNESCO: General Information

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is an international organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations, that collaborates with its member states in the fields of education, science, and culture to promote illiteracy eradication, national capacity building, development of national culture, conservation of cultural heritage sites, and other important humanistic initiatives.

At the beginning of 2013, the number of participating countries was 195. In 2011, there were 193 member states; approximately 250 non-governmental organizations hold consultative status with UNESCO. In 2017, Israel and the USA declared their withdrawal from the organization.

The main headquarters of UNESCO is located in Paris, France. UNESCO publishes Office des Presses de l'Unesco in multiple languages, producing 26 periodicals including "UNESCO Courier" (in 35 languages), "Cultures," "Museum," "Education Perspectives," and others.

On November 22, 2023, Ukraine was elected for the first time to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. This took place during the 24th session of the General Assembly of member countries of the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. This position will enable Ukraine to actively participate in the implementation of the convention and make decisions regarding the use of the World Heritage Fund and the inclusion of objects in the World Heritage List and the List of World Heritage in Danger — precisely what is needed for a country currently engaged in defensive warfare against a nuclear-armed fascist empire.



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