A blown-up Russian tank near Kyiv, a monument for Ukrainian writer Borys Hrinchenko, an apartment building destroyed by artillery and a slide in a children’s playground covered in graffiti.
In Ukraine, these objects are among hundreds of landmarks, cultural sites, monuments and everyday things that civilians have scanned on mobile phones through an app called Polycam. The app’s software generates a detailed 3D model that will live permanently in a digital archive as part of an initiative called Backup Ukraine.
The project, launched in April shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, aims to digitally preserve the country’s cultural heritage — far from the reach of Russian attacks. The scans are so high-quality, the project’s creators say, that they can be projected in a physical space to explore for educational purposes and can also be used to reconstruct destroyed cultural artifacts.
Backup Ukraine is the brainchild of VICE’s creative agency, Virtue Worldwide, which partnered with Blue Shield Denmark, a group that helps to protect global cultural heritage sites, and the Danish UNESCO National Commission.
“What we wanted to fight against was the willful destruction of Ukrainian heritage as an act of terror, of national intimidation. That has been proven very, very real,” said Tao Thomsen, creative director at Virtue Worldwide and co-creator of Backup Ukraine.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture has documented 367 war crimes against the country’s cultural heritage as of May 27, including the destruction of 29 museums, 133 churches, 66 theaters and libraries and a century-old Jewish cemetery, according to its website.
With Backup Ukraine, for the first time in history a country’s artifacts are being documented in augmented reality during an ongoing war, a precedent that has sparked conversations about how this technology can be used in other countries experiencing conflict or war. The team is also exploring the possibility of creating 3D models of destroyed churches and buildings that haven’t been scanned, using digital footage from the past.
“We’ve created a precedent here in terms of protecting cultural artifacts and a model, a system that people can use going forward as conflict develops,” said Iain Thomas, group creative director at Virtue Worldwide and co-creator of the project.
“One of the more amazing things is that people are scanning monuments, statues and sculptures, but they are also scanning small aspects of their lives — things they own, value and cherish,” Thomas said.
Backup Ukraine grows into movement
The Backup Ukraine team is onboarding local project managers to “slowly hand over ownership to the Ukrainians themselves,” and 150 people have joined as volunteers, scanning up to 10 pieces of culturally relevant heritage each day, Thomsen said. Since its launch, over 6,000 people in Ukraine have downloaded the Polycam app to access the digital archive.
Max Kamynin, a Kyiv resident and architect, says he volunteered for the initiative roughly a month ago and allocates three to four days per week to make scans, during which he aims to create 15 to 20 high-quality scans. Before each day of scanning, Kamynin makes a list of monuments, historical buildings or objects destroyed by Russian forces and follows the route, he says.
“Now, a lot of large monuments are covered with bags, so I can’t scan them. But it doesn’t really bother me because Ukraine is very rich in history and you can always find something interesting to scan,” he said.
It took Kamynin roughly an hour to scan the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Pirogoshcha, an Orthodox cathedral in Kyiv, originally built in 1132. It was the first building in Kyiv that was built entirely of brick without the use of stone, according to the church’s website. The church was destroyed in 1935 during the Soviet era but was later reconstructed in the late 1900s.
“Large buildings are more difficult to make scans than sculptures or monuments,” Kamynin said. “You need to go around the entire building, and if possible, use a drone to make the scan better.”
Backup Ukraine’s creators say it has transformed into a movement, as Ukrainian civilians increasingly recognize the importance of protecting the history, art and culture of their country and look to its future.
“We advise people not to scan in areas where there is immediate conflict,” Thomsen said. “There is a slip-up risk whenever you go out in a country that is very much at war. We can’t ignore that. And yet, people still go out by the dozens every day to scan. That to me proves that the national pride of this is a really strong driving factor.”
Hundreds of cultural heritage sites destroyed
Since the onset of the war, Ukraine’s cultural sector has rushed to protect churches, museums, statues and art as they continue to suffer damage.
Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, has appealed to UNESCO to remove Russia from its membership because it has destroyed “so many monuments, cultural and social sites in Europe since World War II,” CNN previously reported.
The leaders of Backup Ukraine are in regular contact with the Heritage Emergency Rescue Initiative — a Ukrainian drive under the Ministry of Culture — and are coordinating with professionals in the 3D scanning industry, in Ukraine and globally, to scan at a faster pace and larger scale.
The project’s partners are also in discussions with the local departments of the Ministry of Culture about scanning high-profile heritage locations on UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list, specifically the historic center in Lviv and the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, according to Thomsen.
The 3D scanning of Ukraine’s cultural heritage is a “fantastic educational tool,” said Yuri Shevchuk, a professor of the Ukrainian language at Columbia University.
“What is being done now is almost like making Ukrainian history undeletable, resistant to time,” said Shevchuk, a Ukraine native. “You can use this as education for students but also for Ukrainians themselves and the world. The project also causes us, as Ukrainians, to rethink and rediscover what has been largely unnoticed.”
Shevchuk says projects like Backup Ukraine serve a larger purpose in fighting against Russian aggression and propaganda that does not recognize Ukraine’s unique cultural identity and territorial sovereignty.
“Ukraine, its identity and its realization simply do not exist [to Russia], but that they are a variety of Russian civilization,” Shevchuk said. “Those attributes of Ukrainian identity like culture, language, literature, music and architecture are really something that mark Ukrainians as original, inimitable and different from any other nation.”
They must be preserved, he says.