As Russia destroys cultural sites in Ukraine, civilians are building digital 3D models to preserve them online

As Russia destroys cultural sites in Ukraine, civilians are building digital 3D models to preserve them online
A woman dressed in the colors of the Ukrainian national flag holding greenery lights a candle in the Church of St. Andrew the First-Called on June 12, 2022 in Bucha, Ukraine.Alexey Furman/Getty Images
  • Ukrainian citizens are conserving national landmarks by using their phones to make digital recreations.
  • The initiative, called Backup Ukraine, is the first of its kind.

The war in Ukraine has ravaged cities from Mariupol to Kharkiv and reduced many buildings to piles of rubble. But a first-of-its-kind initiative launched in April called Backup Ukraine is making sure the cultural sites lost in the war will never truly be lost.

Backup Ukraine, which uses technology from the app Polycam, allows citizens to upload scans of monuments, art, and religious sites to a digital library of cultural landmarks.

The archive includes everything from historical buildings to children's action figures and Lego sets left behind in the rubble.

Tao Thomsen, co-creator of Backup Ukraine, told Insider the initiative began after he and his team heard "disconnected stories" of cultural heritage sites being destroyed during the war, which led him to believe that Russia may be "willfully destroying the material foundation of [Ukraine's] culture."

"With this technology, there was a possibility for everyday citizens to go out there and create quite literally a digital backup of their cultural heritage at a level far exceeding anything that was possible just a few years ago," Thomsen said.


Thomsen said the response has been "overwhelmingly positive" despite initial hesitation from Ukrainian citizens who were afraid to go outside at the beginning of the war.

The project began with 150 volunteers who signed up to scan 10 cultural pieces a day. Because of the popularity of the initiative, Thomsen said it became impossible to keep track of users.

Around 6,000 users have uploaded scans to the archive, Thomsen said, and the amount of scanners has largely increased over the past few weeks.

As of June 8, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization verified damage to 143 sites in the country, including religious sites, historic buildings, and monuments. The Ukraine Ministry of Culture estimates the number to be higher, at 367.

Most of the destruction, the ministry says, is concentrated in the Kharkiv region.


According to rules set during the 1954 Hague Convention, it is against international law to target "movable or immovable property of cultural heritage of every people, such as monuments of architecture, art or history." In 2017, the UN adopted a resolution that made the destruction of heritage sites during armed conflict a war crime.

In June, Zelenskyy pleaded with UNESCO to expel Russian president Vladimir Putin from its membership with the organization.

Backup Ukraine's original purpose was to preserve pieces of cultural heritage defined by UNESCO. Thomsen said, however, that many Ukrainians are now using it to document the war through their own eyes.

He gave an example of a man who used the app to digitally scan his apartment after a Russian rocket hit it.

"Seeing that in front of your eyes, it is almost like you can touch it," Thomsen said. "I think that gives a much stronger emotional impact than just seeing the images. So we're looking into how can we use this as an educational tool as well. How can we use this to drive empathy, not just in Ukraine, but in every country in the world?"