Aya Elamroussi, CNN | Seán Federico-O’Murchú, CNN
When Vladimir Putin’s forces last approached a capital city, they leveled it.
As the invasion of Ukraine enters its second month, Russian forces are digging in on the outskirts of Kyiv — and there are fears they could be preparing for the same indiscriminate scorched-earth tactic used in the Chechen capital of Grozny in 1999.
Fighting close to the capital is ongoing, even though a top Russian general on Friday claimed the forces are concentrating efforts on the east of Ukraine. Russia’s inability to steamroll the Ukrainian military has only increased the fear it may become even more indiscriminate with tactics on the ground.
Putin, in his first year in power, was determined to crush an insurgency in Chechnya, a republic in Russia’s Caucasus region. The aftermath images showed a city in ruins — and looking strikingly similar to besieged 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 gained control over Chechnya, with Putin installing a pro-Kremlin government.
Now in Ukraine, the survival of a nation is at stake as Russian forces advance, destroying cities and residential areas, upending lives and forcing more than 3 million Ukrainians to flee the country
Kyiv is one of its many jewels — a city more than 1,500 years old, a once-bustling capital of 2.8 million people, and home to irreplaceable international treasures, including architectural landmarks and cultural monuments.
“If Putin levels Kyiv the way he’s been leveling Kharkiv and other cities, there is a lot that will be lost forever,” said Olenka Z. Pevny, an associate professor of Slavonic and Ukrainian Studies at the University of Cambridge.
With prolonged urban warfare threatening devastation to Ukraine’s capital city, here are some of the sites experts say are at risk.
St. Sophia Cathedral
Topped by sparkling golden domes, St. Sophia Cathedral sits in the center of Kyiv, drawing visitors to its brilliantly colorful mosaics and frescos of various saints and angels. Built in the 11th century, it reflects the architecture of that time period, and the interior art remains preserved until today.
The structure’s magnificence lies in its preservation of gold and glass mosaics on the interior — one of the few from the 11th century, Pevny said. Local builders and Byzantine masters worked together in constructing it.
“The walls of this structure are carpeted with meters and meters of glass mosaics and also images and frescos from the 11th and 12th century,” Pevny told CNN.
On top of 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 walking into the Cathedral of Saint Sophia,” Pevny explained.
St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral and Monastery
When this church was first constructed in 1108, it was the only one in Kyiv with golden domes.
Located just northeast of the St. Sophia Cathedral, it played a major role in the Revolution of Dignity, also known as the Maidan Revolution, when protests sparked in 2014 against then Russian-leaning President Viktor Yanukovych.
The church served as a safe haven for those who were injured during the violence that erupted, welcoming those who needed medical care, said Serhy Yekelchyk, a professor of Ukrainian history at the University of Victoria.
A memorial service and candlelight vigil were later held there to honor those who died in 2014 while protesting the government of Yanukovych, a leader who later fled the country.
The Monastery of the Caves
Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Monastery of the Caves features underground churches and other structures that symbolize architectural and artistic styles from the Middle Ages through the modern age.
“There are beautiful churches on the grounds of this monastery dating all the way from the 11th century to the present,” Pevny said.
The monastery is also home to 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 the Ukrainian identity, Pevny said.
Over time, the caves became a spiritual and cultural focal point for Christians to visit from around the world.
The majestic Baroque-style Mariinsky Palace is the ceremonial home of the president of Ukraine and is located near the Parliament.
The architectural landmark was built in the late 18th century under Russian rule and has been repeatedly reconstructed since. The building underwent a full restoration between 2003 and 2017 during which when the façade of the palace and its interior were completely restored, according to the palace website.
Because important events including summits, official receptions, ambassador ceremonies and meetings of foreign delegations are held there, Yekelchyk warned the palace may become a target during the ongoing war.
“When 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, understated yellow with turquoise, with the columns in white — is actually typical of the Baroque period,” Yekelchyk said.
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 constructed at the height of the Cold War, when it was crucial for the Soviet Union to project its military might, Yekelchyk said. Now, the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War sits at the foundation of the statue.
Recently, the sculpture’s meaning is being reimagined in light of the current war — particularly because it faces east.
“I think it’s in the process of becoming a ‘Ukrainian motherland’ … which now finally has an explanation of why it is facing east … because the enemy is coming from the east,” 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.
“By this act, we also demonstrated the national unity and readiness of Ukrainians to defend and repel external enemies,” the monument’s website said.
National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide
The candle-like monument commemorates 10.5 million Ukrainians who were victims of a man-made famine deliberately aimed at Ukraine between 1932 and 1933 by Joseph Stalin under the Soviet Union. “Holodomor” means death by hunger in Ukrainian.
“Russia and Ukraine have now a very different attitude to the Soviet past, and this candle is a symbol of what Soviet past means to Ukrainians: tragedy, terror, death, an attempt to erase the cultural individuality of the nation,” Yekelchyk said.
Babyn Yar is one of the biggest mass grave sites that memorializes the genocide by the Nazis in Europe.
In the early 1940s, the Nazis shot between 70,000 and 100,000 people at Babyn Yar, killing nearly the entire Jewish population of Kyiv, the memorial’s website says.
A Russian missile attack early this month came close to the site, which features a menorah-shaped monument.
“You walk into the past there,” Yekelchyk says. “And when modern rockets come there, then the ghosts are summoned of the past atrocities of all kinds.”
The National Opera of Ukraine
Opening its doors in 1867, the opera saw the best Russian and Ukrainian singers of the early 20th century. A ballet group of the theatre was established in 1897, which allowed it to broaden the playbill and enrich the performances with dancing. The building’s Neo-Renaissance design features tall arches and ornamental stucco.
“I think the building’s value to Ukrainians is connected 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 theater’s primary mission is to “spread the beauty and greatness of the opera and ballet art and to contribute to the Ukrainian and world’s culture,” according to its website.
Within the last decade, “Turandot” and “Manon Lescaut” by Giacomo Puccini and William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” were performed there, the website notes.
National Art Museum of Ukraine
The museum houses some of the country’s most significant artwork, including religious paintings of 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 during 17th and 18th centuries can be seen here.
The museum is also home to major works of 19th century Ukrainian Realist painters, who expressed their love for Ukraine by portraying its nature and peasants, Yekelchyk explained.
Some of the best examples of Ukrainian avant-garde painting are also displayed here.
“Many avant-garde artists faced repressive Soviet 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 regarded as 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 that criticized authoritarianism.
Multiple structures were built in Shevchenko’s honor, signifying the historical impact he had in his country. In Kyiv, there is a monument to him as well as a museum and park dedicated to his legacy.
The Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv was founded in 1834 and is considered “the leading contemporary academic and educational hub of Ukraine,” according to its website.
Correction: A previous version of this story mis-identified the school of Serhy Yekelchyk, a professor of Ukrainian history at the University of Victoria
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