As the Russians steal Ukrainian art, they also attack its identity

An ancient stele thrown to the ground and other damage from looting at the Kherson Regional History Museum in Kherson, Ukraine, November 20, 2022. (Lynsey Addario/The New York Times)

An ancient stele thrown to the ground and other damage from looting at the Kherson Regional History Museum in Kherson, Ukraine, November 20, 2022. (Lynsey Addario/The New York Times)

KHERSON, Ukraine – One morning in late October, Russian forces blocked off a street in downtown Kherson and surrounded a beautiful old building with dozens of soldiers.

Five large trucks stopped. So did a group of military vehicles transporting Russian agents, who entered through several doors. It was a carefully planned and highly organized military attack – on an art museum.

Witnesses said the Kherson Regional Art Museum was cleaned up over the next four days, as Russian troops were “swarming with vermin like vermin,” porters hauling away thousands of paintings, soldiers hastily wrapping them in sheets, and art connoisseurs barking out for orders and packing materials. Flying everywhere.

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“They were uploading such masterpieces, which are no longer in the world, as if they were rubbish,” said Alina Dotsenko, the museum’s longtime director, who recently returned from exile, recounting what staff and witnesses told her.

When she returned to the museum in early November and realized how much had been stolen, she said, “I almost lost my mind.”

Kherson. Mariupol. Melitopol. Kakhovsky. Museums of art, history and archeology.

As Russia devastated Ukraine with its deadly missile strikes and brutal atrocities against civilians, it also ransacked the country’s cultural institutions of some of the most important and intensely protected contributions of Ukraine and its predecessors for thousands of years.

International art experts say the looting may be the largest mass art theft since the Nazis plundered Europe in World War II.

In Kherson, in southern Ukraine, Ukrainian prosecutors and museum officials say Russians have stolen more than 15,000 pieces of fine art and one-of-a-kind artifacts. They pulled bronze statues from parks, lifted books from a riverside science library, packed the 200-year-old bones of Grigory Potemkin for Grigory Potemkin, Catherine the Great’s lover, and even stole a raccoon from the zoo, leaving a vacant trail behind. Cages, empty pillars, and shattered glass.

Ukrainian officials say Russian forces have stolen or damaged more than 30 museums — including several museums in Kherson, which were recaptured in November, and others in Mariupol and Melitopol, which remain under Russian occupation. As Ukrainian investigators continue to sort through losses in missing oil paintings, antique models, bronze vessels, coins, necklaces, and busts, the number of reported stolen items is likely to grow.

Ukrainian officials and international experts say the looting is not a case of random or opportunistic misconduct by a few badly behaved forces, or even a desire to make a quick profit on the black market. Instead, they believe the thefts are a full-scale attack on Ukrainian pride, culture and identity, consistent with the imperial stance of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has consistently downplayed the idea of ​​Ukraine as a separate country and used that as his main rationale. Invade.

“It’s not like a soldier puts a silver goblet in his bag,” said James Ratcliffe, general counsel at The Art Loss Register, a London-based organization that tracks stolen works of art. “That’s a much larger scale.”

At a museum in Melitopol, a city in southern Ukraine captured by the Russians in the early days of the war, witnesses say a mysterious man in a white lab coat arrived carefully, with gloves and tweezers, to extract the museum’s most valuable items. , including gold coins from the Scythian Empire that were made 2,300 years ago. And while he was removing the priceless relics, a company of Russian soldiers stood firmly behind him, in case anyone would try to stop him.

In each case of looting, witnesses—including caretakers, security guards, and other museum staff, who say they were pressured or coerced into helping—reported a centrally expert-led process.

“Shocked is not the word. If they steal our heritage, they think we will not continue to live and create. But we will,” Oleksandr Tkachenko, Ukraine’s Minister of Culture, said in a radio interview as he toured the looted Kherson Art Museum.

The Ukrainians have a lot of battles on their hands. Towns in the east like Bakhmut are being bombed. Swarms of drones continue to destroy critical infrastructure, plunging thousands into darkness. Huge tracts of land in the south and east are still occupied, and 1 in 3 Ukrainians has had to flee their homes.

But even as war rages on, a group of Ukrainian lawyers and art experts are working day and night to collect evidence for what they hope will be future cultural crime trials. From dimly lit offices in frosty buildings without electricity or heat, and wearing gloves and woolen hats indoors, they make meticulous lists of missing items, scanning museum records and trying to identify potential witnesses and local collaborators who may have helped the Russians steal.

The Ukrainians also work with international art organizations, such as The Art Loss Register, to keep track of looted pieces.

“Everyone in the art market is on high alert looking for this material,” said Ratcliffe. “Every auction house that sees items from Ukraine is going to start asking a lot of questions.”

He said his organization has already registered more than 2,000 objects from Ukraine believed to have been stolen and at risk, including paintings from the Kherson Art Museum and Scythian gold from Melitopol.

The Ukrainians accuse the Russians of breaching international treaties that prohibit the looting of art, such as the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Created in the aftermath of World War II, the treaty calls on signatories to “prohibit, prevent and, if necessary, put an end to any form of theft” of cultural property. Signed by Ukraine and Russia.

But the Russians turned the narrative around and presented their actions not as theft, but as liberation.

“Don’t panic,” said Kirill Strimosov, the Russia-appointed deputy director of Kherson, when explaining in October what had happened to the statues that had disappeared from Kherson. He said that when the fighting stops, the monuments “will definitely return,” and that “everything is done in order to preserve the historical heritage of Kherson.”

The statues have not yet been returned. (And a few weeks later, as Ukrainian forces were liberating Kherson, Strimosov was killed in a suspicious car accident.)

Many paintings were looted from the Kherson Art Museum, including such beloved classics as “Pique on the Bank of the River”. Sunset” by miniaturist Ivan Pokitonov and “Autumn Time” by Heuerhe Kornakov recently appeared in a museum in Crimea on the Black Sea that Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.

Museum director Andre Malguin provided a familiar rationale. “We have 10,000 items and we are doing an inventory,” he told the Spanish newspaper El País. He said his museum was holding the collection “to protect it.”

This is not the first time that Russia has interfered with Ukrainian art or culture. For hundreds of years during the Russian Empire and then into the 20th century during the Soviet era, Moscow constantly tried to suppress the Ukrainian language and anything that would enhance Ukrainian identity.

After Russia seized Crimea, the international police organization, Interpol, said it was searching for 52 paintings by Ukrainian artists that were illegally moved to an art museum in Simferopol, Crimea’s second-largest city, in March 2014.

So this time, when war broke out in February, Ukrainian officials scrambled to wrap the outdoor statues in sheaths of sandbags and move the prized works of art to underground vaults. But the Russians were not so easily deterred.

In Melitopol, the Art Museum’s director and caretaker are kidnapped by Russian soldiers, eventually finding Scythian gold hidden in cardboard boxes in the cellar.

In Kherson, after Dotsenko fled to the capital, Kyiv, the Art Museum was taken over by pro-Russian collaborators. Ukrainian officials said that in August, an elegant delegation from Crimean museums arrived to explore the goods.

But they didn’t have much time. Ukrainian forces penetrated from three sides. By October, Russia’s hold on Kherson was disintegrating faster than anyone had expected. In the Art Museum, Russian agents rushed to get everything out as quickly as possible.

“The removal process took place with the participation of museum specialists but with massive violations of the transportation and packaging of the works,” said Vitaliy Tyich, a Ukrainian lawyer who works in a special military unit that documents war crimes against Ukraine’s cultural heritage. “Paintings were hastily taken out of frames, frames were smashed, and cultural objects were also damaged or destroyed.

He said, “Many works will be lost.”

Walking around the museums of Kherson is now depressing. Almost all of the thousands of oil paintings that were stored in the art museum’s basement — and the computer records documenting them — are gone.

“I am the daughter of an officer who raised me to be strong, but I cried for two weeks,” said Dotsenko, who has worked at the Art Museum for 45 years.

She corrected herself, saying, “No, I didn’t cry, I cried. I bit the walls. I bit.”

Across the street, in the Kherson Museum of Local Lore, there is one tattered display case after another. Deep pits have been cut into the ground by soldiers pulling out centuries-old artifacts. Sometimes they didn’t succeed. Denis Sekoza, inspector of cultural objects for the Kherson government, stood in front of the remains of a delicate glass cup from the fifth century, peering at the pieces.

“They broke this trying to steal it,” he said calmly. “And there was only one like him.”

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