As Russians Steal Ukraines Art, They Attack Its Identity, Too

As Russians Steal Ukraines Art, They Attack Its Identity, Too

Kherson, Ukraine. One morning in late October, Russian soldiers blocked a street in the center of Kherson and surrounded an elegant old building with dozens of soldiers.

There are five big trucks left. As well as rows of military vehicles transporting Russian agents through various gates. It was a carefully planned and well-organized military-style attack on an art museum.

According to eyewitnesses, over the next four days, the Kherson Regional Art Museum was cleared: Russian soldiers “dreamed around like insects”, guards removed thousands of paintings, soldiers hastily wrapped sheets, art historians sorted and packed materials. fly everywhere

“They load masterpieces that are no longer in the world like garbage,” said Alina Dotsenko, director of the museum, who recently returned from exile, referring to the stories of workers and witnesses.

When he returned to the museum in early November and realized just how much had been stolen, he said, "I almost lost my mind."

Kherson. Mariupol Melitopol Kakhovskiy. Museum of Art, History and Antiquities.

As Russia devastated Ukraine with deadly missile strikes and brutal brutality against civilians, the country's cultural institutions have also been stripped of the most important and best-protected contributions of Ukraine and its thousands of years of ancestors.

International art historians say this theft could be the biggest theft of mass art since the Nazis devastated Europe during World War II.

In Kherson, in southern Ukraine, Ukrainian prosecutors and museum administrators say Russia has stolen more than 15,000 unique works of art and artifacts. They pulled bronze statues from gardens, ripped books from coastal science libraries, packed the bones of Catherine the Great's 200-year-old lover Grigory Potemkin, and stole a raccoon from a zoo, leaving an empty trail. . Cages, empty pedestals and broken glass.

Ukrainian officials say Russian troops have looted or damaged more than 30 museums, including some in Kherson, which was retaken in November, and others in Mariupol and Melitopol, which belong to Russia. As Ukrainian investigators continue to file missing oil paintings, ancient inscriptions, bronze vessels, coins, necklaces and figurines, the number of reported stolen items is likely to increase.

According to Ukrainian officials and international experts, the theft was not an accidental or opportunistic mistake by some rogue soldiers and was not due to a desire to quickly cash in on the black market. Instead, they view the robbery as a massive assault on Ukraine's pride, culture and identity, Russian President Vladimir V. Tsentr said. reason for the attack.

"A soldier doesn't carry a silver trophy in his backpack," said James Ratcliffe, general counsel for The Art Loss Register, a London-based organization that tracks stolen art. "It's on a much larger scale."

At a museum in Melitopol, a city in southern Ukraine occupied by Russia at the start of the war, witnesses said a mysterious man in a white lab coat arrived with gloves and tweezers to carefully remove the most valuable item. The collection, which includes the gold items of the Scythian Empire, was created 2300 years ago. As he picked up the priceless antique, a group of Russian soldiers stood firmly behind him in case anyone tried to stop him.

In each case of looting, witnesses, including guards, security guards and other museum workers who claimed to have been pressured or coerced into helping, reported operations being carried out by centrally controlled experts.

“Shocked is not the right word. I'm angry,” Ukrainian Minister of Culture Oleksandr Tkachenko said in a TV interview, visibly upset during a visit to the Kherson Museum of Looted Art. “If they steal our heritage, they think that we will not continue to live and create. But we will."

Ukraine faces many battles. Eastern cities such as Bakhmut were attacked. The drone swarm continues to cripple critical infrastructure, plunging thousands of people into darkness. Huge swathes of the south and east remain occupied, forcing three Ukrainians to leave their homes.

But even as war rages on, a team of Ukrainian lawyers and art historians are working around the clock to collect evidence for what they hope will be future cultural crime trials. From a small office in a frozen building, wearing gloves and woolen hats, they combed through museum records and tried to identify potential witnesses and local accomplices who had helped the Russians carry out the theft. .

Ukraine is also partnering with international art organizations such as the Art Loss Register to track down stolen items.

“Everyone in the art market is ready to take care of this material,” says Ratcliffe. “Any auction house that sees the Ukrainian material will start asking a lot of questions.”

His agency, he said, registered more than 2,000 items stolen from Ukraine and other endangered items, including paintings from the Kherson Art Museum and Scythian gold from Melitopol.

But the Russian people turned the narrative upside down, presenting their act as liberation, not robbery.

“Don’t panic,” said Kirill Stremasov, deputy administrator of Kherson in Russia, explaining what happened to the statues that disappeared from Kherson in October. He said that as soon as the war stops, the monument "will definitely return" and that "everything is being done to preserve the historical heritage of the city of Kherson."

The idols were not returned. (And a few weeks later, when Ukrainian forces liberated Kherson, Stremousov died in a suspicious car accident.)

Many paintings were stolen from the Kherson Art Museum, including “Piqué on the river bank. "Sunset" by miniaturist Ivan Pokhitonov and "Autumn Time" by Georgy Kurnakov were recently exhibited at a museum in Crimea, on the Black Sea peninsula that Russia recaptured from Ukraine in 2014.

Museum director Andrey Malgin offered a well-known excuse. “We have 10,000 pieces and we are inventorying them,” he told Spanish newspaper El Pais. He said that his museum kept the collection for its own "protection".

(Russian soldiers also show off a four-legged victim they "liberated" from the Kherson zoo. In a widely shared video, the paratroopers announced that the stolen raccoon was now their pet, traveling with them to the front, and they named it Kherson, creating a popular Ukrainian internet. -meme: Save ordinary raccoons).

This is not the first Russian intervention in Ukrainian art or culture. Russian Empire and the XX century. During the Soviet era of the 20th century, Moscow constantly tried to suppress everything that could strengthen the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian identity.

Following Russia's annexation of Crimea, the international police agency Interpol said it was looking for 52 paintings by Ukrainian artists that were smuggled into an art museum in Simferopol (Crimea's second largest city) in March 2014.

So this time, when war broke out in February, the Ukrainian authorities quickly packed the outdoor statues in sandbag boxes and moved the precious artworks to an underground vault. But Russia is not so easily contained.

In Melitopol, Russian soldiers kidnap the director of an art museum and caretaker, eventually discovering Scythian gold hidden in cardboard boxes in the basement.

In Kherson, after Ms. Dotsenko fled to Kyiv, the pro-Russian allies seized an art museum. In August, Ukrainian officials said a well-equipped delegation of Crimean museums had arrived to inspect the site.

But they don't have much time. Ukrainian troops entered from three sides. In October, Russian control over Kherson was eroding faster than might have been expected. Russian agents are going to the art museum to remove everything as soon as possible.

“The export was carried out with the participation of museum specialists, but with serious violations during the transportation and packaging of the work,” said Ukrainian lawyer Vitaliy Tytych, who was part of a special military unit that documented war crimes against Ukrainian culture. Heritage "The paintings were immediately removed from their frames, their frames were damaged, and cultural objects were also vandalized or destroyed."

“Many jobs will be lost,” he lamented.

Walking around Kherson museums is now dreary. Nearly all of the thousands of oil paintings stored in the basement of the art museum and the computer records documenting them have gone missing.

“I was the daughter of an officer who raised me strong, but I cried for two weeks,” said the lady. Dotsenko, who worked in the art museum for 45 years.

No, she corrected herself, I didn't cry, I cried. I bit the wall. I bit him."

Across the road, in the Kherson Museum of Local Flowers, one display after another was broken. Age-old artifacts carried by soldiers left deep holes in the ground. Sometimes not. Denis Sikoza, inspector of cultural objects of the Kherson government, stands in front of the remains of a beautiful 5th-century goblet and examines the fragments.

“They broke it trying to steal it,” he said calmly. "And there is only one."

Russian soldiers stole valuable Ukrainian art during the occupation of Kherson

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