Accueil Books, Arts, StageExhibitions & Art History Russians are looting the cultural heritage and museums in Ukraine

Russians are looting the cultural heritage and museums in Ukraine

par Pierre-Alain Lévy

Putin’s objectives for the offensive and war in Ukraine are becoming clearer with time. It is not only an imperialist conquest operation of submerging a country to take it over militarily and to become its master as in the good old days of Stalinism, but to subvert the identity of the coveted territory, Ukraine, to deny its existence, its history and to plunder its cultural and artistic heritage.

This abominable XXth century, with these two monstrosities that were communism with Lenin and Stalin and Nazism with Hitler, have unfortunately accustomed us to see looting, massacres and exactions on the civil populations. Now we thought (a purely literary stylistic “we“) with a candor and a blissful naivety that everything was going well in the best of all possible worlds ( tout va pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possibles cf Voltaire)) since the defeat in time of Nazism in 1945, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 followed by the collapse and disappearance of the USSR two years later in 1991.

Worse still! Thus, to the hierarchs of the Communist Party of the USSR, who were once gathered according to a strictly controlled and changing hierarchy on a podium in the Kremlin facing Red Square, has been replaced since 1999 by a single man, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Thus, a single leader, with no obvious counter-powers and opponents to confront him, holds the fate of an entire country by his decision alone and now threatens the peace of the world

Putin gathering members of his security cabinet a few days before he decided to invade Ukraine
Image Russian Television

Ethnic cleansing strategy

Ethnic cleansing, what a vile and unbearable expression, it corresponds however to a no less monstrous reality that we must note. The television channel France 5 has just broadcast a documentary entitled Moissons sanglantes (Bloody harvest and accessible in replay (click) that we advise you to watch. It is about the famine organized by Stalin in Ukraine in 1933 and which caused millions of deaths in the countryside. Of course, this atrocious history of the past is not remembered, let alone taught in the Russian Federation today. In fact, the opposite is true.

Olécio partenaire de Wukali

The propaganda distilled in all Russian media under Kremlin thumb in hostility to Ukraine has for years brainwash the huge and tragic Russian people. The dead souls have taken on a different face. Hateful nationalism, lies, colossal and astonishing (i.e. frightening) manipulation of Russian opinion have achieved the desired effect. To gather the assent of the motherland Родина-мать around the decisions ( ukases) of Putin. To give the impression that the Nazis in the West and in Ukraine in the first place, threaten Igor and Yelena. One is in the most total absurdity!
Racialism and nationalism, that vile plague used by Hitler on the idea of the Aryan race more than half a century ago, is the same form of thinking that constitutes the ideological substratum of the Kremlin’s strategy even today.

The deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia, the pseudo-sheltering in summer camps, the children and teenagers torn away from their parents and given to Russian families for adoption, some of them moved as far as Eastern Siberia, is the shame of Moscow’s policy, the most infamous opprobrium, and a reminder of barbaric times that we thought had disappeared!

A military operation undoubtedly prepared in detail and for a long time by the Russian secret services and the Ministry of Defense. It is a question of denying the very existence of a country, of erasing it as one would do with a sponge to remove chalk from a slate. Especially when it comes to manipulation of opinion, disinformation, lies, slander and even calls for murder. In this respect, the Russian services since the Tsarist era in 1903, through the Cheka, the Gepeu, the KGB or the GRU of today are masters.

Kherson, Marioupol, Melitopol, museums of art, history and antiquities looted by the Russian army

In the Russian armored cohorts that are rushing to Ukraine, and as always in this kind of operations, looters ready for action. It is a question of recovering the art collections of the Ukrainian museums, in other words of stealing them, to move them and transport them in Russia.

Luckily, a few paintings from the Ukrainian avant-garde 1900-1930 were able to be exfiltrated a few hours before the Russians bombed Kiev’s industrial electricity infrastructure, to leave for Madrid for an exhibition organized by the Thyssen-Bornemisza Foundation, last November.

Today, testimonies are pouring in about the ransacking of Ukrainian museums by the Russian army since the first day and cover the whole period of the Russian occupation of the city of Kherson.

To write this article in WUKALI, we have taken all the necessary information published by the Ukrainian and international press and their credibility cannot be questioned.

The occupiers have stolen tens of thousands of art treasures in Ukraine. This is the largest theft of art since the Second World War and the aim is to deprive Ukraine of its cultural heritage.


One morning in late October, Russian troops blocked off a street in the center of Kherson and surrounded an old building guarded by dozens of soldiers, reports the Ukrainian newspaper ZN UA. Five large trucks arrived. It was a carefully planned, highly organized, military-style assault on the art museum. According to eyewitnesses, over the next four days the Kherson Regional Art Museum was emptied, with Russian troops “bustling like insects,” movers pulling out thousands of paintings, soldiers hastily wrapping them in sheets. These facts were similarly reported in an article (click) in the New York Times.

Paintings of the greatest Ukrainian painters were stolen. Picket on the bank of the river. Sunset 1890 by painter Ivan Pokhitonov, Houses at Sunset by Piotr Sokolov from the collection of Mariia Kornilovska, Paris Landscape by Mykhailo Andrienko-Nechytailo. They reappeared shortly after in the Crimean Museum, under Russian rule since 2014. The director of the museum, Andrei Malgin,explains it this way. “We have 10,000 pieces and we are making an inventory of them,” he told the Spanish newspaper El País. He specified that his museum keeps the collection to protect it, cfd…!

Almost all of the thousands of paintings stored in the basement of the art museum and the computer records that documented them are gone.

Such masterpieces, “were loaded like garbage,” said the director of the museum, Alina Dotsenko who was forced to flee to Kiev. When she returned to the museum in early November and realized how much had been stolen, she said, “I almost lost my mind.

As Russia devastated Ukraine with deadly rocket fire and brutal atrocities against civilians, it also stripped national cultural institutions of some of Ukraine’s most important works.

Shortly before the Ukrainian army took over Kherson, Russian service agents protected by soldiers rushed to the city’s museum to move the works.

The move took place with the participation of experts, but with blatant violations of the transport and packaging of the works,” said Vitaly Titich, a Ukrainian lawyer who was part of the special unit documenting war crimes against Ukraine’s cultural heritage. “Paintings were hastily removed from their frames, the frames were broken, and cultural objects were also damaged or destroyed.”

In Kherson, Ukrainian prosecutors and museum administrators say the Russians stole more than 15,000 unique art objects and artifacts. They removed bronze statues from parks, books from a scientific library on the riverbank, hid the 200-year-old remains of Grigory Potemkin, Great Catherine‘s lover, in boxes. They even stole a raccoon from the zoo, leaving behind an empty cage. French poet Jacques Prévert in his grave must be wiggling!

Olga Honcharova, temporary director, in front of the empty display cases of the Kherson Regional Museum
Photo Dimitar Dilkoff/ AFP-Getty Images

According to Ukrainian authorities, Russian troops looted or damaged more than 30 museums – several in Kherson and others in Mariupol and Melitopol. Ukrainian investigators are still cataloguing the losses: paintings, ancient steles, bronze pots, coins, beads and missing busts.

They took the gold, they took the icon collection. All the weapons were taken away – from ancient times to modern weapons. Trophies, medals – everything was taken away“, – says Elena Eremenko, secretary of the regional museum of local traditions in Kherson. After Kherson was taken by the Russians, the director and part of the staff of the local history museum immediately went over to the side of the invaders. They played a role in propaganda plots, repeating the Kremlin’s stories, and organized exhibitions on the order of the occupiers. Those who did not support the occupiers were fired.

According to Ukrainian officials and international experts, these thefts are far from being the result of chance or the opportunism of a few misbehaving military personnel, or even the desire to make a quick profit on the black market. They see the thefts as a widespread attack on Ukrainian pride, culture and identity, consistent with the imperial stance of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has consistently denigrated the idea of Ukraine as a separate nation.

It’s not like a soldier putting a silver bowl in his backpack,” says James Ratcliffe, chief British adviser to The Art Loss Register, a London-based organization dedicated to finding stolen art leading due diligence provider for the art market, the world’s largest private database of stolen art (click), antiques and collectables as it defines itself.. “This is on a much, much larger scale“. He also said that the organization has already registered more than 2,000 objects from Ukraine that are believed to have been stolen.

In the Melitopol museum from the beginning of the Russian aggression, witnesses said that a mysterious man dressed in a white coat arrived to carefully retrieve, with gloves and tongs, the most valuable pieces of the collection, including Scythian gold coins, dating back to 2,300 years ago. As he retrieved the priceless antiquities, a detachment of Russian soldiers stood firmly behind him in case anyone tried to stop him.

Large gold Scythian pectoral found in southern Ukraine in 1971
Musée de Melitopol
Crédit photo  D. Kolosov/Wikimedia

In an article published in the New York Times, the curator of the local history museum in Melitopol, Leila Ibrahimova, tells that the museum employees had hidden in the cellar and in boxes, priceless gold Scythian silverware. The curator was even questioned for hours without mercy by the Russian soldiers. She managed to reach Kiev. Later she will learn, informed by the housekeeper of the museum, that the Russians helped by the newly appointed Russian director, had succeeded in putting the hand on this treasure mainly composed of gold objects.

During this looting, some pieces were also ransacked, glassware vandalized and destroyed, their shards covering the ground

The Ukrainians accuse the Russians of violating international treaties that prohibit the theft of art objects, such as the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. This treaty, created after World War II, calls on signatories to “prohibit, prevent and, if necessary, stop all forms of theft” of cultural property. Ukraine and Russia have signed it.

For the Ukrainian Minister of Culture and Information, Oleksandr Tkachenko, “The Russians are at war with our identity, which is represented by our cultural heritage. And the fact that they are looting museums is absolutely part of the logic of the war against our values, against our heritage, they are not only looting, but in some places they deliberately destroy museums. In Ivankov [Kiev region], the museum where Maria Primachenko’s paintings were kept was destroyed. And in Skovorodynivka [Kharkov region], the museum was bombed, but the museum employees managed to hide the most valuable objects. That is to say, this is a war against our cultural code and values, and it is precisely the history of looting that is part of this policy.

Memories and fake memories

What scholarly treatises and conferences could not be envisaged on the subject of memory… Memories and memories, significant word games, marmoreal constancy and floating appearance.

Let us consider here on the subject which interests us only the offensive of dissimulation of the truth set up by Moscow since decades to empty the Ukrainian national concept of its identity like a leech absorbing a prey. This is fundamental in the cultural field. This is done through education, language learning, hiding the past history (Holodomor, the Great Famine of 1933) and of course the patrimonial field of arts.

Putin, since we must call him by his name, and the mafia henchmen who surround him, have developed a golden legend made of Stalinist imperialism, of verticality of power as described in Giuliano da Empoli’s admirable book Le Mage du Kremlin (see our review-click in WUKALI ), of a rewriting of history, of a pseudo mysticism supported by the Russian Orthodox Church around obsidional and reactionary values and, on top of it all, of a cultural Russification that reminds of others of sinister memory.

Thus, in the Russian cultural vulgate, the national identities of the former USSR states have been erased for a long time to the sole benefit of Russia. Notwithstanding the fact that some African heads of state have become Moscow supporters, what we are dealing with here is a kind of cultural whitewashing. In other words, the worst kind of colonialism! This is also what the Hans (the Chinese) are doing to their ethnic minorities, as they call them, at the other end of the world in China, confining them to a purely folkloric role!

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