KHERSON, Ukraine — One day in late October, Russian forces blocked off a street in downtown Kherson and surrounded a charming old building with dozens of soldiers.
Five large trucks pulled up. So did a row of military vehicles, carrying Russian agents through multiple gates. It was a carefully planned, highly organized military-style attack – aimed at an art museum.
Over the next four days, the Kherson Regional Art Museum was emptied, witnesses say, with Russian forces “busting like insects,” porters moving thousands of paintings out, the Soldiers hurriedly wrapped them in sheets, art experts ordered and packed materials flying everywhere.
The museum’s longtime director, Alina Dotsenko, who recently returned from exile, recounts what staff and witnesses told her: “They are piling up masterpieces that no longer exist in the world, as if they were trash.
When she returned to the museum in early November and learned the money had been stolen, she said: “I almost lost my mind.”
Kherson. Mariupol. Melitopol. Kakhovsky. Museum of art, history and antiquities.
As Russia ravaged Ukraine with deadly missile attacks and brutal atrocities against civilians, it has also looted the nation’s cultural institutions for some of its most important and protected contributions. the strict protection of Ukraine and its ancestors for thousands of years.
International art experts say the looting could be the biggest mass art theft since the Nazis looted Europe during World War II.
In Kherson, southern Ukraine, Ukrainian prosecutors and museum managers say the Russians have stolen more than 15,000 unique works of art and artifacts. They pull bronze statues from the park, pick up books from the riverside science library, box the wreckage, The 200-year-old bones of Grigory PotemkinCatherine the Great’s lover, and even stole a panda from the zoo, leaving traces of empty cages, empty pedestals, and broken glass.
Ukrainian officials say that Russian forces have robbed or damaged more than 30 museums – including some in Kherson, which were recaptured in November, and others in Mariupol and Melitopol, still located under Russian occupation. With Ukrainian investigators still listing the loss of oil paintings, antique steles, bronze vessels, coins, necklaces and busts, the number of stolen items reported may increase.
The looting is hardly random or opportunistic misconduct on the part of some militaries, or even a desire to make a quick profit, Ukrainian officials and international experts say. on the black market. Instead, they believe the thefts are an all-out attack on Ukrainian pride, culture and identity, in keeping with the imperialist attitude of the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, who has persistent disregard for the idea of Ukraine as a separate country and used it as a central rationale for his invasion.
James Ratcliffe, general counsel of Register lost art, a London-based organization that specializes in tracing stolen works of art. This is a much larger scale.
At a museum in Melitopol, a southern Ukrainian city that the Russians captured in the first days of the war, eyewitnesses say a mysterious man in a white lab coat came to carefully retrieve, with gloves and tweezers, the most valuable objects from the collection, including pieces of gold from the Scythian empire crafted 2,300 years ago. As he lifted the priceless artifacts, a squad of Russian soldiers stood firmly behind him, in case anyone tried to stop him.
In each case of looting, witnesses — including custodians, security guards, and other museum employees who said they were pressured or forced to help — reported a Expert-directed activities are centrally controlled.
“Shock is not a word. I am very angry,” said Oleksandr Tkachenko, Ukraine’s culture minister in a broadcast interview when he toured the looted Kherson art museum, obviously very sad. “If they steal our heritage, they believe that we will not be able to continue to live and create. But we will.”
The Ukrainians have a lot of battles at hand. Towns in the east like Bakhmut are being pummeled. swarm of drones continues to destroy critical infrastructure, sending thousands of people into the dark. Vast swaths of territory in the south and east remain occupied, and one in three Ukrainians is forced to leave their homeland.
But even as war rages, a team of Ukrainian lawyers and art experts are working day and night to gather evidence for what they hope will prosecute cultural crimes in the future. From dimly lit offices in cold buildings with no electricity or heat, to wearing gloves and woolen hats indoors, they make meticulous lists of lost objects, scour museum records and trying to identify potential witnesses and local collaborators who may have helped the Russians steal.
Ukrainians are also working with international art organizations, such as The Art Loss Register, to track stolen works.
“Everybody in the art market is on red alert looking for this material,” Mr. Ratcliffe said. “Every auction house that sees documents from Ukraine will start asking a lot of questions.”
He said his organization has registered more than 2,000 items from Ukraine that are believed to have been stolen and others at risk of being stolen, including paintings from the Kherson art museum and Scythian gold from Melitopol.
But the Russians turned the story upside down and presented their actions not as theft but as liberation.
“Don’t panic,” said Kirill Stremousov, Russia-appointed deputy administrator for Kherson, as he explained in October what 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 being done in the interest of preserving Kherson’s historic heritage.”
The statues have yet to be returned. (And a few weeks later, just as the Ukrainian army was liberating Kherson, Mr. Stremousov was killed in a suspicious car crash).
Many paintings were looted from the Kherson art museum, including beloved classics like “Piquet on the Bank of the River. Sunset,” by miniaturist Ivan Pokhytonov, and “Autumn Time” by Heorhii Kurnakov, recently appeared at a museum in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia plundered from Ukraine in 2014.
The museum’s director, Andrei Malguin, offers a familiar excuse. “We have 10,000 and we are inventorying them,” he told a Spanish newspaper, El Pais. He said his museum is keeping the collection for “protection”.
(The Russian soldiers similarly displayed the four-legged booty they “liberated” from Kherson Zoo. The video went viral in Russia, the paratroopers announced that the stolen raccoon became their mascot and is now named Kherson. Social media in Ukraine exploded and a popular meme started going viral on the internet: Save your own panda).
This is not the first time Russia has interfered with Ukrainian art or culture. For hundreds of years under the Russian empire and then into the 20th century under the Soviet Union, Moscow repeatedly tried to suppress the Ukrainian language and anything that might reinforce Ukrainian identity.
After Russia occupied Crimea, Interpol, the international police organization, says it is searching for 52 paintings by Ukrainian artists was illegally transferred 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 quickly wrapped the outdoor statues in sandbags and moved the precious artworks into underground vaults. But the Russians are not so easily deterred.
In Melitopol, Russian soldiers kidnapped the art museum director and a custodian and eventually found Scythian gold hidden in cardboard boxes in the basement.
In Kherson, after Mrs. Dotsenko fled to Kyiv, pro-Russian collaborators took over the art museum. In August, a well-dressed delegation from museums in Crimea arrived to search for goods, Ukrainian officials said.
But they don’t have much time. Ukrainian forces attack from three sides. By October, Russia’s control of Kherson was moving faster than anyone expected. At the art museum, Russian agents rush to clean up everything as quickly as possible.
Vitalii Tytych, a Ukrainian lawyer in the special military unit that records war crimes against Ukraine’s cultural heritage, said: “The removal took place with the participation of security experts. but a serious violation of the transportation and packaging of the works. “Pictures were taken out of frames in a hurry, frames were broken, cultural objects were also damaged or destroyed.”
“Many works,” he lamented, “will be lost.”
Visiting Kherson’s museum is boring now. Almost all of the thousands of oil paintings that had been stored in the basement of the art museum – and the computer records of them – have disappeared.
“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.
“No,” she corrected herself, “I am not crying, I am sobbing. I bite the wall. I gnawed.
Across the street, at the Kherson Museum of Local Tradition, one crumbling display case after another. Deep cuts in the floor were made by soldiers pulling out centuries-old artefacts. Sometimes they were unsuccessful. Denys Sykoza, an inspector of cultural objects for the Kherson government, stands in front of the remains of an exquisite fifth-century glass cup, staring at the shards.
“They broke this to steal it,” he said quietly. “And there’s only one like that.”