Among the various crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine, in addition to the destruction of civilian infrastructure with missiles and rockets, bombings, and of course the violence and torture of civilians, there is also the extensive and systematic looting of some of the most important, prestigious and ancient cultural institutions of the country, and the theft of thousands of works of art. According to several experts, Russia is stealing works of art in quantities comparable to those stolen by the Nazis during World War II.
During these months of war, Russia raided the museums of several eastern cities, including Kherson, Mariupol, Melitopol and Kakhovka. One of the biggest thefts was the one carried out last October at the Kherson Regional Art Museum. The Russians surrounded the museum, entered en masse, detached the paintings from the walls and stole objects from the display cases, to then hastily pack them in large sheets of cardboard and take them away. Alina Dotsenko, the director of the museum who had fled the country at the time, told the New York Times some eyewitness accounts, according to which Russian soldiers loaded and piled up paintings and works on their vehicles “as if it were garbage”.
Today in the Kherson museum many display cases are completely empty. According to the Ukrainian prosecutors who are dealing with the stolen works are about 15 thousand. Also in Kherson, the Russians then took away bronze statues from the parks, stole books from an ancient scientific library and even stole the remains of the bones of Grigory Potemkin, the Russian leader considered the founder of both Kherson and Odessa.
Another rather extensive raid of works of art was carried out in Melitopol, a city in southern Ukraine and one of the first conquered by the Russians (Kherson was liberated, Melitopol is still under their control). Eyewitnesses said that in that case the Russians had presented themselves in a local museum together with a man dressed in a white coat and gloves, who with the protection of the soldiers had delicately stolen all the most precious objects in the collection, including jewels of gold made over 2 thousand years ago.
Overall, Ukrainian government officials say Russia looted and robbed more than 30 Ukrainian museums. The cataloging of the stolen works is still ongoing and includes oil paintings, ancient steles, vases, coins, jewellery, statues and busts: it is also believed that the estimates made so far of the stolen works are destined to grow.
The thefts of works of art carried out by the Russians in Ukraine are not only aimed at taking possession of valuable works. There is a deeper level, more serious according to some art historians, and above all more consistent with the motivations and obsessions on the basis of which Russian President Vladimir Putin started this war: that is, the will to deprive the Ukrainian people of own culture and national identity, to assimilate them to the Russian ones and demonstrate that Ukraine should not be considered an autonomous nation, as Putin has been claiming for some time based on the false and distorted readings of history that feed his propaganda and his nationalism.
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In recent months the Ukrainians have done everything to try to defend their artistic and cultural heritage. Some of the images that circulated the most especially at the beginning of the war were the statues covered with sandbags in the squares of many Ukrainian cities: an attempt to protect them from Russian bombing and to save precisely the symbols of that national identity from the consequences of the war which the Russian government aims to annihilate.
Above all, the Ukrainians are gearing up to be able to indict and ideally try, one day, the Russian government for the looting and thefts committed in Ukrainian museums and public places.
Ukrainian prosecutors are compiling detailed lists and inventories of all the stolen objects, relying on museum records and trying to track down potential eyewitnesses or collaborators of the Russians. Often they do all this in the cold, with jackets and scarves in offices without light and heat and because of Russia’s so-called “energy terrorism”, ie the systematic and targeted bombing of electrical and energy infrastructures that the Russian army has been carrying out for months.
The Ukrainian investigations are also based on the fact that in certain cases the theft of wartime artworks can be considered a violation of international law. In particular of the Convention for the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict, also simply called the Hague Convention of 1954, of which both Russia and Ukraine are signatories.
The Convention was drawn up after the Second World War and provides for the protection of a vast range of cultural assets, such as architectural, artistic or historical monuments, archaeological sites, works of art, manuscripts, books and a series of other objects of artistic, historical or archaeological interest, but also scientific collections of any kind, regardless of their origin or ownership.
To identify and trace all the works stolen by the Russians, the Ukrainian government has also started collaborations with international organizations dealing with cultural heritage, such as the Art Loss Register, the largest database of stolen works in the world. One of the goals of the Ukrainian government would be to find at least some of the works, for example in some auctions. James Ratcliffe, one of the executives of the Art Loss Register, told the New York Times that more than 2,000 Ukrainian works have already been registered in the database, including many of those stolen in the looting of museums in Kherson and Melitopol.
The Russian government, for its part, is defending its actions by presenting them not as theft but as a “liberation” of works that it claims it wants to return once the so-called “special military operation” is over, the name by which Putin calls war invasion that started in Ukraine now almost a year ago.
Last October, when Kherson was still under Russian control (the Ukrainians managed to liberate it in November), Kirill Stremousov, appointed by the Russians as local administrator, said that once the fighting was over, the statues would be returned to their place and the Russian army had taken them away to protect the historical and cultural heritage of the area. As expected, to date none of the statues stolen from the city have been returned. At least two paintings have instead appeared, always writes the New York Times, in a museum in the Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia invaded and annexed in 2014, in that case by means of an illegal referendum and considered illegitimate by the international community.