Russians’ looting of museums in Ukraine may be biggest art heist since World War II, writes NYT

16 January, 01:13 PM
Kherson Art Museum after shelling by the Russians in November 2022 (Photo:Yuriy Sobolevskyi/Telegram)

Kherson Art Museum after shelling by the Russians in November 2022 (Photo:Yuriy Sobolevskyi/Telegram)

Russian forces have looted tens of thousands of pieces of art with the intent to strip Ukraine of its cultural heritage, with experts claiming it may amount to the biggest art heist since those by the Nazis in World War II, the US newspaper The New York Times reported on Jan. 14.

Eyewitnesses told journalists about a carefully planned, highly organized, military-style assault on an art museum in the city of Kherson.

According to them, one morning in late October, Russian forces blocked off a street in downtown Kherson and surrounded the graceful old building with dozens of soldiers.

Video of day

Five large trucks pulled up. Over the next four days, the Kherson Regional Art Museum was cleaned out, witnesses said, with Russian forces “bustling about like insects,” porters wheeling out thousands of paintings, soldiers hastily wrapping them in sheets, art experts barking out orders, and packing material flying everywhere.

“They were loading these masterpieces of which there are no more in the world, as if they were garbage,” said the museum’s long-time director, Alina Dotsenko, who recently returned from exile, recounting what employees and witnesses had told her.

As reported by NYT, Ukrainian prosecutors and museum administrators say the Russians have stolen more than 15,000 pieces of fine art and one-of-a-kind artifacts in Kherson.

“They dragged bronze statues from parks, lifted books from a scientific library by the river, boxed up the crumbling, 200-year-old bones of Grigory Potemkin, Catherine the Great’s lover, and even stole a raccoon from the zoo, leaving behind a trail of vacant cages, empty pedestals, and smashed glass,” the report reads.

Ukrainian officials say that Russian forces have robbed or damaged more than 30 museums. They include several in Kherson, which was liberated in November, and others in Mariupol and Melitopol, which remain under Russian occupation. With Ukrainian investigators still cataloguing the losses of missing oil paintings, ancient steles, bronze pots, coins, necklaces, and busts, the number of reported stolen items is likely to grow.

The newspaper cites Ukrainian officials and international experts saying that the plundering is clearly not random or opportunistic misbehavior by a few ill-behaved troops, or even a desire to steal things to sell on the black market.

“Instead, they believe the thefts are a broadside attack on Ukrainian pride, culture and identity, consistent with the imperial attitude of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, who has constantly belittled the idea of Ukraine as a separate nation and used that as a central rationale for his invasion,” the report says.

The Ministry of Culture and Information Policy stated that 1,189 cultural infrastructure objects, including 63 museums and galleries, have been damaged in Ukraine due to Russian aggression as of Dec. 25, 2022.

Because of this, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called several times for Russia to be excluded from UNESCO, the UN organization responsible for cultural heritage.

Minister of Culture and Information Policy Oleksandr Tkachenko said in October that the invaders had looted almost 40 Ukrainian museums. The economic losses from the thefts are estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

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