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Ukraine in search of looted art following Russian invasion

Igor Burdyga
March 21, 2024

Many Ukrainian museums have been looted since Russia's invasion in February 2022. Kyiv is now trying to locate art and valuables and speaks of a "network" behind the looting.

A man walking in a hall where empty artwork frames are piled against the wall.
The devastation in Kherson is still being felt by museums after the looting of works amid Russia's invasionImage: Wojciech Grzedzinski/Anadolu/picture alliance

As a result of the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the summer of 2022, the Russian army was forced to withdraw from the area around Kherson. On November 11, the city was liberated by the Ukrainian army.

One of the many consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the months of turbulence in the Kherson region has been the devastation of the cultural sector.

For example, at the beginning of November 2022, entire collections were removed from the Kherson Art Museum, the Kherson Regional Museum and the Kherson Region National Archives. Tombstones of Russian Tsarist commanders and even the remains of Russian Field Marshal Grigory Potemkin, a confidant of Tsarina Catherine II (Empress Catherine the Great), were looted.

The extent of the looting

If you compare the lists of museum exhibits with what is left, almost 11,000 works of art are missing from the Kherson Art Museum. That is more than three quarters of the collection.

The museum's director, Alina Dotsenko, mourns the loss of all those works, including three seascapes by the Romantic painter of Armenian descent, Ivan Aivasovsky, the "Portrait of a Lady with a Dog" by the 17th-century English painter Peter Lely and different paintings from the Soviet era, which Dotsenko herself collected for the museum in the 1970s.

The Russian occupying forces took the stolen works to the Central Museum of Tavrida, which is located in Simferopol on the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. The peninsula has been annexed by Russia since 2014.

Olexander Tkachenko, Minister of Culture of Ukraine meeting with Alina Dotsenko, Kherson Museum of arts director 9 days after city liberation.
Olexander Tkachenko, Minister of Culture of Ukraine, meeting with Alina Dostenko, Kherson Museum of Arts Director, nine days after the city's liberationImage: Igor Burdyga/DW

"Concerned people sent us video footage from there showing our paintings being unloaded. We recognized them," says museum director Alina Dotsenko. Since then, her staff have been combing through photos from social networks and footage from Russian television.

So far, however, they have only been able to locate 94 works of art using inventory numbers and image fragments. They do not know where the rest are or what condition they are in.

The most precious and valuable

The Kherson Regional Museum director, Olga Goncharova, laments the loss of the most valuable collection items. The Russians took ancient Greek amphorae, gold ornaments from steppe nomads, medieval weapons and Orthodox icons to the left bank of the Dnipro River, an area still occupied by Russia.

Goncharova says that since the occupying forces withdrew, the museum has also lacked important lists of exhibits and documents proving their historical value. She can therefore only roughly estimate the number of looted objects at around 23,000.

Ukraine Kherson Museum
Olene Eremenko, the secretary of Kherson Museum of local history, showing empty exhibition shelves after the looting of the museum's collection by Russian authoritiesImage: Igor Burdyga/DW

Some of the exhibits ended up in the Russian-occupied city of Henichesk in southern Ukraine. Museum employees who collaborated with the Russian occupiers also retreated there. Some of the exhibits were taken to the Chersonese Taurian museum in Sevastopol.

There is even less information about the fate of museum collections in the Ukrainian territories still occupied by Russia. According to museum employees and Russian media reports, the administrations appointed by the occupying forces "evacuated" the collections of museums and galleries in the city of Nova Kakhovka in November 2022. Where to is unknown. The only thing that is clear is that at least one Paleolithic collection is located in Sevastopol.

In Russian-occupied Mariupol in the Donetsk region, all museums were destroyed during the siege. As Russian media reported in April 2022, the director of the local history museum, Natalia Kapustnikova, only managed to save a dozen works of art. These included three paintings by Mariupol-born painter Arkhip Kuindzhi who is known for his landscape paintings. She was also able to rescue a painting by Ivan Aivazovsky. However, Kapustnikova handed the paintings over to the Russians, who took them to the local museum in Russian-occupied Donetsk.

A woman walks by the Mariupol local history museum.
A woman walks by the Mariupol local history museumImage: Peter Kovalev/dpa/TASS/picture alliance

Investigations by Ukrainian authorities

Since the beginning of Russia's extensive invasion, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) has been investigating the removal of museum collections. It is suspected of "violations of the laws and customs of war" as part of a "suspected genocide of the Ukrainian people." 

SBU investigator Yevhen Rusinov says that there is a "network" for the theft of museum exhibits, about which not everything is yet known. "But we know that both high-ranking Russian state representatives and military personnel are involved."

During the Russian invasion, more than 40 museums in the occupied territories were looted, says Ukraine's first deputy prosecutor general, Oleksiy Khomenko. The loss has not yet been fully quantified. "It could take years," he says.

By the end of the year, the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Information Policy intends to create a register in which all available information on collections located in the occupied territories will be entered. This should later help to find art and valuables. However, this will probably only be possible after the end of the war.

This article was originally written in Ukrainian.