Photo: Eugene [Unsplash]

On Russian black markets, Ukraine’s heritage sold to the highest bidder

The video showed stacks of shelves piled high with canvasses and paintings. Some sat in golden, ornate frames; others were bare, the markings still visible from the moment they had been torn from the walls of their original museum. The collection of 100 paintings broadcast in a video on Russian state television was perhaps the most blatant demonstration by Russia of what has been described as the single largest theft of artwork since the Second World War.

In a post on Facebook, the Kherson Art Museum described this collection as amounting to “less than 1%” of what had been stolen by the Russian forces since the beginning of their invasion of Ukraine two years ago. In the city of Kherson alone, liberated by Ukrainian forces in November 2022, Russian troops allegedly made off with over 15,000 works of art. Stolen exhibits include countless paintings, by masterful artists such as Arkhip Kuindzhi and Ivan Aivazovsky, statues, historic artefacts, and even the bones of Prince Potemkin, the lover of Russia’s Catherine the Great.

The stripping of every aspect of Ukrainian culture that Russia can get its hands on has been a systematic process – what they have not been able to take, they have instead destroyed.

At the time of writing, UNESCO has verified damage to 351 cultural sites in Ukraine, including over 120 churches, 31 museums, and 19 monuments. Damage dealt to cities by artillery has, besides destroying lives and families, also accounted for a tragic loss in historic architecture. The destruction of the Kakhovka Dam during Ukraine’s 2023 counteroffensive saw the loss of the house of the celebrated artist Polina Rayko, amongst severe ecological damage.  The extent of the damage to Ukraine’s cultural and artistic institutions has prompted the country’s Minister for Culture to label the assault a “cultural genocide”.

To compound the injury, evidence has increasingly emerged that, having looted Ukraine’s national identity, Russian authorities have now begun to sell it. ‘Moonlit Night’, a painting by Ivan Avaizovsky, which was allegedly stolen from Mariupol, was sold at the Moscow Auction House for a staggering cost of one million dollars in February this year. Other pieces of looted artwork have been spotted for sale online, having been shipped as far afield as Spain, Austria, and the United Kingdom. Even in September 2022, American customs officers seized ten looted Ukrainian artifacts being smuggled into the country, which were subsequently returned to Ukraine.

One of many tragedies of the war is that culture has become a casualty at the hands of both sides

The story that emerged in December 2022 seeing police narrowly foiling an attempt to steal a Banksy mural in Kyiv may have appeared to be ripped straight out of a spy thriller – an unlikely plot by Russian agents to nab a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. But it was established soon enough that the eight people arrested in the act had all been Ukrainian citizens local to the area. An individual involved later claimed that their intention had been to auction off the mural to raise money for the Ukrainian army.

Russian motivation for the systematic looting of Ukrainian culture is their intent to fundamentally undermine Ukraine’s heritage, which Russian leader Vladimir Putin refuses to recognise. Theft of culture is an aspect of warfare almost as old as conflict itself: the Ancient Romans would hold parades of captured art upon the conclusion of their conquests, known as triumphs.

The British Museum is arguably one of the most famous collections of stolen artwork in the world, boasting the Elgin Marbles of Greece and the Benin Bronzes amongst its exhibits. Some of the British Museum’s items, notably the Rosetta Stone, were taken from the French, who had looted them during the conquests of Napoleon. Napoleon, who sought to create a Museum of Europe to house all the world’s finest art, once remarked that: “We will now have all that is beautiful in Italy, except for a few objects in Turin and Naples.” The modern-day Louvre owes much to his efforts.

But it was the Nazis who first truly utilised the theft of art as a means of cultural annihilation, especially in their campaign of extermination against the Jewish people. Some 600,000 pieces of art were taken, with much of it destroyed, in the attempt to erase Jewish culture. In total, as much as 20% of Europe’s art was looted by the German army, aiming to create a central museum similar to  Napoleon to boast the supremacy of the German regime. When it promptly collapsed instead, the Nazis started slashing this art in underground salt mines. Tales of vast, hidden stashes of cultural artefacts, buried deep beneath the Alps, continue to capture the public imagination today.

Another cornerstone of Hitler’s intended cultural wipe-out saw German forces lay waste to countless Russian monuments of architecture, including the Catherine and Peterhof Palaces, and the bell-tower of the Joseph Volokolamsk Monastery.

It is a cruel twist in history that Russian forces now do much the same damage to Ukraine’s cultural heritage.

Nevertheless, in the face of such an onslaught, Ukraine’s artists and academics have refused to give in. In the months following the war, as the scale of Russian looting became apparent, Ukrainian museum workers partnered with the International Council of Museums to draw up an Emergency Red List of Cultural Heritage at Risk, highlighting Ukrainian artefacts and artworks that were in danger of being looted. Although the list does not include what has already been taken by the invaders, it is hoped that future customs forces across the globe will be able to spot stolen art when it is being smuggled abroad.

Grassroots actions have kept an invaluable record of the stolen culture in the hopes that this lost artwork can be reclaimed. For instance, Alina Dotsenko, Director of the Kherson Art Museum, smuggled the museum’s entire digital archive on her body when she left the occupied territory for Odesa. Another employee, an elderly woman named Galina Aksyutina, was even more daring when she smuggled an 1840 first-edition collection of Ukrainian poetry out of the museum, even when it was under guard by Russian soldiers.

Anecdotes like these convey the determination of the Ukrainian people that has allowed them to fight on against the odds for over two years now, and that drives them to keep their artistic heritage and identity alive.

Sam Hardy, a cultural property criminologist, voiced his feelings in an interview to The Art Newspaper. Having worked with Ukrainian law enforcement before the war to train them in spotting stolen artefacts, he said that: “Cultural heritage activists [in Ukraine] have tried very hard, far harder than peers in other countries, to secure their country’s heritage. They have committed to fight looting with a forensic focus I haven’t found in any other country.”



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