Russia steals the cultural heritage of Ukraine

Olga Honcharova, the temporary director, showing empty glass display cases at the Kherson Museum of Local Lore in December.Credit...Dimitar Dilkoff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Russian troops looted thousands of works of art, including avant-garde paintings and Scythian gold. Experts say it is the most significant art theft aimed at stealing Ukraine’s cultural heritage since the Nazis in World War II

As Russia has devastated Ukraine with deadly missile attacks and brutal atrocities against civilians, it has also looted from the nation’s cultural institutions some of the most important and intensely protected contributions of Ukraine and its ancestors stretching back thousands of years.

In Kherson, in southern Ukraine, Ukrainian prosecutors and museum administrators say the Russians stole more than 15,000 pieces of fine art and unique artifacts. They dragged bronze statues from parks, ripped books from a riverside scientific library, packed up the crumbling bones of Grigory Potemkin, Catherine the Great’s 200-year-old lover, and even stole a raccoon from the zoo, leaving behind yes a trail of empty remains. cages, empty pedestals, and broken glass.

Ukrainian officials say Russian forces have looted or damaged more than 30 museums, including several in Kherson, which was retaken in November, and others in Mariupol and Melitopol, which remain under Russian occupation. With Ukrainian investigators still cataloging the losses of missing oil paintings, ancient stelae, bronze vessels, coins, necklaces, and busts, the number of reported stolen items is likely to increase.

The looting is not a case of random or opportunistic misbehavior by a few ill-mannered troops, Ukrainian officials and international experts say, or even a desire for a quick profit on the black market. Instead, they believe the robberies are a widespread attack on Ukrainian pride, culture, and identity, in keeping with the imperial attitude of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who has consistently belittled the idea of ​​Ukraine as a separate and he has used it as a focal point. justification for his invasion.

But even with the war raging, a group of Ukrainian lawyers and art experts work around the clock to collect evidence for what they hope will be future trials for cultural crimes.

This is not the first Russian intervention in Ukrainian art and culture. During the centuries of the Russian Empire and the Soviet era of the 20th century, Moscow always tried to suppress the Ukrainian language and everything that would strengthen the Ukrainian identity.

A shattered display case at the Kherson Regional History Museum that housed a medal and identification of a Nazi soldier, along with the signature of Hitler. Museum administrators say this piece of history was looted by Russian soldiers.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times
Kherson’s riverside scientific library, where the director said Russians had stolen important first-edition books before withdrawing in November.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times
Scratches on the floor presumably left by heavy artifacts being dragged out of the Kherson Regional History Museum by Russian troops.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times
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