Russia accused of pillaging Ukrainian museums and cultural icons as its troops flee Kherson

russia accused of pillaging ukrainian museums and cultural icons as its troops flee kherson

When seven religious icons that had been kept at Enerhodar’s orthodox church for 200 years disappeared in recent days, it was merely the latest example of cultural looting by the Russian occupiers.

Some 140 miles further south, the curators in charge of the Oleksi Shovkunenko Art Museum in Kherson reported how workers sent by the city’s Kremlin-appointed administration spent four days systematically emptying the gallery just days before Russia announced its withdrawal this week.

Witnesses described how hundreds of works, including paintings by leading 18th and 19th century Ukrainian and Russian artists, were unceremoniously loaded onto unmarked trucks and a school bus for transportation to a museum in Russian-controlled Crimea.

Lydia, a 75-year-old Kherson resident, told the Russian independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper how precious works had been placed in vehicles without packaging or protection. She said: “The occupiers treat stolen washing machines more carefully than they treat the heritage of world art.”

According to reports, rare items and antiquities taken from Ukraine have already begun to turn up for sale on the black market in Moscow.

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The Ukrainian authorities and international bodies have warned of an acceleration in Russian appropriation of Ukraine’s cultural treasures following Vladimir Putin’s decree in September annexing the Kherson and neighouring Zaporizhzhia regions to Moscow. The small print of the edict contained a provision allowing Russia to “evacuate” items of cultural significance.

The Ukrainian management of the Kherson art museum said: “The museum was plundered by the Russian occupiers. In their language it is called ‘evacuation’; in our opinion, it is looting.

“They took out works of art and office equipment – everything that they saw, everything that their grabbing hands reached.

“We are not even talking about a delicate attitude towards old rarities. The paintings were not packed in a special way for transportation but wrapped in some kind of rag.”

The seven icons looted from the main church in Enerhodar, home to Europe’s largest nuclear power complex, date back to the late 18th century.

They were sent by Kremlin proxy officials to a museum in the occupied city of Melitopol, to the west of Kherson.

In a terse statement, the Centre for National Resistance, a Ukrainian government body monitoring activity in Russian-occupied parts of the country, believes it is probable the artworks have now been transferred out of Ukraine.

“The removal of the icons actually means their subsequent removal to the Russian Federation,” it said.

The Ukrainian government estimates that Russian soldiers have looted or ransacked some 40 museums since the start of the war on 24 February, spiriting away priceless treasures in what it says is a war crime similar to looting by Nazi troops.

In a statement, the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture said: “Mass removal of cultural valuables from the territory of Ukraine by the Russian occupiers will be comparable to the looting of museums during the Second World War and should be qualified accordingly.”

According to Unesco, the United Nations cultural body, some 213 significant sites in Ukraine have been damaged or destroyed since the start of the war, including 16 museums, 77 buildings of historical or artistic importance and ten libraries.

Ukrainian museum staff have gone to extraordinary lengths to try and protect the artefacts in their care. During the early days of the war, curators at the Museum of Historical Treasures in Kyiv took to sleeping in their workplace in the hope that they would be able to save the collection if Russian troops took the capital.

In Melitopol, staff at the Museum of Local History sought to hide hundreds of treasures, including an extraordinary “Hun diadem” or jewelled tiara dating from the era of Attila the Hun, as Kremlin forces entered the city. Despite weeks of searches, the Russians failed to find the artefacts before finally discovering their location in a secret basement of the museum. The whereabouts of Melitopol’s treasures is currently unknown.

Moscow’s thirst for the contents of Ukraine’s cultural and sacred sites has not been restricted to works of art. Late last month, shortly before the emptying of the Kherson art museum, a small group arrived at the city’s St Catherine’s Cathedral and entered a crypt concealed by a white marble gravestone.

Their goal was to secure the mortal remains of Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin, an 18th-century Russian military commander and lover of Catherine the Great who is credited with creating “New Russia”, including the territory of Crimea. It is this putative historical empire which Vladimir Putin claims to be restoring with his invasion.

Kremlin-appointed officials in Kherson confirmed in television interviews broadcast in Russia that the bones of Potemkin had indeed been seized. It is the ninth – and perhaps not the last – time that the restless remains of the Russian hero, who ironically was seeking to recruit a haven for multiple nationalities and cultures in southern Ukraine, have been relocated.

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