Cultural cleansing. How Russia Destroys Museums and Exports Art from Ukraine

  • Anastasia Soroka, Grigor Atanesyan
  • The Air Force

Maria Primachenko's painting

Photo by Maria Prymachenko Foundation

Caption to the photo,

Maria Primachenko’s painting “Nuclear War, Damn It!”, 1978

The Russian war in Ukraine is not only taking the lives of Ukrainians, it is destroying its cultural heritage. The bombs destroy museums, libraries, churches and mosques, universities and theaters.

The Russian military removes paintings by Aivazovsky and Kuindzhi, Scythian gold, and manuscripts from the occupied territories; they also kidnap museum workers.

Museum workers, gallery owners and ordinary civilians told the BBC how they saved classical and modern Ukrainian and Russian art from shelling, and how they saved themselves.

Museum on fire and “Wagner” captivity

The shell flew to the local lore museum in the town of Ivankiv, eighty kilometers north of Kyiv, on February 26. In the first days of the war, columns of the Russian army marched through the settlement towards Borodyanka, Bucha and Gostomel, where fierce fighting took place.

From the first days of the war, Ivankiv came under Russian occupation, and Ukrainian border guards, the military, and the police left. Locals are wondering why the city’s museum of local lore came under fire – it was located on the outskirts of the city, near a residential area, river and park. Nothing else was damaged.

The shell hit the roof of the museum, a fire broke out. The sounds of the explosion were not heard – possibly due to other explosions, recalls 33-year-old local resident Igor Nikolaenko, a fitness instructor.

Author of the photo, From the personal archive of Igor Nikolayenko

Caption to the photo,

Ivanovo Museum of History and Local Lore, which burned down in the first days of the war

Nikolayenko says that together with others he watched from the city park as the Russian military equipment moves through the center of Ivankov. According to his observations, the projectile flew from the Ivankivsky Bridge, where Russian vehicles were traveling. Turning, he saw white smoke over the museum in the depths of the park.

“I run up there and look: seven or eight people are standing there and telling me that this projectile hit the museum and it exploded,” Igor recalls.

Together with the museum’s caretaker Anatoliy Kharitonenko, he rushed to save the exhibits from the fire. They were joined by a young man whom no one knew.

The museum was closed and the guard had no keys. The men decided to break the bars on the windows to get inside. “We were just lucky that the craftsmen, sorry, were handrails. And they just attached the bars to the screws that were screwed into the insulation. We pulled out the metal bars, broke the glass with that lattice, opened the plastic window and climbed inside,” Igor recalls.

Ivankiv is surrounded by forest and many small villages. The district history and local lore museum is the only one in the district. Igor, who was born in Ivankov, went to him almost every year since school.

A few years before the war, the museum was completely restored. His exposition included folk costumes, ceramics and other cultural monuments of Polissya, paintings by local artists, weapons from the Second World War and even a mammoth skeleton.

The most valuable exhibits of the Ivankiv Museum were the paintings of Maria Primachenko, a representative of “folk primitivism”. She is known for her bright and colorful paintings inspired by Ukrainian folklore, where fairy-tale flowers and people with chicken legs live among fairy-tale flowers with human eyes.

Pablo Picasso called Primachenko’s work an “artistic miracle.” Some art critics see it as a reflection of the horrors of the twentieth century – in particular, the Stalinist Holodomor, which killed more than 3 million Ukrainians.

One of the most popular artists in Ukraine, Primachenko was self-taught and lived all her life in the village of Bolotnya – it is shared with the town of Ivankiv by a small river. Her family transferred her work to the Ivankiv Museum.

Primachenko’s paintings were the first to be taken out of the burning museum – twelve paintings were packed in a separate room. The guard’s wife indicated where to find them.

“We first took out these paintings, passed them on to people on the street. Then I look – we still have some time, so we started taking out towels, antique wood products, various military documents of World War II. About twenty minutes it all took out,” – Nikolayenko speaks about exhibits.

Igor laments that many things have not been saved: “This is our cultural heritage and world heritage. That’s why I told the guys: we will do everything we can.”

The fire spread quickly, the room was filled with smoke, and the ceiling was about to fall.

After the fire, only the retaining walls of the museum remained. “It’s a pity we ran out of time. It’s a pity. There were a lot of valuable things there, you can’t restore them,” sighs the fitness trainer.

Ivankiv was under Russian occupation for more than a month – Russian troops left the city on April 1. According to Nikolayenko, among them were mercenaries from Wagner’s PEC, a private military company established after the start of the war in Donbass in 2014.

When asked by the BBC how he realized that the Wagnerians were based in the city, the man hesitated and replied: “Well … I was just in their captivity for two days.”

Nikolayenko was taken prisoner in late February, in the first days of the occupation, while riding a bicycle with a friend to the neighboring village of Kropyvnya, where a friend’s family with a small child was stuck. Russian mercenaries mistaken two men for Ukrainian spies.

“We didn’t have any phones, walkie-talkies or knives with us. We thought he might ride. But he didn’t ride,” says Ihor Nikolaienko.

The men were taken to the village of Rozvazhiv, 17 km from Ivankiv. “They kept us for two days. They shot at our heads, inflicted bodily injuries, and beat us a little,” Ihor said. According to him, the abducted soldiers were represented by Wagner’s fighters. Nikolayenko’s father was able to persuade them to release.

Already in the midst of the war, one of Maria Primachenko’s paintings was included in the main program of the Venice Biennale. In addition, another painting was sold at auction in Venice for 110,000 euros, the BBC was told in the artist’s family fund.

Photo by Daniele Venturelli / Getty Images

Caption to the photo,

Maria Primachenko’s painting sold at auction in Venice for 110,000 euros, the artist’s grandson Anastasia Primachenko told the BBC (pictured right)

It is unknown whether the burned-out Ivankiv Museum will be restored. The Primachenko Foundation plans to invest the money raised at the Venice auction in the construction of its own museum.

Chaos of the first days

Not only provincial museums were taken by surprise by the war. Curators, gallery owners and private collectors told the BBC that their collections were not ready for evacuation. Moreover, they themselves, on a personal level, were not ready for this at all.

“We woke up from the sirens. These horrible sirens – such a sound was heard only in a horror movie. Apparently, some psychologists worked on this sound, it inspires horror,” – recalls the first day of the war, Yana Barinova, head of the Kyiv Department of Culture.

Author of the photo, From the personal archive of Yana Barinova

Caption to the photo,

Yana Barinova headed the capital’s culture department when the war broke out

She remembers taking her daughter, packing two backpacks and being at work until eight in the morning. Not all employees came to the meeting – some considered the government quarter of the capital too dangerous.

Their fears were not in vain, and it was not just about missile strikes. As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his advisers later said, Russian servicemen who landed in Kyiv twice stormed the presidential residence on Bankova Street.

According to Barinova, cultural workers did not have centralized and pre-approved plans to evacuate works of art at the time of the invasion. She recalls how Olesya Ostrovska-Luta, director of the Mystetsky Arsenal art complex in Kyiv, approached her at a reception at the British embassy in early January. At the time, Western intelligence was openly warning of a Russian invasion.

“Are you developing evacuation plans?” – Jan remembers the question of a colleague. According to her, she smiled in response: plans were being developed, but none of the meetings with the leadership of the Ministry of Culture was made a priority. And the export of cultural property is possible only with the permission of the Ministry of Culture.

Photo by Leon Neal / Getty Images

Caption to the photo,

Many museums at the beginning of the war were ready to evacuate their valuables. In the photo – Lviv Potocki Palace, one of the branches of the Lviv National Gallery of Arts. B. Voznytsky

“The first ten days of the war were total chaos,” Barinova recalls. According to her estimates, dozens of theaters and museums, about 75 cultural institutions were subordinated to the department.

She says she asked the museum to make a short list of the most important exhibits, but in return received lists of hundreds of items. It has become clear that many collections are too dangerous to evacuate – they can be damaged on the way, they can be stolen by looters, and if they go abroad, return can be a problem. There was also a lack of security for their transportation.

Next we had to agree on many other things: who will be the host party, how many places there are, what contracts and with whom to conclude.

“Each director made decisions depending on the collection and infrastructure of the museum. Most have basements – paintings were taken, folded in doorways, windows were taped. Many directors heroically spent the first two weeks in museums,” says Barinova.

Photo by Leon Neal / Getty Images

Caption to the photo,

Packed works of art in the Potocki Palace in Lviv. The works were evacuated to a safe place only in late April – early May

Another task was to assess the objects damaged by the shelling. Even getting to them to assess the damage and make a description was sometimes extremely difficult. Barinova recalls how her driver stood in line for four hours to refuel the car.

Ukrainian and American art critic Konstantin Akinsha was one of the first to talk about the need to evacuate museums.

“With a full-scale Russian invasion, virtually all important museum collections will be in jeopardy,” Akinsha warned in a column for the Wall Street Journal a week before the war.

He decided to raise this issue publicly after he learned from talks with his colleagues in Ukraine that the evacuation was not being prepared. One of the reasons was the unwillingness of the authorities to sow panic.

Another reason, he believes, is the unlearned lessons of the past – the destruction and illegal movement of cultural values in the Donbass after 2014.

“It was already possible to understand what all this could lead to, but no one cared about making serious evacuation plans, training, etc.”

As a rare example of good preparation for war, he cites the Odessa Art Museum, which collects masterpieces of Ukrainian and Russian culture: from icons to paintings by Repin, Levitan, Vrubel and Kandinsky.

Artist Alexander Roitburd, who has run the museum in recent years, has gathered sponsors from among local entrepreneurs. These connections were useful – the sponsors provided all the necessary tools and materials. Oleksandra Kovalchuk, who headed the museum after Roytburd’s death, turned to Odessa artists, who helped pack and move the exhibits to safe places for temporary storage.

“No one can ever be 100% ready for such a full-scale war”

The Ministry of Culture of Ukraine is responsible for recording the losses. At the time of writing, the Ministry of Culture had 335 objects on the list, including 29 museums, 27 libraries, 116 churches and cathedrals.

As of 16 May, UNESCO had been able to independently confirm the destruction of 133 of them. In fact, the damage could be much greater.

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The shelling damaged the Kharkiv Art Museum, the Korolenko Kharkiv State Scientific Library, the Lysenko Kharkiv Opera and Ballet Theater, the Chernihiv Regional Art Museum, the Mariupol Museum of Local Lore, the Memorial Museum of the Philosopher Hryhoriy Skovoroda, the Sumy Theological Seminary, the Holy Dormition .

Donetsk, Sumy and Kyiv oblasts, Kharkiv and Chernihiv suffered the most.

The Ministry of Culture of Ukraine told the BBC that “certain steps and gathering information” on the evacuation of works of art were carried out on the eve of the war, 2021 and winter 2022. But, referring to security, refused to specify what preparation was conducted.

Asked about the unpreparedness of many cultural institutions for hostilities, the press service of the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine said that “no one can ever be 100% ready for such a full-scale war.” “The ministry cannot physically relocate the Svyatogorsk Lavra or the National Museum of Hryhoriy Skovoroda, the Odessa Vorontsov Palace or the Lysychansk gymnasium,” the ministry said in a statement.

The decision to evacuate the works of art was made on February 24, together with the imposition of martial law in Ukraine. But local decisions have been hampered by Russian strikes across the country and a rapid offensive by Russian troops in several areas, the BBC’s BBC said.

“A significant number of exhibits were still evacuated; but, unfortunately, some areas were occupied very quickly or came under intense shelling, which made evacuation impossible from the very beginning,” the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine concluded.

The list of destructions includes most churches, primarily Orthodox churches, some of which belong to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, as well as other denominations.

Among the affected churches is a choral synagogue in Kharkiv, built in 1913. This is the largest synagogue in Ukraine. In the early days of the war, it became a refuge for the local Jewish community. In March, a blast struck the synagogue’s windows, the Jerusalem Post reported.

A few days later, in Kharkiv, a Russian shell struck the roof of a yeshiva , a religious school of the Jewish community. According to the rabbi, he did not break up and no one was injured.

“Keys are all I have left of the museum”

The head of the Mariupol Arkhip Kuindzhi Art Museum, Tatiana Buli, has learned that paintings from her museum’s collection have been removed and taken to the self-proclaimed “DPR” via Viber.

In late March, the Kuindzhi Museum was destroyed by an air strike, according to media reports. But Tatiana Buli could no longer verify this in person – after the bombing of the city began, neither she nor other museum staff could reach their jobs.

She left Mariupol on March 15, after “three weeks of bombing, blockade, famine, and lack of water.” The head of the museum had two bags with things and a backpack with documents.

“When the cold and the blockade began, the famine and the bombing were endless, my health was very bad, I almost never left the apartment,” Buli recalls. According to her, one of the shells hit their house, and six of its residents died. And the neighboring neighborhood was completely destroyed – in its place are charred ruins.

Friends helped her move to Uman, and from there to her son near Kyiv. Since then, Buly has been trying to find out the fate of the museum she has run for the past twelve years.

Kuindzhi Museum, a branch of the Mariupol Museum of Local Lore, opened in 2010 in a restored two-story building of the early twentieth century in the Art Nouveau style. On the ground floor there is a permanent exhibition of paintings and exhibits related to the Mariupol period of Kuindzhi’s life – the Greek Gospel of 1811, icons of the XIX century, antique furniture. The second floor was intended for temporary exhibitions.

The museum’s collection includes works not only by Kuindzhi himself – one of the most famous natives of Mariupol – but also by his teacher Ivan Aivazovsky, Russian landscape painters Dubovsky and Kalmykov, Ukrainian artists of the sixties Ivan Marchuk and Tatiana Yablonskaya. Some of the works were stored in the smallest museum in Kuindzhi, others – in the archives of the Museum of Local Lore.

Author of the photo, From the personal archive of Tatiana Buli

Caption to the photo,

Tatiana Buli at the Arkhip Kuindzhi Art Museum. She managed the museum for 12 years

Tatiana Buli proudly tells how her small museum received guests from England and France, how she exchanged paintings with other Ukrainian museums, how she held all-Ukrainian exhibitions together with the National Union of Artists.

“We have become a prominent site in the city, conducted many of the most interesting projects, received many distinguished guests,” says Buli, visibly reviving.

After leaving Mariupol, she believed for a long time that her museum was no more – it was destroyed by an air strike. This is what the media wrote and told acquaintances of acquaintances who, like her, managed to get out of the bombed city.

But at the end of April, she saw on the Internet footage of her boss Natalia Kapustnikova, director of the Mariupol Museum of Local Lore, accompanied by the Russian military, taking out exhibits from the museum’s basement. They got there through a broken window – in the video they claimed that the keys to the basements were handed over to the “military commandant’s office”.

Bully told the BBC that the keys to the museum actually remained in it.

“As I was told, the window was broken. They went in. The thing is, I even took the keys with me! In my heart, so to speak. [The keys] are all I have left of the museum, I didn’t leave them to anyone. “, – says the head of the museum.

According to her, she personally hid valuable exhibits in the basement of her museum in the first days of the war. “What I hid, it survived. But you see, passed to the occupiers,” – sighs Buli.

Caption to the photo,

Russian journalists pulled a portrait of Archip Kuindzhi by his student Grigory Kalmykov from the basement of the museum

Among the exported works are Kuindzhi’s paintings “Red Sunset”, “Autumn” and “Elbrus”, Aivazovsky’s “On the Shores of the Caucasus”, a posthumous portrait of Kuindzhi by his student Grigory Kalmykov, a bust of Kuindzhi by sculptor Beklemishev, ancient icons and books. A video with the Russian military claims that the Red Sunset alone is valued at $ 700,000 in insurance value.

It is unknown what happened to the part of the collection that was in the museum of local lore. The museum burned down, and Tatiana Buli suggests that the exhibits died with him. At this point in the conversation, her voice begins to tremble. “I do not know the fate of [this part of the collection], but I assume that something terrible, irreversible has happened.”

She is comforted only by the fact that the building of her museum, despite rumors of an air strike, survived.

“Thank God the building didn’t burn down. I couldn’t see the full picture, but I know that the roof is damaged. And on the one hand – eyewitnesses have already told me – the wall on the second floor collapsed towards the terrace. We have such wonderful terraces, cozy , overlooking the Sea of Azov “, – fondly recalls the head of the museum Kuindzhi.

The escape from Mariupol and the news about the museum finally undermined her health, complains Tatiana Buli. She is talking to a BBC correspondent in the neurology department of a Kyiv hospital.

Expropriation

About 2,000 exhibits were taken from the Mariupol museums to Donetsk, local pro-Russian publications wrote. Representatives of the Donetsk museum claimed that the works were brought to them temporarily and will be returned to the museums to which they belong upon request.

Caption to the photo,

Footage shown on Russian television in which Russian journalists and the military remove valuables stored there from the basement of the Kuinji Museum. Ukraine called the export of exhibits from Mariupol to Donetsk a kidnapping

Ukrainian authorities have called the export of works of art from Mariupol to Donetsk a theft. The Minister of Culture of Ukraine Oleksandr Tkachenko believes that the exhibits were taken to Donetsk for evaluation – then they will be sent to Moscow.

“Art critic Konstantin Akinsha called the removal of works from Mariupol the first organized, deliberate act of looting the museum collection in Ukraine since the beginning of the war.”

Later it became known that the collection of the Melitopol Museum of Local Lore, in particular Scythian gold, was also taken to Donetsk.

Can these actions be considered smuggling? UNESCO did not answer this question unequivocally – but assured the BBC that they are carefully studying all the reports.

A few years ago, the head of UNESCO proposed the term “cultural cleansing”, by which she meant not only the destruction of monuments, but also violations of human rights on ethnic or religious grounds, the destruction of schools and attacks on journalists.

She voiced the idea in 2015, when jihadists destroyed several cultural sites in the Middle East and Africa, from Palmyra, Syria, to Timbuktu in Mali. Then the main Russian museums, the State Hermitage and the Pushkin Museum , unanimously condemned the destruction of monuments.

Now that monuments are being destroyed as a result of the Russian invasion and collections are being taken out of the occupied Ukrainian territories, both institutions are silent.

But Russian troops are not only taking away art – after the occupation of Melitopol, the director of the Museum of Local Lore Leyla Ibragimova was abducted. She said gunmen abducted her from her home and interrogated her. In a few hours she was released and later she was able to escape to the territory controlled by Ukraine.

Ukrainian authorities also reported the abduction of another employee of the same museum, 60-year-old Halyna Kucher. Also in April, the director of the local history museum in the village of Osipenko in the Zaporizhia region was abducted, and in the Kherson region, authorities reported the abduction of a school principal. Their future fate is unknown.

“Gays and Lesbians Under the Patronage of the President of the United States”, or a bomb shelter at the Center for Contemporary Art

In 2014, one of the victims of the war in Donbas was Isolation, the only center of contemporary art in Donetsk that was turned into a prison and a place for torture in the self-proclaimed DNR. His collection remained in captured Donetsk.

In 2022, the fate of “Isolation” was repeated by the “TU” platform, created by political scientist Konstantin Batozsky and curator Diana Berg. They fled their native Donetsk to Mariupol due to political persecution.

There they began to engage in the cultural development of the Azov region – received international grants, found premises, began to organize exhibitions, concerts, art and architectural residences, collect art.

Photo by Platform Tu

Caption to the photo,

Konstantin Batozsky during one of his performances in Mariupol, 2016

The projects addressed acute social issues – gender-based violence, discrimination against the LGBT community and people with disabilities, as well as the environment.

It was important for us that people in Ukraine know what Mariupol is, they know it not only as the patrimony of [Ukrainian oligarch Rinat] Akhmetov. But also as a city where there is a sea, there is culture. The city is original, multinational, multicultural. “The Greek-Ukrainian diaspora is mixed with Tatar and Ukrainian culture, and all this creates a symbiosis that opposed the” Russian world “in 2014. And it is now,” says Batozsky.

The platform’s website says that in the “conservative and paternalistic” city, she promoted freedom and rights through culture and contemporary art.

“It was the [only such center]. That is, nothing like this existed in Mariupol anymore,” Batozsky said of his brainchild. He recalls with pride that the center received grants from the United States and the European Union, and was visited by the American ambassador: “Everyone who visited Mariupol was sure to visit TU.

Photo by Platform Tu

Caption to the photo,

US Ambassador to Ukraine Mary Jovanovich during a visit to the Tu platform, 2016

As in the case of Isolation, the TU collection could not be evacuated. The last destination of the art center was a bomb shelter.

“People fled Mariupol in a day, shocked. Nobody took anything out of TU. When your life is in danger, the last thing you think about is how to take out the art archive,” Batozsky said.

“And now the First Channel is shooting funny stories about him,” he added.

This is a story on Russian television, released on April 26. In it, “TU” – the name is not mentioned, but Batozsky recognized his center in the video – is presented as “an organization of non-traditional orientations, well, gays, lesbians and others that can be attributed there.” The story claims that she “was practically under the direct patronage of the President of the United States and Congress.”

The video illustrating these statements consists of images with a satanic pentagram and a color calendar.

Rotterdam in the second round

“Russia’s system of war is a completely uncontrolled bombing of urban space, and it leads to the destruction of monuments. This is Rotterdam in the second round,” says the art critic. The historic center of Rotterdam was completely destroyed by German aircraft in 1940.

“It seems that the Russian army has never heard of international conventions. Especially about such trifles as the protection of cultural property. They do not even understand that the destruction of cultural heritage is a war crime.”

Photo by SOPA Images

Caption to the photo,

Destroyed church in the village of Lisove near Kharkiv

Cultural sites are protected by a number of international treaties – as civilian sites they are protected by the Geneva Conventions, which define the rules of hostilities. The 1954 Hague Convention is dedicated to the protection of cultural property. Russia and Ukraine are parties to these agreements.

The Rome Statute, on the basis of which the International Criminal Court in The Hague was established, defines deliberate attacks on cultural monuments as war crimes.

Political scientist Batozsky believes that the destruction of cultural values is not a side effect of the war, but a conscious policy of the Russian armed forces.

“This is a conscious policy of the occupier – to destroy cultural memory. This is the first thing they do. Destroying culture is a war crime. And they do it deliberately. And rob, and rob, and do so that the funds could not be restored,” – said the political scientist. .

Former head of Kyiv’s culture department, Yana Barinova, says each case needs to be analyzed separately – the destruction of some monuments could have been planned and others could have been accidental. For example, she considers the Russian strike on the Mariupol Drama Theater, which could have killed up to 600 people, to be intentional, and the broken glass in Kyiv’s Maly Opera House to be accidental: There is no such observation – if they still stand and are. ”

At the same time, she agrees that the destruction of cultural memory is the goal of Russian forces, because cultural heritage is the basis of a political nation.

“In their opinion, we are an appendage to the Russian Empire. Accordingly, ours is nothing. And what we have must be destroyed so that it does not exist,” she interprets Moscow’s logic.

Museum of War

One week before the start of the war, on February 17, Kyiv authorities held a discussion of a new project, the Museum of Russia’s War against Ukraine. Ukrainian society is in demand to comprehend the tragedies of recent years, Yana Barynova explained at a meeting with public figures and war veterans in Donbas.

The goal of the project she called the preparation of a “spiritual matrix of the country’s revival” on the basis of historical memory, which was formed during eight years of hostilities in eastern Ukraine.

The museum was planned to be located on the territory of Kyiv Fortress – a place where walls, moats and redoubts have been built and rebuilt for thousands of years, and this was contributed by Kyiv and Lithuanian princes, Zaporizhia hetmans and Russian emperors: from Yaroslav the Wise to Bohdan Khmelnytsky, Mazepa and Nicholas I.

But the first meeting did not take place – in a week Russia attacked Ukraine.

“The War Museum is just a prophetic project! What else can I add?” – Barinova remembers.

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