- Anastasia Soroka, Grigor Atanesyan
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The Russian war in Ukraine takes not only the lives of Ukrainians – it destroys its cultural heritage. Bombs destroy museums, libraries, churches and mosques, universities and theaters.
Russian forces are taking out paintings by Aivazovsky and Kuindzhi, Scythian gold, manuscripts from the occupied territories; they kidnap museum workers.
Museum workers, gallery owners and civilians told the BBC how they saved classical and contemporary Ukrainian and Russian art from shelling – and saved themselves.
Museum on fire and “Wagnerian” captivity
The projectile flew to the local history museum of the town of Ivankov – eighty kilometers north of Kyiv – on February 26. In the first days of the war, columns of the Russian army passed through the settlement – in the direction of Borodyanka, Bucha and Gostomel, where fierce battles took place.
Ivankov from the first days of the war was under Russian occupation, Ukrainian border guards, military and police left him. Local residents are at a loss as to why the local history museum came under fire – it stood on the edge of the city, next to a residential area, a river and a park. Nothing else in the area was damaged.
The shell hit the roof of the museum and started a fire. There was no sound of an explosion – possibly due to other explosions in the entire area, recalls 33-year-old local resident Igor Nikolaenko, a fitness instructor.
Nikolaenko says he, along with other citizens, watched from the city park as Russian military equipment drove through the center of Ivankov. The projectile, according to his observations, came from the side of the bridge, towards which Russian equipment was heading. Turning around, he saw white smoke rising from the museum building deep in the park.
“I run up there and look: seven or eight people are standing there and telling me that this shell hit the museum and it caught fire,” Igor recalls.
Together with the museum watchman Anatoly Kharitonenko, he rushed to save the exhibits from the fire. They were joined by a young man whose name no one knew.
The museum was closed and the caretaker had no keys. The men decided to break the bars on the windows in order to get inside. “We were just lucky that the craftsmen, excuse me, were hand-assed. And they simply attached the gratings to self-tapping screws that were screwed into the insulation. We pulled out a metal grating, knocked out glass with this grating, opened a metal-plastic window and climbed inside,” recalls Igor.
Ivankov is surrounded by forest and many small villages. The regional museum of local history is the only one in the district. Igor, who was born in Ivankovo, went to it almost every year since school.
A couple of years before the war, the museum was completely restored. Its exposition included folk costumes, ceramics and other cultural monuments of Polissya, paintings by local artists, weapons from the Second World War, and even one mammoth skeleton.
The most valuable exhibits of the Ivankovo museum were the canvases of Maria Primachenko, a representative of “folk primitivism”. She is known for her bright and colorful paintings inspired by Ukrainian folklore, in which fabulous animals and people with chicken paws live among fabulous 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 20th century – including the Stalinist Holodomor, in which more than 3 million Ukrainians died .
One of the most beloved artists in Ukraine, Prymachenko was self-taught and lived all her life in the village of Bolotnya – a small river separates it from Ivankov. Her family donated her work to the Ivankovo Museum.
It was Primachenko’s paintings that were the first to be taken out of the burning museum – twelve canvases were packed in a separate room. The watchman’s wife pointed out where to find them.
“First, we pulled out these paintings, handed them over to people on the street. Then I look – we have a little more time, so we began to take out towels, old woodwork, various military documents of the Second World War. In general, they took it all out for about twenty minutes” – Nikolaenko says about the exhibits.
Igor laments that much could not be saved: “This is our cultural heritage and world heritage. Therefore, I told the guys: let’s endure what we can.”
The fire spread rapidly, the room filled with smoke, and the ceiling threatened to collapse.
After the fire, only the load-bearing walls remained of the museum. “It’s a pity that we didn’t have enough time. It’s just a pity. There were a lot of valuable things there, you can’t restore them in any way,” the fitness trainer sighs.
Ivankov stayed under Russian occupation for more than a month – Russian units left the city on April 1st. According to Nikolaenko, among them were mercenaries from PMC Wagner, a private military company created after the start of the war in Donbass in 2014.
When asked by the BBC how he understood that it was the “Wagnerites” who were based in the city, the man, hesitating a little, replied: “Well, how … I just was in their captivity for two days.”
Nikolaenko was captured at the end of February, in the first days of the occupation, when he was riding bicycles with a friend to the neighboring village of Krapivnya – a friend’s family with a small child got stuck there. Russian mercenaries mistook two men for Ukrainian spies.
“We didn’t have any phones, no walkie-talkies, no knives with us. We thought it could work. But it didn’t,” Igor Nikolaenko chuckles.
The men were taken to the village of Rozvazhev, 17 km from Ivankov. “They kept us for two days. They shot near the head, inflicted bodily injuries, beat us a little,” Igor lists. According to him, the abducted soldiers presented themselves as Wagner PMC fighters. Nikolaenko’s father managed to persuade them to let the men go.
Already at the height of the war, one of Maria Primachenko’s paintings was included in the main program of the Venice Biennale. In the same place, in Venice, at an auction, another of her canvases was sold for 110 thousand euros, the BBC was told in the artist’s family fund.
It is not known whether the burnt Ivankovo museum will be restored. The Primachenko Foundation plans to invest the proceeds from the Venetian auction in the construction of its own museum.
Chaos of the early days
The war took by surprise not only the provincial museums. Curators, gallery owners and private collectors complained to the BBC that their collections were not ready to be evacuated. They weren’t ready either.
“We woke up from the sirens. These are terrible sirens – I only heard such a sound in a horror movie. Apparently, some psychologists worked on this sound, it inspires horror,” curator Yana Barinova, who worked as director of the Kyiv Department of Culture, recalls the first day of the war.
She recalls that she took her daughter, packed two backpacks with things and was at work by 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’s not just about missile strikes. As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his advisers later said , the Russian military, who landed in Kiev, stormed the presidential residence on Bankova Street twice.
Cultural workers did not have centralized and pre-approved plans for the evacuation of art at the time of the invasion, says Barinova. She recalls how in early January, at a reception at the British Embassy, Olesya Ostrovskaya-Lyuta, the director of the Kyiv art complex Mystetsky Arsenal, approached her. At that time, Western intelligence was already openly warning about the impending Russian invasion.
“Are you developing evacuation plans?” Yana recalls a colleague’s question. According to her, she smiled in response: plans were developed, but at none of the meetings with the leadership of the Ministry of Culture this was not set as a priority. And the export of cultural property is possible only with the permission of the Ministry of Culture.
“The first ten days of the war were total chaos,” recalls Barinova. The department controlled dozens of theaters and museums, totaling about 75 cultural institutions, according to her calculations.
She says she asked the museums to compile a short list of the most important exhibits, but in return received lists of hundreds of titles. It became clear that it was too dangerous to evacuate many collections – they could be damaged along the way, looters could steal them, and if they went abroad, returning could be a problem. Security for their transportation was also not enough.
It was necessary to negotiate about the fact that it was decided to evacuate: who will be the host, how many places there are, what contracts and with whom to conclude.
“Each director made decisions depending on the museum’s collection and infrastructure. Most of them have basements… the paintings were filmed, put away in doorways, the windows were sealed with adhesive tape. Many directors heroically spent the first two weeks right in the museums,” says Barinova.
Another task was to assess the objects damaged as a result of shelling. Even getting to them to assess the damage and make an inventory was sometimes extremely difficult. Barinova recalls how her work driver stood in line for four hours to fill up the car.
One of the first to talk about the need to evacuate museums was Ukrainian and American art critic Konstantin Akinsha.
“With a full-scale Russian invasion, virtually all important museum collections will be in danger,” Akinsha warned in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal a week before the war.
He decided to publicly raise the issue after he realized from conversations with his colleagues in Ukraine that no evacuation was being prepared. One of the reasons was the unwillingness of the authorities to sow panic.
“At that point, President Zelensky was engaging in a public debate with Biden and the Americans, claiming they were predicting an invasion that wasn’t happening,” Akinsha says.
He believes that another reason is that the lessons of the past were not learned – the destruction and illegal movement of cultural property in the Donbass after 2014: things like that.”
As a rare example of good preparation for war, he cites the Odessa Art Museum, whose collections include masterpieces of Ukrainian and Russian culture from icons to paintings by Repin, Levitan, Vrubel and Kandinsky.
The artist Alexander Roitburd, who has managed the museum in recent years, gathered a circle of sponsors from among local entrepreneurs. These connections came in handy – the sponsors provided all the necessary funds and materials. Alexandra Kovalchuk, who took over the museum after Roitburd’s death, turned to Odessa artists who helped pack and move the exhibits to safe temporary storage areas.
“No one can ever be 100% ready for such a full-scale war”
The Ministry of Culture of Ukraine is in charge of fixing the total damage. At the time of this writing, there were 335 objects on the list of the Ministry of Culture – including 29 museums, 27 libraries, 116 churches and cathedrals.
As of May 16, UNESCO has been able to independently confirm the destruction of 133 of them. In reality, destruction can be much more.
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There are two temples of St. Nicholas in the Donetsk region on the UNESCO list, and three on the list of the Ministry of Culture. We show all three because UNESCO does not give details that would allow us to understand which of the temples they have not yet included in their list, so there are 32 objects on map 1. Also on the UNESCO list is the Trinity Church in the Kharkiv region, we show such a temple in the Kyiv region, as in the list of the Ministry of Culture.
The shelling damaged the Kharkov Art Museum, the Kharkov State Scientific Library named after Korolenko, the Kharkov Opera and Ballet Theater named after Lysenko, the Chernihiv Regional Art Museum, the Mariupol Museum of Local Lore, the memorial house of the philosopher Hryhoriy Skovoroda, the Sumy Theological Seminary, the Svyatogorsk Holy Dormition Lavra, the Vorontsov Palace in Odessa .
Donetsk, Sumy and Kyiv regions, the cities of Kharkov and Chernihiv suffered the most.
The Ministry of Culture of Ukraine told the BBC that “some steps and collection of information” on the evacuation of works of art were carried out on the eve of the war, in 2021 and in the winter of 2022. But they refused to specify what kind of training was carried out, citing security concerns.
When asked about the unpreparedness of many cultural institutions for hostilities, the press service of the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine noted that “no one can ever be 100% ready for such a full-scale war.” “The ministry is not in a position to physically move the Svyatogorsk Lavra or the National Museum of Grigory Skovoroda, the Odessa Vorontsov Palace or the Lisichansk Gymnasium to another location,” the ministry said in a statement.
The decision to evacuate works of art was made on February 24, along with the introduction of martial law in Ukraine. But decision-making on the ground was complicated by Russian strikes across the country and the rapid advance of Russian troops in several directions, the BBC told the BBC.
“A large number of exhibits still managed to be evacuated; but, unfortunately, some territories were very quickly occupied or subjected to intense shelling, which made the evacuation impossible from the very beginning,” the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine summed up.
The list of destruction includes the most temples – primarily Orthodox churches, some of which belong to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, but also other confessions.
Among the affected temples is the Choral Synagogue in Kharkov, built in 1913. This is the largest synagogue in Ukraine. In the early days of the war, it became a hiding place for the local Jewish community. In March, a synagogue’s windows were shattered by a blast from a Russian missile, the Jerusalem Post reported.
A few days later, in the same place, in Kharkov, a Russian shell hit the roof of a yeshiva , a religious school of the Jewish community. According to the rabbi, it did not explode and no one was hurt.
“The keys are all I have left of the museum”
Tatyana Buli, head of the Mariupol Art Museum named after Arkhip Kuindzhi, learned that the paintings from the collection of her museum were confiscated and taken to the self-proclaimed DPR, in viber.
At the end of March, the Kuindzhi Museum was destroyed – as a result of an air strike, as the media wrote. But Tatyana Buli could no longer check it personally – after the start of the bombing of the city, neither she nor other museum employees could get to their workplaces anymore.
She left Mariupol on March 15, after “three weeks of bombing, blockade, hunger, 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, hunger, and endless bombing, my health became very bad, I practically did not leave the apartment,” recalls Buli. According to her, one of the shells hit their house, and six of its residents were killed. And the neighboring microdistrict was completely destroyed – charred ruins stand in its place.
Along the roads littered with bricks, concrete and wires, with the help of friends, she got to Uman, and from there she moved to her son near Kyiv. Since then, Buli has been trying to find out about the fate of the museum, which she has managed for the past twelve years.
The Kuindzhi Museum, a branch of the Mariupol Museum of Local Lore, opened in 2010 in a restored two-story Art Nouveau house of the early 20th century. On the first floor there was a permanent exhibition of paintings and exhibits related to the Mariupol period of Kuindzhi’s life – the Greek gospel of 1811, icons of the 19th century, antique furniture. The second floor was intended for temporary exhibitions.
The museum’s collection included works not only by Kuindzhi himself – one of the most famous natives of Mariupol – but also by his teacher Aivazovsky, Russian landscape painters Dubovsky and Kalmykov, Ukrainian artists of the sixties Marchuk and Yablonska. Some of the works were kept in the very small museum of Kuindzhi, the other – in the archives of the museum of local lore.
Tetyana 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 platform in the city, we have carried out many interesting projects, we have received many high-ranking guests,” says Buli, perking up noticeably.
After leaving Mariupol, she believed for a long time that her museum no longer existed – it was incinerated by an airstrike. So the media wrote and friends of acquaintances told, who, like her, managed to get out of the bombed-out city.
But at the end of April, she saw on the Internet footage in which her boss Natalya Kapustnikova, director of the Mariupol Museum of Local Lore, accompanied by Russian military personnel, was carrying exhibits out of the museum’s basement. They get there through a broken window – the video claims that the keys to the basement were handed over to the “military commandant’s office.”
Buli, in a conversation with the BBC, claims that the keys to the museum actually remained with her.
“As they told me, the window was opened. They went in. The fact is that I even took the keys with me! In the very heart, so to speak. [Keys] are all that I have left of the museum, I didn’t leave them to anyone ” exclaims the head of the museum.
According to her, she personally hid valuable exhibits in the basement of her museum in the early days of the war. “What I hid, it survived. But you see, it was handed over to the invaders,” Buli sighs.
Among the exported works are Kuindzhi’s paintings “Red Sunset”, “Autumn” and “Elbrus”, Aivazovsky’s “Off the Coast of the Caucasus”, a posthumous portrait of Kuindzhi performed by his student Grigory Kalmykov, a bust of Kuindzhi by Beklemyshev, ancient icons and books. A video with the Russian military claims that Red Sunset alone is valued at $700,000 in insurance value.
What happened to that part of the collection that was in the local history museum is unknown. The museum burned down, and Tatyana Buli suggests that the exhibits died with it. At this point in the conversation, her voice begins to tremble. “I don’t know about the fate [of this part of the collection], but I assume that a terrible, irrevocable thing happened.”
She is consoled only by the fact that the building of her own museum, despite rumors of an airstrike, remains standing.
“Thank God that the building didn’t burn down. I couldn’t see the full picture, but I know that the roof was damaged. And on the one hand, eyewitnesses have already told me that, the wall on the second floor collapsed towards the terrace. We have such wonderful terraces, cozy , overlooking the Sea of Azov,” recalls the head of the Kuindzhi Museum fondly.
The escape from Mariupol and the news about her museum completely undermined her health, complains Tatyana Buli. She is talking to a BBC correspondent while she is in the neurological department of a Kyiv hospital.
About 2,000 exhibits were taken from Mariupol museums to Donetsk, local pro-Russian publications wrote. Representatives of the Donetsk museum claimed that the works were brought to them temporarily and would be returned to the museums to which they belong upon request.
The Ukrainian authorities called the export of works of art from Mariupol to Donetsk theft. Minister of Culture of Ukraine Oleksandr Tkachenko believes that the exhibits were taken to Donetsk for evaluation – after they will be sent to Moscow.
“The first organized, deliberate act of plundering a museum collection in Ukraine since the beginning of the war,” called the removal of works from Mariupol art historian Konstantin Akinsha.
Later it became known that the collection of the Melitopol Museum of Local Lore, including Scythian gold, was also taken to Donetsk.
Can these actions be considered smuggling? UNESCO did not unequivocally answer this question – but assured the BBC that they were carefully studying all the messages.
A few years ago, the head of UNESCO suggested using the term “cultural cleansing”, by which she means 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 this idea in 2015, when jihadists destroyed several cultural monuments in the Middle East and Africa – from Syrian Palmyra to Timbuktu in Mali. Then the main Russian museums, the State Hermitage and the Pushkin Museum, unanimously condemned the destruction of monuments.
Now, when the monuments are being destroyed as a result of the Russian invasion and the collections are being taken out of the occupied Ukrainian territories, both institutions are silent.
But Russian troops take away not only art – after the occupation of Melitopol, the director of the local history museum, Leyla Ibragimova, was kidnapped. She said that armed men stole her from her house and interrogated her. She was released a few hours later, and later she was able to get to the territory under the control of Ukraine.
The Ukrainian authorities also reported the kidnapping of another employee of the same museum, 60-year-old Galina Kucher. Also in April, the director of the local history museum in the village of Osipenko in the Zaporozhye region was abducted – and in the Kherson region, authorities reported the kidnapping of a school director. The BBC doesn’t know what became of them.
“Gays and lesbians under the patronage of the President of the United States”, or Bomb shelter in the center of contemporary art
In 2014, one of the victims of the war in Donbass was Izolyatsia, the only contemporary art center in Donetsk, which the separatists of the self-proclaimed DPR turned into a prison and a place of torture. His collection remained in the captured Donetsk.
In 2022, the fate of Izolyatsia was repeated by the TYu platform, which was created by political scientist Konstantin Batozsky and curator Diana Berg, who fled from their native Donetsk, like thousands of other Donetsk residents persecuted for their political position, to Mariupol.
There they began to engage in the cultural development of the Sea of u200bu200bAzov – they received international grants, found premises, began to hold exhibitions, concerts, art and architectural residences, and collect art.
The projects dealt with acute social issues – gender-based violence, discrimination against members of the LGBT community and people with disabilities, as well as ecology.
“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 Ukrainian diaspora is mixed with Tatar and Ukrainian culture, and all this creates such a symbiosis that opposed the “Russian world” in 2014. And it is opposed now,” says Batozsky.
The platform’s website says that in a “conservative and paternalistic” city, it promoted freedom and rights through culture and contemporary art.
“It was the [only such] center. That is, nothing else like it existed in Mariupol,” Batozsky says of his brainchild. He recalls, not without pride, that the center received grants from the US and the European Union, and the American ambassador came to it: “Everyone who was in Mariupol definitely visited TYu.
As in the case of “Izolyatsiya”, it was not possible to evacuate the “TYU” collection. The last purpose of the art center was a bomb shelter.
“People fled from Mariupol in a day, in shock. Nobody took anything from TYu. When your life is in danger, the last thing you think about is taking out an art archive,” says Batozsky.
“And now Channel One is filming funny stories about him,” he adds.
We are talking about a story on Russian television, released on April 26. In it, “TYU” – the name is not mentioned, but Batozsky recognized his center in the video – is presented as “an organization of non-traditional orientations, well, gays and lesbians and everything else that can still 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 sequence illustrating these statements consists of frames with a satanic pentagram and a colored calendar.
Rotterdam in the second round
“The Russian system of war is an absolutely uncontrolled bombing of urban space, and it leads to the destruction of monuments. This is Rotterdam in the second circle,” says the art historian. The historic center of Rotterdam was completely destroyed by German aircraft in 1940.
“It seems that the Russian army is not aware of international conventions at all. 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.”
Cultural objects are protected by a number of international treaties – as civilian objects, they are protected by the Geneva Conventions, which determine the rules for conducting hostilities. Separately, the Hague Convention of 1954 is devoted to the protection of cultural property. Russia and Ukraine are parties to these treaties.
The Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court in The Hague, 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 completely conscious policy of the occupier – to destroy cultural memory. This is the first thing they do. The destruction of culture is a war crime. And they do it quite deliberately. They rob and make it impossible to restore funds,” the political scientist is sure.
Yana Barinova, the former head of the department of culture in Kyiv, says that each case needs to be analyzed separately – the destruction of some monuments could have been planned, while others could have been accidental. For example, she considers the Russian strike on the drama theater in Mariupol, under the rubble of which up to 600 people could have died, to be deliberate, and the broken glass in the Kyiv Malaya Opera is rather accidental: “I don’t see that the task was to wipe all Ukrainian museums from the face of Ukraine. There is no such observation – if they are still standing and there.”
At the same time, she agrees that the destruction of cultural memory is part of the goals of the Russian forces, because the cultural heritage is the basis of a political nation.
“In theory, we are a kind of appendage to the Russian Empire. Accordingly, there is nothing of ours. And what is there must be destroyed so that it does not exist,” she interprets Moscow’s logic.
A week before the start of the war, on February 17, the Kyiv authorities staged a discussion of a new project, the “Museum of Russia’s War against Ukraine.” There is a demand in Ukrainian society for understanding the tragedies of recent years, Yana Barinova said at a meeting with public figures and war veterans in the Donbass.
She called the goal of the project the preparation of a “spiritual matrix of the country’s revival” based on the historical memory that has been formed over eight years of hostilities in eastern Ukraine.
The museum was planned to be located on the territory of the Kyiv fortress – a place where walls, ditches and redoubts were built and rebuilt for the last thousand years, and Kyiv and Lithuanian princes, Zaporozhye hetmans and Russian emperors, from Yaroslav the Wise to Bohdan Khmelnitsky, Mazepa and Nicholas I had a hand in them .
But things did not go beyond the first meeting – a week later, Russia attacked Ukraine.
“The War Museum is just a prophetic project! What else can I add?” Barinova recalls.
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