When seven religious icons that had been kept in the Enerhodar Orthodox Church for 200 years went missing in recent days, it was just the latest example of cultural plunder by the Russian occupiers.
Some 220 km 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 days before Russia announced his retirement this week.
Witnesses described how hundreds of works, including paintings by Ukrainian and Russian artists of the 18th and 19th centuries, were roughly loaded into unmarked trucks and a school bus to be transported to a museum in Crimea under Russian control.
Lydia, a 75-year-old Kherson resident, told the Russian Independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper how valuable works had been placed in vehicles without packaging or protection. She said: “Occupiers treat stolen washing machines with more care than they treat world art heritage.”
According to reports, rare items and antiques from Ukraine have already started to be sold on the Moscow black market.
Ukrainian authorities and international bodies have warned against an acceleration of Russia’s appropriation of Ukrainian cultural treasures following Vladimir Putin’s decree in September annexing the regions of Kherson and neighboring Zaporizhzhia to Moscow. The fine print of the edict contained a provision allowing Russia to “evacuate” objects of cultural significance.
The Ukrainian management of the Kherson Art Museum said: “The museum was looted by the Russian occupiers. In their language, this is called “evacuation”; in our opinion, it is looting.
“They took away artwork and office supplies – everything they saw, everything their grasping hands reached.
“We’re not even talking about a delicate attitude towards ancient rarities. The paintings were not specially packaged for transport, but wrapped in a kind of cloth.
The seven icons looted from the main church of Enerhodar, which houses Europe’s largest nuclear complex, date back to the late 18th century.
They were sent by Kremlin proxies to a museum in the occupied city of Melitopol, west of Kherson.
In a terse statement, the Center for National Resistance, a Ukrainian government body monitoring activities in Russian-occupied parts of the country, said it is likely that the artworks have now been transferred out of Ukraine.
“The removal of the icons actually means their subsequent transfer to the Russian Federation,” he said.
The Ukrainian government estimates that Russian soldiers have looted or ransacked around 40 museums since the war began on February 24, taking away priceless treasures in what it calls a war crime similar to the looting by Nazi troops.
In a statement, Ukraine’s Culture Ministry said: “The massive removal of cultural property from Ukrainian territory by the Russian occupiers will be comparable to the looting of museums during World War II and should be qualified accordingly.”
According to UNESCO, the cultural body of the United Nations, some 213 important 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 went to extraordinary lengths to try to protect the items in their custody. At the start of the war, the curators of the Museum of Historical Treasures in Kyiv went to sleep at their place of work in the hope of being able to save the collection if Russian troops took the capital.
In Melitopol, staff at the Local History Museum sought to hide hundreds of treasures, including an extraordinary ‘Hun tiara’ or jeweled diadem from the era of Attila the Hun, when Kremlin forces entered in the city. Despite weeks of searching, the Russians failed to find the artifacts before finally discovering their location in a secret basement of the museum. The location of the Melitopol Treasures is currently unknown.
Moscow’s thirst for content from Ukraine’s cultural and sacred sites has not been limited to works of art. Late last month, shortly before the Kherson Art Museum was emptied, a small group arrived at the city’s St. Catherine’s Cathedral and entered a crypt concealed by a white marble tombstone.
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 that Vladimir Putin claims to restore with his invasion.
Kremlin-appointed officials in Kherson confirmed in TV interviews broadcast in Russia that Potemkin’s bones had indeed been seized. It is the ninth – and possibly not the last – time that the restless remains of the Russian hero, who ironically sought to recruit a haven for multiple nationalities and cultures in southern Ukraine, have been moved.