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All’s fair in art and war: Russia’s plunder of Ukrainian museums

Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, the damage done by the aggressor state to Ukraine’s cultural heritage amounts to $3.5 billion, according to UNESCO estimates. Russia is appropriating cultural assets en masse from the occupied territories and taking steps to keep them for good. Laws have been passed on the inclusion of exhibits from Ukrainian museums into Russia’s State Museum Fund and on the indivisibility of museum collections. Individual representatives of Russia’s museum community interpret the plundering of masterpieces as an effort at salvaging them. Meanwhile, their Ukrainian counterparts remind us that Russia has been exporting art objects from their country for centuries, driven by a false sense of entitlement. However, international law unambiguously treats the unauthorized export of cultural property and artwork as a violation.

Content
  • The heirs of Byzantium keen to prove their ancestry: how the Russian Empire appropriated Ukraine's art

  • Illegal seizures of the 20th century: “After an exhibition in Leningrad, it was decided that the paintings look better there”

  • Modern-day practices

RU

After the Scythian gold incident, in which Russia failed to get its hands on ancient artifacts from Crimean museums, legislators in Moscow decided to cement their ownership rights to stolen collections, at least in the eyes of domestic law. “The law we are about to pass is of paramount importance,” said State Hermitage Museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky at a press conference in St. Petersburg on Dec. 7, 2023. Piotrovsky, who has called Russia’s war of aggression a “special cultural operation,” was referring to an initiative aimed at making museum collections indivisible. At its essence, the proposed law prohibits the return of exhibits to their country of origin.

Piotrovsky emphasized that France and the UK have similar laws “prohibiting the removal of any exhibits from their museums.” Of course, the practice of transferring cultural property from colonies to major metropolitan museums was business as usual for empires of the past. The Louvre quickly expanded its collections by incorporating artwork from French colonies and protectorates in Africa and the Middle East, and the museum is still home to masterpieces such as Venetian artist Paolo Veronese’s “The Wedding Feast at Cana,” which joined its collection after Napoleon’s army sacked Venice in 1798. But cultural imperialism does not always imply the existence of faraway colonies; neighbors can be plundered too.

Cultural imperialism does not always imply the existence of faraway colonies; neighbors can be plundered too

In 2013, four museums in Crimea sent a number of exhibits to be displayed in the Netherlands. After the peninsula was annexed in March 2014, the Dutch partners were not sure to whom they should return the roughly 2,000 items: to the museums that provided them, or to Ukrainian art collections. In 2021, following a lengthy litigation process, an Amsterdam court ruled that the “Scythian Gold” collection should be returned to Ukraine. “I am deeply resentful of the Amsterdam court's decision,” Russian art critic Kirill Alekseev wrote, expressing his support for Crimean museum workers. “Museums are extraterritorial. All objects withdrawn from a particular location must be returned there. No one cares about the curators who spent years caring for these items and preserving them, only to become ‘specialists in that which is no more.’” As will be demonstrated later, Russian museums and authorities rarely followed the principle of returning borrowed artwork to its rightful owners, and now the practice of appropriation has been legitimized.

GLEB GARANICH | REUTERS
GLEB GARANICH | REUTERS

An earlier law on the inclusion of Ukrainian works of art and cultural property into Russia's State Catalog formally transferred exhibits from Ukrainian museums in the occupied territories to Russian institutions under the status of “operative management.” The most recent law goes further, incorporating stolen objects into “indivisible” collections and thus rendering them the property of any Russian museum that stores them or uses them for research, regardless of the object’s origin. The only exception is made for religious organizations, which are permitted to claim exhibits that were once their property. One such example involved Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, which provided Andrey Rublev’s “Trinity” icon to the Russian Orthodox Church for use as a religious artifact – an act that was condemned by restoration experts and scholars of art.

Any object that ends up in a Russian museum will be considered the inalienable property of this museum regardless of its origin

The new legislation has already born fruit: in 2024, the Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg plans to display “Christ in the Tomb,” a previously unseen painting by Karl Bryullov that was seized by the FSB from German collectors Alexander and Irina Pevzner in 2003, when the couple brought the painting to the Russian Museum for expert examination. Even though both the Constitutional and the Supreme courts of Russia deemed the seizure unlawful, the painting was never returned to its owners. In 2021, it became part of Russia’s State Museum Fund, and the new director of the Russian Museum, Alla Manilova, took pride in announcing the upcoming demonstration of the seized masterpiece.

The heirs of Byzantium keen to prove their ancestry: how the Russian Empire appropriated Ukraine's art

The fight over Ukrainian cultural assets has been ongoing for over a century. Back in the 19th century, museum administrators in Kerch and Odesa tried to keep at least some of the objects uncovered by archaeological expeditions on the Crimean peninsula and Black Sea coast for their collections. However, the Czar had ordered that all “archaeological treasures” be delivered “almost exclusively” to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

This colonialist practice persisted into the 20th century, as the last of Russia’s Romanov rulers, Nicholas II, remained keen on keeping his family’s traditions alive right to the end of his reign. The Imperial Archaeological Commission, which was in place from 1859 to 1919, has earned the nickname “The Looting Commission” in modern-day Ukrainian media. It was thanks to this body that the Hermitage obtained many of its Kievan Rus artifacts, several ancient Scythian rarities, and even paleolithic objects that had been discovered in Ukraine.

In 2021, a century after the infamous commission was disbanded, Russia was still working to appropriate Ukrainian cultural heritage. That year, an archaeological dig on the southern outskirts of the ancient Chersonesus in Russian-occupied Crimea unearthed over 500,000 artifacts. As in the early 20th century, the relics were appropriated by the Hermitage — this despite the fact that Russia is a signatory to the Hague Convention of 1954, which prohibits the appropriation and requisition of cultural assets from occupied territories.

Why are Russian museums so keen on obtaining such items? Hermitage director Piotrovsky answered this question in a 2022 interview:

“I keep saying that we can rightfully call ourselves Europe because we have Ancient Greek heritage in the south: Chersonesus, Kerch, Taman. Everyone who inherits from Antiquity is European. Meanwhile, Norway has no antique legacy because it had neither Greek colonies nor Roman legions.”

Another sensitive aspect of Russia's mythical history is its relations with Byzantium and Kievan Rus. Russia claims to have inherited cultural patrimony from both. However, the territory of modern Russia is the source of fewer Byzantine and Ancient Rus objects than certain scholars and museum workers would like. Even though proving the existence of this cultural legacy does not require vast amounts of material objects, Russia nevertheless seems to be trying to make up for the perceived shortage by borrowing from Ukrainian vaults and excavation sites.

While Russia claims to have inherited from both Kievan Rus and Byzantium, its territory lacks historical artifacts that would prove it

Another symbolic element of cultural policy concerns objects of fine arts from the turn of the 20th century. When it conquers new territories, the Russian state attempts to justify its claims to the land by demonstrating the history of an ethnic Russian presence there. This often takes the form of posthumous support for well-known artists from a particular area of interest. For this reason, in recent years the Mariupol-born Arkhip Kuindzhi and the Crimean artist Ivan Aivazovsky have been claimed by Moscow without any regard to the artists’ actual ideas, nationality, or ethnicity.

According to The Insider's sources, after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, experts from the Hermitage repeatedly attempted to reach out to their Ukrainian colleagues when attributing the origins of Ukrainian cultural monuments, fully convinced that the Ukrainian scholars’ cooperation would continue “in the name of science” despite the political complications of a 21st-century land grab on the continent of Europe. Then again, considering Russia’s appropriation of Ukrainian cultural property for centuries, the present reality does not differ from the past as significantly as it may seem. In this sense, Russia's new legislative framework is simply an exacerbation of a long-standing problem.

Illegal seizures of the 20th century: “After an exhibition in Leningrad, it was decided that the paintings look better there”

Many paintings from Ukrainian collections have been on display in Russian museums for decades, and their visitors often have no idea about the actual origins of these masterpieces. That is why Ukrainian researchers are developing resources dedicated to returning lost cultural property and artworks.

The history of Valentin Serov’s “The Rape of Europa,” on display in the Russian Museum of St. Petersburg, offers a perfect case study in the measures Russia is willing to take to promote its right to rule whatever territory Russian troops have occupied. Although Serov was born in St. Petersburg and died in Moscow, in practice the Russian state views any perceived outsiders with skepticism and any potential insiders as being “ours.” Seventeenth-century Dutch painter Pieter Lastman's “David Sees Bathsheba's Toilet from his Palace,” currently on display at the Hermitage, provides yet another. From 1912 to 1924, the work was part of Vasyl Shchavynsky's collection, and his will would have placed it in the National Art Museum in Kyiv had its owner been alive to see the plan through.

These horror stories are far from anomalous. Olena Zhivkova, deputy director general on research at Kyiv’s Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko National Museum of Arts, detailed for The Insider how the illegal seizure of exhibits from a museum's collection benefits those engaged in the looting:

“The Illegal export of works from our collection began as early as 1915, even before the museum became a public institution in 1919. In 1915, during World War I, collectors Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko wanted to evacuate a part of their collection to a safe location. They transported 87 boxes with the most valuable items to Moscow's State Historical Museum. Then the October Revolution struck, and the family collection was transformed into a national museum, with Varvara Khanenko among the curators. However, that did not prevent the boxes in Moscow from being pried open and the exhibits inside from being redistributed. According to one supporter, ‘Our specialists began looking for items that ended up in other museums’ collections illegally and succeeded in retrieving some of them. Even now, we still find objects stolen from those boxes in museums and galleries all over the world, including in Prague and Lisbon.”
A virtual tour of the Khanenko Museum
A virtual tour of the Khanenko Museum

At times, Russia has failed to return Ukrainian art borrowed for temporary exhibitions. According to Zhivkova, some items “were transferred for an exhibition but ended up in the Hermitage for good because the curators in Saint Petersburg thought they would make a nice addition to their collection. Our museum archives hold unanswered letters with demands for the return of our exhibits, while Hermitage catalogs label these exhibits as ‘gifts’ from the Kyiv museum.”

A similar story occurred in connection with the mosaics and frescoes of St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery in Kyiv. The masterpieces were removed from the cathedral walls before its demolition in the 1930s. As early as 1934, Volodymyr Zatonskyi, the minister of education of Soviet Ukraine, received a request from Moscow arguing that the frescoes and mosaics of the Golden-Domed Monastery “are of colossal importance for the Tretyakov Gallery exposition, which features a highly limited presentation of the art of Kievan Rus.”

Zatonskyi refused to gift Ukrainian cultural property to Moscow. Nevertheless, the mosaics and frescoes were packaged up anyway and transported to a Moscow exhibition celebrating the 750th anniversary of the ancient epic poem “The Tale of Igor's Campaign.” As you may have already guessed, the works were never returned to Ukraine. Today, a 12th-century mosaic depicting St. Demetrius of Thessaloníki remains a gem of the Tretyakov Gallery’s collection.

Moreover, the Tretyakov Gallery has actually given away some of the items snatched from St. Michael's Monastery, including a fresco depicting prophet Samuel, which was sent to the Russian Museum in 1946. In the present day, the Russian capital is compensating for a lack of ancient Russian artifacts by plundering Ukrainian collections. Without these artifacts, backing up any claims of historical succession is problematic; therefore, in the Kremlin’s eyes, the lofty end justifies any means used to achieve it.

Explaining the fate of Ukrainian cultural objects seized by Nazi forces during World War II would require a full-length detective story. As Nazi troops began their retreat from occupied Ukraine, they grabbed works of art en masse, packing up one large box after another. Suffice it to say that, while much of the collection did make it back to the Soviet Union, none of it ever reached Ukraine.

It was not for a lack of trying from the Soviet side. After the war, commissions were set up under the auspices of the Allied nations to categorize the artifacts seized by Nazi Germany. Their job was to determine the origin of items and, if feasible, to return them to their lawful owners. Included in the group's purview were Nazi trophies seized from the USSR.

The Soviet Union was able to retrieve the items stolen by Erich Koch, the Reichskommissar of occupied Ukraine in 1941-1944. “We did not find out where the items from Koch’s collection ended up until I visited the Hermitage as part of my work in the Russian-Ukrainian Restitution Commission and got a tour of the special vault,” Kyiv-based museum curator Zhivkova told The Insider. “I easily recognized the paintings stolen by Nazis, having seen their black-and-white images in the catalog of losses issued by the Khanenko Museum in 1998. Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture submitted a request for the paintings to be returned to Ukraine. All over the world, the issues of the restitution of items seized by Nazis are resolved within two weeks, but the Russian Federation never responded to our request and unilaterally withdrew from the restitution commission.”

Modern-day practices

Russia’s current appropriation of Ukrainian cultural assets is no less shameless than its imperial or Soviet practices were. The works of art from Crimean museums have been included in the State Catalog and put on display in the Russian capital. In addition, items from the collection of the Tauric Chersonesus Museum are about to be put on display in Veliky Novgorod. The national tour of Ivan Aivazovsky's works from Crimean museums is being presented as an integration effort. Russian media have been offering guides on cultural assets taken from illegally annexed Ukrainian territories. Before long, they too will become an “inalienable” part of Russia’s Museum Fund. According to the new Russian law, this development must occur before Dec. 31, 2027.

And that is not the only instance of the Russian state attempting to justify theft through acts of law. Late in July 2023, the Kherson Museum of Arts marked Ivan Aivazovsky's anniversary with a post about three of the artist’s paintings that had been stolen from the museum's collection. The museum website also notifies visitors that, in the period from Oct. 31 to Nov. 4, 2022, Russian forces seized three-quarters of the museum’s collection — approximately 11,000 items. Ukrainian museum workers have condemned these acts as “looting under the pretext of evacuation, accompanied with slogans about the preservation of cultural heritage and done by people armed with assault rifles.” According to experts from Kherson, the city’s cultural assets were moved to the Central Museum of Taurica in Simferopol, Crimea. Rather than being protected, however, from there they could easily end up in Russian private collections.

In Mariupol, the destruction of the city did not spare its museums. During the siege of the city in the spring of 2022, the collection of its Local History Museum was turned to dust. The shelling also damaged the building of the Arkhip Kuindzhi Mariupol Museum of Arts. Kuindzhi was a native of the area, and the museum held three of his paintings, as well as works by other Mariupol artists. By now, 95% of its exhibits have been destroyed, but museum director Natalia Kapustnikova says that Kiundzhi’s works have been moved to the museums of the so-called “Donetsk People's Republic.” Kuindzhi's art has yet to enter the State Catalog, but its storage is most likely categorized as being “under operative management,” placing it in the inalienable category under the current law.

The Kamyana Mohyla open-air museum
The Kamyana Mohyla open-air museum

In Zaporizhzhya, Russian forces have seized Stone Age artifacts from Kamyana Mohyla, an archaeological site and open-air museum. In the fall of 2023, they were displayed in the Tauric Chersonesus Museum Preserve in Crimea.

According to Zhivkova, the restitution of exhibits will only be possible after the current full-scale war ends, as the process must be guided by international cultural property protection law, and Russia under its present leadership is acting in violation of nearly all known international laws.



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