Home Featured Culture war: Russia ransacks art to rub out Ukraine’s history
Culture war: Russia ransacks art to rub out Ukraine’s history

Culture war: Russia ransacks art to rub out Ukraine’s history

by host

KYIV — In late April, Tetiana Buliy, head of the Arkhip Kuindzhi art gallery in Mariupol, was living near Kyiv when her phone rang.

It was the gallery’s caretaker, who had remained in Mariupol, asking where the keys were.

Buliy had locked the building on February 25, the second day of Russia’s massive bombardment of the southern Ukrainian city. By late April, Mariupol was almost entirely under Russian control.

The gallery keys were in Buliy’s Mariupol flat. She had fled from there with her husband in March as Russian missiles devastated the city.

Speaking firmly down the phone, Buliy replied: “I don’t talk to collaborators.”

But her defiance was futile.

On April 27, a video appeared in Russian media. In it, Buliy’s boss, Nataliya Kapustnikova, director of Mariupol Local History Museum, unwrapped a bundle of pictures and showed them to the camera — small, jewel-like landscapes and seascapes by 19th-century masters Arkhip Kuindzhi and Ivan Aivazovsky.

The art had been hidden by the head of the gallery, Kapustnikova explained in the video. Now the Russians had them and they were destined for Donetsk, a Ukrainian city that has been under Russian control since 2014.          

The paintings were among the most treasured items of Mariupol Local History Museum’s collection, which ranged from rare prehistoric burial finds to one of Ukraine’s first Olympic gold medals, won by Mariupol native Vyacheslav Oliynyk for wrestling at Atlanta 1996.

Amid the mass destruction of the city after Russia’s invasion, fire destroyed most of the collection, which no one had time, or orders, to evacuate. And in a scenario repeated throughout occupied Ukrainian territories, Russia — sometimes with local assistance — deliberately looted the rest.    

“The pictures weren’t damaged, they were betrayed,” says Buliy. “They were stolen by the enemy.”

***

The destruction of Ukraine’s cultural heritage since late February has been on a scale to match Russia’s brutal attack against people. More than 200 historical sites, buildings and monuments have been damaged, according to UNESCO’s verification — while Ukraine puts the figure at up to 800, with thousands of artifacts removed or destroyed.

In the latest mass looting to emerge, Russian forces emptied Kherson’s local history museum and art gallery before being forced out of the city in early November.

They transferred the paintings and artifacts to Russian-occupied Crimea — along with statues of two 18th-century Russian war leaders and even the mortal remains of Grigory Potemkin, the general behind Russia’s original conquest of this steppe region that is now southern Ukraine.  

Many see the theft and destruction as continuing a colonialist policy to wipe out Ukraine’s history and rewrite it as part of Russia’s, in line with President Vladimir Putin’s debunked rationale for the war that Ukraine has no history of its own and therefore no right to exist as a country.

“Behind [Russian] tactics is a fight against our identity,” Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko told POLITICO. “Everything which is connected to Ukrainian history and Ukrainian heritage either should be ruined, according to their ideology, or robbed.”

But Ukraine was late to sufficiently promote and protect its cultural heritage, allowing Russia to subvert it for years before finally ruining or brazenly stealing its most valuable objects.

An artist who works in the exhibition department of the Borys Voznytsky National Gallery walks past some of the last remaining items in the empty galleries and hallways of the Potocki Palace in Lviv, Ukraine | Leon Neal/Getty Images

In the confusion prior to Russia’s invasion and throughout the fog of war, it was left to Ukraine’s museum workers to protect the properties and artifacts in their care, as they made life-or-death decisions whether to stay or flee, and whether to hide or hand over the collections.

In rare cases, staff managed to save works. Paintings by renowned folk artist Maria Prymachenko in Ivankiv, north of Kyiv, were widely reported to have been destroyed when the local museum was shelled in March. In fact, staff had taken them out of the building and preserved them. But in Mariupol, as in other occupied cities like Melitopol and Kherson, similar attempts failed.

***

Tetiana Buliy, 62, who ran the Mariupol Arkhip Kuindzhi art gallery since it opened in 2011, returned to work from sick leave on February 23. She was going to supervise a local art exhibition due to open two days later in the gallery’s small, graceful, peach-painted building.

People were talking about whether Russia would attack, but neither central nor local governments had called to evacuate the city, which was then less than 30 kilometers from the existing Donbas front line.

“We’d lived for eight years near the front line, and I think that made us too relaxed,” said Buliy.

Culture Minister Tkachenko says he spoke to the city mayor on February 23 to discuss evacuation, but got the reply, “We don’t need panic.” The mayor has denied this account. 

There was a protocol for evacuating the museum, with the most significant objects marked with stickers. But without any orders, let alone packing materials or transport, “all we could do was take down the most important and interesting things, and hide them,” said Buliy.

Buliy hid three small works by Mariupol-born painter Kuindzhi, along with pictures by his contemporaries including the seascape painter Aivazovsky, in a secure room in the basement.

She asked a security company to reinforce the alarm system on February 23, locking the building after them and returning home with the keys.

It was her last visit.

Russia’s shooting, shelling and bombing were relentless. The phone signal disappeared, plunging Buliy and her husband into an information vacuum. Two neighboring flats were hit, their occupants killed and eventually buried in the flowerbed outside. Another day a bomb landed in the courtyard, killing four.

On March 15, the couple left in a humanitarian column of about 20,000 Mariupol residents.

***

Just down the road from the gallery was Mariupol Local History Museum, a historic three-story building with stone “babas” — 7th- to 13th-century monuments from the surrounding steppe — standing outside. Here, staff under Nataliya Kapustnikova’s direction put the most valuable of the collections into safe storage on the first floor on March 24, according to Oleksandr Gorye, then-head of the museum’s science and education department. 

Gorye managed to visit the museum in early March, and saw doors and windows were broken; people living nearby told him they had seen probable local looters inside. A fire tore through the building in late March. The Kuindzhi gallery was hit twice by missiles, damaging the roof and windows. 

In interviews with Russian media in late April, Kapustnikova said that 95 percent of the museum collection was destroyed in a fire, and blamed the Ukrainian Azov Battalion, which was among forces defending the city.

That was when Buliy got the phone call about the gallery keys.

Gorye, who had fled the city in mid-April, had already alerted her to Kapustnikova’s interviews. Buliy was shocked by the betrayal.

“It was so painful when I saw it,” she told POLITICO. “How can you work with the ones who destroyed our city and killed people you knew? How?”

As well as the 19th-century works, officials from Russia and Russian-controlled Donetsk took an icon, books, decorative objects and some pictures from the contemporary exhibition which had been due to open on February 25. They also emptied the history museum’s undamaged library and the nearby affiliated ethnographic museum.  

There is no information about whether the items are still in Donetsk, or have been moved on to Russia.

***

Russian officials claim cultural treasures from occupied territories are being removed for safekeeping. But Russia has been moving art and archaeological finds from its colonized lands to the central museums of Moscow and St. Petersburg for centuries.  

“They have such a tradition,” said Gorye, now in Odesa and the Mariupol museum’s acting head. “The brighter and more valuable the objects, the further they sent them away.”

In Soviet times, a few things came back — the three Kuindzhi pictures were transferred to Mariupol in the 1960s from St. Petersburg (then Leningrad). They were on permanent display in the Kuindzhi gallery, although Mariupol city authorities had not provided funds to insure them. At the local history museum, some gold and silver treasures lived in storage, Gorye said, as the museum was not equipped with alarmed display cases.

The city was planning a major refurbishment of the museum. According to Tkachenko, in recent years Ukraine had started a national restoration program, increased centralized funding for culture, encouraging local authorities to do the same, and stepped up promotion of Ukrainian arts and literature abroad through new state bodies like the Ukrainian Institute, established in 2017. 

“Since 2014 we had a renaissance of Ukrainian culture, because this fight for identity became clearer for many stakeholders,” he said. 

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and covert invasion of east Ukraine in 2014 was a wake-up call to preserve and promote Ukraine’s cultural heritage, said Alim Aliev, deputy director general of the Ukrainian Institute.

In the last eight years, Russia has destroyed or removed many cultural objects from Crimea, often in the name of restoration projects which replace genuine, if crumbling, ancient artifacts and building materials with modern copies, then reframe the past to present Crimea as quintessentially Orthodox Russian territory, Aliev says.

In one of several efforts to map the ongoing war’s cultural impact, the Ukrainian Institute’s Postcards from Ukraine project presents before-and-after pictures of damaged buildings which illustrate the rich complexity and context of Ukraine’s heritage, from Greek and Turkic traces in Mariupol and Crimea, to Chernihiv’s central European-influenced baroque.

“We’re recording every story, because it’s not just the architecture of Ukraine, but of Europe,” said Aliev.  

***

Kuindzhi also represents this complex and colonial history. The painter came from Mariupol’s Greek community, which was resettled from Crimea after the region was incorporated into the Russian empire. He moved to St. Petersburg, but many of his best-known works are of the Ukrainian landscape.

“It was deep in his soul,” said Buliy, who is also from this Greek community. 

Much of Mariupol’s Greek history has been lost in the war, including a decree from Catherine II granting the Greeks special rights, which was in the museum and presumably destroyed in the fire.     

Kuindzhi’s great nephew Serhiy Danilov lived in Mariupol along with his daughters, teaching at university and regularly attending gallery events, Buliy recalled.

In March 2022, he was killed in his flat by a missile strike, along with his son-in-law.

While Ukraine is working to virtually recreate some objects from Mariupol museum, the life they represent of Ukrainian artists, professors, researchers and curators has vanished. Those who survived feel impelled to bear living witness to history.

“So many people I know died,” says Buliy. “The city was practically destroyed. I was always a peaceful person, but I’m so angry now. I’m on a mission to talk about what this war has done.”  

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