Since its inception as an independent nation, Ukraine has fought a two-fold battle of creating its own identity while simultaneously seeking to align itself with Western institutions, peaking over territorial claims in Crimea. In February of 2022, the conflict reached a boiling point as Russia embarked on a complete attack on Ukraine, ultimately aiming to eliminate the Western-aligned Volodymyr Zelensky and his government. Currently, the conflict has spanned over a decade, internally displacing 5.1 million people and claiming nearly half a million lives. The mere cost of lives was accompanied by economic downfall and widespread theft of Ukrainian foods.
Amidst the stark material devastation wrought by this ongoing struggle lies a subtler battle for cultural heritage and identity. In a swift, even audacious act, thieves moved swiftly through Kherson Regional Art Museum, stealing over 10,000 masterworks by Ukrainian, Russian, and other European artists. Who these thieves are and why they chose to rob the so-called Louvre of Kherson is no puzzle. Over the course of recent years, Russian forces have systematically looted Ukrainian artwork and cultural artifacts. Taken together, these attacks are not targeted at creating direct devastation but are part of a broader campaign by President Vladimir Putin to fabricate a “Russian World,” or the ultimate vengeance for its contested history with Ukraine.
Who Owns History?
Russian history reveals a contentious breach of international treaties in favor of the pursuit of cultural agendas. The 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, established after World War II, mandates signatories to prevent any form of theft of cultural property. And, despite such agreements, a painting of Ivan the Terrible, Russia’s Inaugural Czar, taken in 1941, was only returned in 2019, 75 years later.
Furthermore, the seizure of 52 paintings by Ukrainian artists, “illegally transferred to the Simferopol Art Museum” in Crimea following Russia’s annexation of the region, showcases a recurring pattern of art appropriation. The pieces, including masterworks like Ivan Aivazovsky's “Moonlit Night” and Ivan Shishkin's “Forest Road,” hold substantial cultural and monetary value, estimated at approximately US$1.324 million as of March 2014. Given the enduring consequences of these thefts, these incidents collectively underscore the need for strengthened international efforts to protect cultural heritage and ensure the rightful return of stolen artworks to their countries of origin.
A Tale of Tradition: Maria Prymachenko
In one such case of theft, the incineration of the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum by Russian forces, around 25 of Maria Prymachenko’s pieces were destroyed. Maria Prymachenko’s art, born from a deep connection to nature and steeped in Ukrainian folk traditions, permeates national pop culture in its appearance on coins and postage stamps. Her paintings, characterized by a rich interplay of colors and shapes, depicted a timeless struggle between forces of good and evil, with goodness consistently prevailing. Despite her lack of formal training, Prymachenko's works achieved global recognition, earning admiration from notable figures like Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall. In this case, theft appears not just about taking a good away but taking an idea of Ukrainian history and pride away as well.
Furthermore, this tragic event compels us to contemplate the broader implications of the preservation of cultural artifacts during periods of war. It casts a spotlight on the urgent need for strengthened international efforts to protect and safeguard cultural treasures in conflict zones. In this context, Ukraine’s call on UNESCO to revoke Russia’s membership serves as a poignant appeal for accountability, emphasizing the vital role of global institutions in upholding the sanctity of cultural heritage in the face of conflict-induced devastation.
A Body of Debate: The Theft of Potemkin's Bones
Further highlighting these goals is the stealing of Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin's remains from the crypt beneath St. Catherine’s Cathedral in Kherson, Ukraine, serving as a testament to the Kremlin's calculated efforts to manipulate history for its own gain. Potemkin’s historical significance is deeply entwined with Russian territorial ambitions, notably his instrumental role in persuading Catherine the Great to annex Crimea in 1783. This act of plundering, however, goes beyond a mere power play; it signifies a broader agenda to erase Ukrainian identity. Potemkin and Catherine, according to historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, had an “outrageously libertine lifestyle and exuberant political triumphs,” which the Kremlin might find appealing and yet, “Potemkin would have despised Putin and everything he stands for” because of Potemkin’s belief in vibrant and diverse villages.
The attempted theft of Potemkin’s remains adds a troubling chapter to this ongoing issue. It raises the specter of a potential propagandistic narrative, possibly featuring a televised spectacle of ultranationalism, blending in Montefiore’s view, “the gilded majesty of the Romanov empire with the grim glory of a Stalinist superpower into a peculiar modern hybrid.” This calculated act underscores Russia's determined efforts to rewrite history and impose its narrative on Ukraine's cultural heritage.
The assault on St. Catherine’s Cathedral further underscores the vulnerability of Ukraine's cultural treasures in times of conflict. Potemkin's remains, central to his pivotal role in Russian expansion, were previously relocated during the city's eight-month occupation, underscoring the calculated manipulation of cultural artifacts for political ends.
Cultural Erasure and Theft as War
Since the invasion, Russian forces and local collaborators have engaged in widespread timber expropriation across Ukraine, further adding to the allegations of resource theft. This extensive deforestation, conducted for both commercial purposes and military fortifications, has left once-wooded areas barren, as seen in satellite imagery. Ukrainian authorities and forestry experts have voiced concerns over the lack of proper compensation for the acres of forests indiscriminately razed. Moreover, Sergei Shoigu, the head of Russia’s Ministry of Defense, reportedly sought permission from President Vladimir Putin to use Ukraine's timber resources for both military and financial gain, highlighting a concerted effort to exploit Ukraine's natural resources.
The Russian attack on resources has also extended to Ukrainian farms and mining fields. Russian forces, upon seizing properties, have caused enormous destruction to agricultural land, slaughtering livestock and repurposing equipment for military use. Ukrainian farmer Anatolii Kulibaba, who lost his son in the conflict, faces not only personal tragedy but also severe damage to his 494-acre farm. The conflict has disrupted Ukraine’s vital agricultural sector, with 30 percent of farmland being occupied or unsafe. This disruption has reverberated globally, with potential shortages and higher prices for wheat-based products expected. The loss of Ukraine’s agricultural output is anticipated to have widespread economic ramifications. The grim reality is compounded by the fact that the family farms face an “arduous” path to recovery, hindered by the presence of landmines, unexploded ordnance, and damaged equipment. The broader impact of this devastation underscores the humanitarian and economic toll of the invasion.
These thefts combine to paint a picture and pattern of the “targeted destruction” that has motivated Russian forces, according to Katharyn Hanson, the head of research at the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative. The economic impact of agricultural and natural resource theft is further amplified by the 248 cultural sites that have been damaged, as marked by UNESCO. According to World Bank estimates, the total damage to Ukraine’s cultural assets is upwards of US $2 billion. While some attempts to protect artworks have been made, such as stories of renovation and rescue, Russian forces have managed to seize valuable pieces. This indicates a calculated approach to art looting. The situation remains dire, as locals grapple with the loss of irreplaceable cultural treasures and the broader implications for Ukraine's cultural heritage.
Ultimately, the reality of art theft during the Russia-Ukraine Conflict stands as a glaring testament to a “chillingly crass and television spectacular of ultranationalism.” As the war persists and Ukrainian activists grapple with the dual challenge of protecting artworks while facing the threat of theft, the path toward repatriation remains shrouded in uncertainty. Nevertheless, glimmers of hope emerge through the efforts of organizations like UNESCO, which have demonstrated that strategic evacuation and targeted training can serve as crucial tools in safeguarding cultural heritage.
While Russia’s actions may be seen as an isolated instance of art being exploited in the theater of war, it is essential to acknowledge a wider, disconcerting trend. Nations across Europe, including the UK, France, and Belgium, have historically engaged in similar practices, utilizing art as a means to suppress identity to execute deliberate and destructive war strategies. This broader narrative underscores the urgent need for concerted international efforts to protect and repatriate artworks displaced by conflict, ensuring that cultural heritage remains a beacon of unity and understanding for generations to come. Only through collective action can we hope to rectify the injustices of the past and forge a path forward for the preservation of shared cultural identities.