In Kherson, more than 700 kilometers south of Ivankiv, the occupation lasted for several months and officially ended only on November 10, 2022, after the Russians had moved across the Dnieper. Russian artillery, mortar and rocket fire from the right bank of the river continues to rain down on the city, inflicting new civilian casualties every week. There is no salvation, only a lost treasure.
Alina Dotsenkodirector of Museum of Fine Arts van Kherson, living as a refugee in Kiev in an apartment borrowed from relatives, and remembers her tragedy: 14,000 paintings, owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, were transferred like boxes of vegetables to the museum in Simferopol between October 31 and November 4, 2022 , in Crimea. Just before the Russians left the city. “All they left behind were some heavy bronzes and a bust of Lenin,” she says.
There are too many things in Alina’s head and she will not forget to tell you something: the story of this museum, “a gem” where she has worked since she was nineteen, when as a young student “she had not even graduated from the academy “. Such as the arrival of the first masterpieces during the Soviet period, the maddened struggle with a will for the collection of a former aristocrat from “Leningrad” (the name of Saint Petersburg during the Soviet era), who bequeathed important works to the city in return for a pension and an apartment . Or donations of paintings in recent years by Ukrainian artists in exile in Paris or Berlin, all of whom were “blinded” by the architecture of this small southern palace.
But the looting of Kherson’s museum is so painful because it involves collaboration with the occupying power, the extent of which Ukraine is only just beginning to realize. It is now established that the capture of the city was facilitated from the first days of the invasion by the local intelligence service, which a few days earlier had opened the land route to Kherson from the Crimea. The head of the SBU (security services) in the region was fired by the Ukrainian authorities in March.
In miniature, the same story unfolded with the museum staff. Some of the personnel who remained in the city supported the occupiers and welcomed the Russians with flowers and cheers. The second part – which included a technical engineer, a researcher named Anna, a janitor and a cleaner – led by Alina Dotsenko, tried to buy time by claiming that the plant had been evacuated at the beginning of the war.
Although the paintings were removed, protected and packed due to major renovations planned this year, they never actually left Kherson. They were stored in the museum’s basement, in double-locked vaults, to which only Anna and Alina Dotsenko had the key. On March 1, Russian troops entered. They patrolled the floors but found an empty museum.
To be safe, the ‘loyal’ staff have also taken steps to hide the cumbersome files of the works in the building, copying and then destroying the hard drives of the museum’s computers to delete any database that could be used to track the works.
In early May, the situation escalated. The May 9 parades celebrating the end of World War II in Russia are being prepared. Vladimir Putin want to go all out on this occasion. In Kherson, the local authorities strongly encourage the museum to build a large and beautiful patriotic exhibition.
Alina Dotsenko refuses and is eventually subpoenaed by the Kherson Prosecutor’s Office, a puppet body led by the Russian “governor”, appointed by Moscow. The official’s escape on May 5, disguised as a sick grandmother in the back of a car, looks like an epic. It took three days to cover the 200 kilometers that separate Kherson from Kryvyï Rih, the nearest city that remained under Ukrainian control. Residents were only allowed to leave the occupied area for urgent medical reasons.
Despite fierce passive resistance from the increasingly isolated pro-Kiev staff, a new pro-Russian director, a second-rate pop star, was appointed to the museum on July 19, assisted by the former chief curator who had been fired a year earlier . . She knew the museum and the works like the back of her hand and required the famous key ring to open the funds.
Less than two months later, the paintings were transferred to Crimea in the name of the martial law proclaimed by Vladimir Putin for the occupied territories. With the fear that the most beautiful pieces would go to Moscow. “A war crime,” says Alina Dotsenko.
The inaction of the Ukrainian authorities
On October 8, the Ukrainian Minister of Culture, Oleksandr Tkachenko, warned of at least 40 “looting” of Ukrainian museums, including Kherson’s collection, as well as Hunnic gems and nearly 200 items from the Scythian gold collection, looted from the museum in Melitopol, a still-occupied city in the east of the country. In Mariupol, also under Russian rule, more than 2,000 works, including ancient icons and a unique Torah manuscript, were reportedly stolen from the city’s museums.
That The International Council of Museums has published a “red list” of “Ukrainian artistic heritage at risk” in cooperation with eleven Ukrainian institutions, with photographs of various types of objects (icons, manuscripts, folk costumes, archaeological pieces) representative of Ukrainian art. To help customs officers, police officers, dealers and collectors from around the world identify looted goods. But the damage is done.
She does not want to say anything about it publicly, but before and after the Russian invasion, Alina Dotsenko warned the Ukrainian authorities several times about the evacuation of the works from Kherson. Speaking to an MP who called her in early December to congratulate her, she expressed her disappointment that help had come too late.
In Ivankiv, Nadiya Biruk also remembers the terrible “feeling of helplessness” when she sees the burning Primatchenko Museum. “But who could have foreseen such a thing, such a war! It happened so quickly that I could not even evacuate my own grandchildren,” she says.
From one war to another. During the Second World War, 400 works of art from the beautiful Khanenko Museum disappeared in Kiev, taken by the Nazis, but also by the Russians. “They sometimes reappear in private collections and we try to get them back, but it’s a very slow process,” he says Julia Vaganova, the museum’s director. The museum is one of the few in Ukraine whose collections were moved to safety in the early days of the invasion, to an undisclosed location.