Ukraine accuses Russian forces of seizing 2,000 artworks in Mariupol

The Guardian 29 April 2022
By Pjotr Sauer

City council is reportedly preparing materials to initiate criminal proceedings over mass cultural looting

Ukrainian officials have accused Russian forces of seizing “over 2,000 artworks” from museums in the occupied city of Mariupol and moving the pieces to areas of the Russian-controlled Donbas region.

“The occupiers ‘liberated’ Mariupol from its historical and cultural heritage. They stole and moved more than 2,000 unique exhibits from museums in Mariupol to Donetsk,” the Mariupol city council said in a statement posted on its Telegram channel on Thursday.

They said the haul includes several original works by the 19th-century Mariupol native Arkhip Kuindzhi and the famed Russian romantic painter Ivan Aivazovsky as well as a unique handwritten Torah scroll, and the Gospel of 1811 made by the Venetian printing house for the Greeks of Mariupol.

“Mariupol city council is preparing materials for law enforcement agencies to initiate criminal proceedings and make an appeal to Interpol,” the council added.

In a separate statement, Petro Andriushchenko, a member of the city council, said Russia seized three original paintings by Kuindzhi, who gained international fame for his portraits of the Russian landscape.

According to the Mariupol city council, the works came from the three local museums, including the Kuindzhi art museum, which was heavily damaged during a Russian airstrike on 21 March 2022.

Natalia Kapustnikova, director of the Mariupol Local History museum, told the pro-Kremlin outlet Izvestiya that she handed over the works of Aivazovsky and Kuindzhi to the Russian forces “following the end of the hostilities”.

“The head of the Kuindzhi art museum hid the paintings when the war started. I knew where they were … They were then moved to safety,” she said.

Moscow has largely taken control of the south-eastern port city of Mariupol, which has been razed to rubble by Russian bombs. An estimated 2,000 Ukrainian troops and up to 1,000 civilians are still holed up in the besieged Azovstal steel plant on the outskirts of the city.

If confirmed, the art seizure in Mariupol would signify the first known instance of mass cultural looting by Russian forces since the start of the war.

The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, previously accused Russian troops of engaging in mass looting after video and audio recordings appeared to show Russian forces sending parcels containing stolen goods back to Russia. The Guardian also collected evidence that suggests looting by Russian forces was a systematic part of Russian military behaviour in Ukraine.

Ukraine has rushed to preserve its art objects and monuments since the outbreak of the war more than two months ago, as many feared Moscow would specifically target the country’s cultural heritage, a war crime under international law.

Ukrainian fears for its cultural assets have been exacerbated by a series of public speeches made by Russian President Vladimir Putin in which he rejected Ukraine’s independent identity, language and traditions.

A number of leading museums across the country have since moved their art to undisclosed locations.

The global arts organisation Getty previously warned that millions of artworks and monuments in Ukraine were at risk of being looted or bombed.

In a March statement, Getty said: “The material cultural heritage of the world is our common heritage, the identity and inspiration for all humanity. Cultural heritage has the power to unite us and is critical for achieving peace.”

“It is also too often the target of war, another way to destroy and overtake a society by erasing its memory.”

A number of Ukrainian cultural sites have already been destroyed by Russian shelling, including the Ivankiv museum, which housed Ukrainian folk art, while Unesco estimates that over 50 Ukrainian historical buildings have suffered extensive damage since the start of Russia’s invasion.

The Guardian has contacted the Russian military for comment.
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