Russia Searches Art to Erase Ukraine’s History – POLITICO
KYIV — In late April, Tetiana Buliy, manager of the Arkhip Kuindzhi art gallery, was living in Mariupol, near Kiev, when her phone rang.
It was the gallery caretaker who had stayed in Mariupol and asked where the keys were.
Buliy had locked down the building on February 25, the second day of Russia’s massive bombardment of the southern Ukrainian city. By the end of April, Mariupol was almost entirely under Russian control.
The gallery keys were in Buliy’s Mariupol apartment. She had fled there with her husband in March when Russian missiles destroyed the town.
Buliy spoke firmly on the phone and replied: “I don’t talk to business partners.”
But her defiance was in vain.
On April 27, a video appeared in Russian media. In it, Buliy’s boss, Nataliya Kapustnikova, director of the Mariupol Museum of Local History, unwrapped a bundle of photos and showed them to the camera – small, jewel-like landscapes and seascapes before 19.thcentury masters Arkhip Kuindzhi and Ivan Aivazovsky.
The art had been hidden by the manager 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 in the 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 in 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 images weren’t damaged, they were betrayed,” says Buliy. “They were stolen by the enemy.”
The destruction of Ukraine’s cultural heritage since the end of February has been on a scale matching Russia’s brutal attacks on 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 artefacts 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 paintings and artefacts to Russian-occupied Crimea – along with statues of two 18thcentury Russian warlords 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 a continuation of a colonialist policy to erase Ukraine’s history and rewrite it as part of Russia’s, in line with President Vladimir Putin’s debunked the justification for the war, that Ukraine has no history of its own and therefore no right to exist as a country.
“Behind [Russian] tactics are a fight against our identity,” Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko told POLITICO. “Everything connected with Ukrainian history and Ukrainian heritage should either be destroyed, according to their ideology, or be robbed.”
But Ukraine was too late to adequately promote and protect its cultural heritage, allowing Russia to undermine it for years before finally ruining or shamelessly stealing its most valuable objects.
In the confusion before Russia’s invasion and through the fog of war, it was left to Ukraine’s museum workers to protect the properties and artifacts in their custody as they made life-or-death decisions, whether to stay or flee, and whether to hide or surrender the collections .
In rare cases, the staff managed to save works. Paintings by renowned folk artist Maria Prymachenko in Ivankiv, north of Kiev, were widely reported to have been destroyed when the local museum was shelled in March. In fact, the staff had taken them out of the building and preserved them. But in Mariupol, as in other occupied cities such as 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 to supervise a local art exhibition that was to open two days later in the gallery’s small graceful peach-painted building.
People talked about whether Russia would attack, but neither central nor local authorities had called to evacuate the city, which was then less than 30 kilometers from the existing Donbas front line.
“We had lived for eight years close to the front line and I think it made us too relaxed,” Buliy said.
Culture Minister Tkachenko says he spoke with the city’s mayor on February 23 to discuss evacuation, but was told: “We don’t need to panic.” The mayor has denied this account.
There was a protocol for evacuating the museum, with the most important objects marked with stickers. But without any orders, let alone packing materials or transportation, “all we could do was take down the most important and interesting things and hide them,” Buliy said.
Buliy kept three small works by the Mariupol-born painter Kuindzhi, along with pictures of his contemporaries, including the seascape painter Aivazovsky, in a safe room in the basement.
She asked a security company to reinforce the alarm system on February 23, lock the building after them and return home with the keys.
It was her last visit.
Russia’s shooting, shelling and bombing was relentless. The phone signal disappeared, throwing Buliy and her husband into an information vacuum. Two neighboring apartments were hit, their occupants killed and eventually buried in the flower bed outside. Another day, a bomb landed in the yard, killing four.
On March 15, the couple left in a humanitarian column with about 20,000 Mariupol residents.
Just down the road from the gallery was the 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 the direction of Nataliya Kapustnikova placed the most valuable of the collections in 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 that the doors and windows were broken; people living nearby told him they had seen probable local looters inside. A fire tore through the building at the end of March. The Kuindzhi gallery was hit twice by missiles, damaging the roof and windows.
In interviews with Russian media in late April, Kapustnikova said 95 percent of the museum’s collection was destroyed in a fire, and blamed the Ukrainian Azov Battalion, which was among forces defending the city.
That’s when Buliy got the phone call about the gallery keys.
Gorye, who had fled the city in mid-April, had already made her aware of 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 those who destroyed our city and killed people you knew? How?”
As well as the 19thcentury works, officials from Russia and Russian-controlled Donetsk took an icon, books, decorative objects and some pictures from the contemporary exhibition that had opened on February 25. They also emptied the history museum’s undamaged library and the nearby affiliated ethnographic museum.
There is no information on whether the objects are still in Donetsk or have been moved on to Russia.
Russian officials claim that cultural treasures from occupied territories are being removed for safekeeping. But Russia has moved art and archaeological finds from its colonized countries to the central museums in Moscow and St. Petersburg for centuries.
“They have such a tradition,” said Gorye, now in Odesa and the Mariupol museum’s acting director. “The brighter and more valuable the objects, the farther they sent them.”
In Soviet times, a few things came back – the three Kuindzhi images were transferred to Mariupol in the 1960s from St. Petersburg (then Leningrad). They were on permanent display in the Kuindzhi gallery, although the Mariupol city authorities had not provided funds to insure them. At the local history museum, some gold and silver treasures resided in storage, Gorye said, as the museum was not equipped with alarmed display cases.
The city planned a major renovation of the museum. According to Tkachenko, in recent years Ukraine had started a national restoration program, increased centralized funding for culture, encouraged local authorities to do the same, and stepped up promotion of Ukrainian art and literature abroad through new state bodies such as the Ukrainian Institute, established in 2017.
“Since 2014, we have had a renaissance of Ukrainian culture because this struggle for identity became clearer to many stakeholders,” he said.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and covert invasion of eastern 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 past 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 replicas, then recast the past to present Crimea as predominantly Orthodox. Russian territory, says Aliev.
In one of several efforts to map the cultural impact of the ongoing war, the Ukrainian institute Postcard from Ukraine The project presents before-and-after images of damaged buildings that illustrate the rich complexity and context of Ukraine’s heritage, from Greek and Turkish traces in Mariupol and Crimea, to Chernihiv’s Central European Baroque.
“We record every story because it is not only the architecture of Ukraine, but of Europe,” Aliev said.
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 Saint 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 giving the Greeks special rights, which was in the museum and presumably destroyed in the fire.
Kuindzhi’s great nephew Serhiy Danilov lived in Mariupol with his daughters, taught at the university and regularly attended gallery events, Buliy recalled.
In March 2022, he was killed in his apartment by a missile attack together with his son-in-law.
While Ukraine is working to virtually restore some objects from the Mariupol Museum, the life they represent for Ukrainian artists, professors, researchers and curators has disappeared. Those who survived feel compelled to give living testimony to history.
“So many people I know died,” says Buliy. “The city was practically destroyed. I’ve always been a peaceful person, but I’m so angry now. I’m on a mission to talk about what this war has done.”