Among the war crimes committed by the Russian occupiers in Ukraine, crimes against cultural heritage play a special part. Destruction of sights, artillery strikes on educational and cultural institutions, robbery of museums and archives… The number of recorded episodes and testimonies of employees of the institutions affected prove that these are not incidents, but purposeful policy.
Monuments of culture are targeted by the enemy because of its desire to destroy the Ukrainian identity. Therefore, the aggressor’s actions can be considered as a component of the crime of genocide against the Ukrainian people.
As of the beginning of December 2022, the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy has documented the destruction or damage to more than 1,100 objects of cultural infrastructure. Among them are more than 550 cultural heritage sites. These statistics mostly include monuments of architecture, buildings of museums, schools, universities, culture centres in Donetsk, Mykolaiv, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Sumy, Kherson, Chernihiv, Zaporizhzhia, Kyiv oblasts. Moreover, Russians systematically rob museums in the occupied territories. “We are probably dealing with the largest robbery of museum collections since WWII. However, we are also dealing with the largest evacuation of collections since WWII,” Minister of Culture and Information Policy Oleksandr Tkachenko.
The Centre for Strategic Communication recalls the most resonant and terrible crimes of Russians against Ukrainian culture.
1. Kharkiv region: destroyed museum of Hryhorii Skovoroda
On the night of May 7, Russian artillery struck the museum in the village of Skovorodynivka in the Zolochiv hromada of Kharkiv Oblast. The house of Andrii Kovalivskyi, where the philosopher was staying, was seriously affected by the fire. The destroyed building is not only a museum, but also a monument of architecture of the 18th century.
With a strike on Skovorodynivka, Russians in their own manner “congratulated” Ukrainians on the 300-th birthday of the philosopher. It was this museum, on the territory of which the grave of Skovoroda with the legendary inscription “The world tried to catch me but could not” is located, that was given a central role in the celebration of the anniversary. But because of the Russian invasion, the plan of activities had to be significantly reduced.
The enemy failed to destroy everything. According to the Minister of Culture Oleksandr Tkachenko, the most valuable exhibits were not damaged: they had been taken to a safer place in advance.
Miraculously, the surviving monument to Hryhorii Skovoroda, which became a symbol of the invincibility of Ukrainians, was one of the central show pieces of the exhibition “The World of Skovoroda,” dedicated to the 300th anniversary of the Ukrainian genius, held at the “Ukrainian House” in Kyiv.
2. Kherson region: ravaged museums
Kherson is the only regional centre of Ukraine that the Russians managed to capture immediately after the beginning of the invasion in February 2022. Its liberation clearly demonstrated the future that the invaders were preparing for the occupied territories. Along with mass burials and torture, in particular for children, ravaged, robbed museums were found.
The Russians robbed the funds of the Oleksii Shovkunenko Kherson Art Museum, the Kherson Regional Local Lore Museum, and the Albert Havdzynskyi Art Gallery in Nova Kakhovka.
Collections of iconography of the 17th-20th centuries, Ukrainian painting of the 19th-20th centuries, in particular, 297 works of painting and graphics by Gavdzynskyi, works of modern artists were taken to the occupied Crimea. Some stolen paintings ended up in the exposition of the Central Museum of Tavrida.
The chronology of one of the acts of looting, according to the testimonies of the employees of the Oleksii Shovkunenko Kherson Art Museum: three trucks and a school bus with loot left the territory of the museum in just one day, on November 1, 2022. The next day, two more trucks left. On November 3, leftovers were picked up by a bus. According to preliminary estimates, we are talking about 15,000 pieces of the collection.
From the Kherson Regional Local Lore Museum, the occupiers took collections of coins, weapons, Sarmatian decorations of Soviet times and the Russian Empire, antique furniture of the 18th-19th centuries, a collection of icons, paintings, and the entire part of the exposition with archaeology, which formed the core of the museum collection.
The regional archive and the scientific library named after Oles Honchar also had a sad fate. The occupiers stole archival documents and collections of pre-revolutionary publications.
3. Mariupol: an airstrike on the theatre and a robbed cathedral
During the defence of Mariupol, which lasted almost three months, the besieged city suffered some of the greatest destruction in Ukraine. Russian invaders methodically destroyed objects of life support, housing stock, social and cultural infrastructure.
The building of the Donetsk Drama Theatre, destroyed by an air strike, next to which a huge inscription “Children” was made in Russian, became one of the symbols of Russian war crimes. In the basement of the theatre, parents with children mostly hid, most of whom died.
In May, the Russians dismantled the rubble and buried hundreds of people (the exact number of victims has not been established) in unnamed graves in Manhush.
According to local Ukrainian authorities, Russian invaders took all valuable exhibits from the Museum of Local Lore and the Kuindzhi Art Museum of Mariupol. The originals of the paintings by Arkhip Kuindzhi and Ivan Aivazovsky were stolen.
And later, during the hostilities in Mariupol, a museum of local history, an art museum, and an exhibition hall named after Arkhip Kuindzhi were destroyed.
The surviving exhibits, although the “rebuilding of Mariupol” became one of the key topics of Russian propaganda, were transported to the occupied Donetsk. Their further fate, in particular, of the paintings by Ivan Aivazovsky, Tetiana Yablonska, Mykola Derehus, is unknown.
The Cathedral of St. Petro Mohyla of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine was robbed by Russian occupiers, and a collection of Ukrainian books was seized and burned in the courtyard of the church. The library contained several unique copies of Ukrainian-language editions, which are now lost forever.
The Cathedral of St. Peter Mohyla and the Church of the Assumption of Mary of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in Mariupol are painted with traditional Ukrainian paintings. This is the world’s first church of this size (the total area of the painting is 500 linear meters), painted in the style of “Petrykivka.” The temple is included in the Book of Records of Ukraine.
4. Chernihiv: Tarnovskyi Museum of Antiquities
In March, Russian soldiers targeted the house of Vasyl Tarnovskyi in Chernihiv — a monument of architecture of the 19th century. This historic building housed the Museum of Ukrainian Antiquities, founded in 1896, later the Chernihiv Historical Museum, and since 1980 — a library for young people. The building and the collection of the historical museum were also affected by Russian shelling.
5. Trostianets: The garden of Leopold Koenig
The Russians destroyed the architectural monument of national significance when retreating from the Sumy Oblast in April — the house of the estate manager Koenig. The garden housed a local history museum, a picture gallery, and a chocolate museum. The main house and the most famous part of the garden — the Round Yard — suffered less. The occupiers destroyed a unique library, which contained more than 15,000 books.
6. Kyiv region: Maria Prymachenko Museum
During the offensive of the Russians on Kyiv in February, a museum in Ivankiv was under the fire of enemy artillery, where more than two dozen works of the world-famous artist, representative of “naive art,” Maria Prymachenko, were kept. A part of the collection was already in Kyiv, a part was saved from the burning museum by locals.
7. Donetsk region: wooden skete of the Sviatohirsk Lavra
The All-Saints Skete of the Sviatohirsk Lavra burned down as a result of the Russian shelling during an enemy offensive in Donetsk Oblast. The All-Saints Skete was built in 1912. This is one of the best examples of inheriting wooden temple architecture. The temple was first destroyed by the Bolsheviks in 1947 and was restored in the early 2000s. It was considered a monument of wooden architecture and was the largest wooden church in Ukraine.
8. Melitopol: theft of Scythian gold
Russians robbed the local history museum in the occupied Melitopol of the Zaporizhzhia region. A collection of Scythian, Hun and Sarmatian gold, silver coins from the Doukhobor treasure, and historical weapons were stolen. The museum staff tried to hide the collection. However, the local collaborator, who was appointed as the “director” of the institution, reported about the treasures to the occupiers. The fate of the exhibits is currently unknown.
9. Kharkiv: historical buildings in the city centre
On March 1, during the battle for Kharkiv, Russians fired two Kalibr missiles at the building of the regional state administration and the regional council on the Svoboda Maidan. 29 people died as a result of the attack.
In two weeks, a missile attack destroyed a neighbouring residential building — a local architectural monument.
The Palace of Labour (the former profitable house of the insurance company “Russia”), one of the architectural sights of Kharkiv, was struck by a hostile missile on March 2. The roof collapsed, the windows were shattered, the walls were damaged. During the shelling, the facades of the city council building and the 18th-century Dormition Cathedral, located nearby, were also damaged.
On March 29, an enemy missile hit an ancient fire station on the Poltava Way. It was built in 1887 and the fire tower — 40 years earlier. It was the tallest building in Kharkiv for a long time, and until recently towered over the low-rise development of Zalopan.
The highest number of the destroyed architectural monuments in Kharkiv is in the central part of the city.
In total, Russian occupiers destroyed and damaged more than a hundred architectural monuments in Kharkiv and the oblast.
10. Zhytomyr region: Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
This is another architectural monument of national importance destroyed by the Russian occupiers. Built in 1862, the wooden temple survived two world wars, but was destroyed by the fire of Russian artillery in early March.
11. Zaporizhzhia Oblast: Kamyana Mohyla
Back in late April, the Russian military mined the territory near the Kamyana Mohyla, a unique monument of geology and archaeology of world importance, located in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast near Melitopol. The Kamyana Mohyla Monument is a cult complex, the only place in all Eastern Europe where the cave painting from the late Palaeolithic to the Middle Ages has been preserved. The hill counts about 3,000 slabs, under which there are 65 grottoes and caves, richly covered with petroglyphs. Since 2006, the Kamyana Mohyla archaeological complex has been on the preliminary UNESCO World Heritage List and claims the right to include the site in the main UNESCO World Heritage List.
12. Crimea: Bakhchisaray Khan’s Palace
The Russians dismantle the roof and the ensemble of coloured stained-glass windows of the Golden Cabinet, replace the ancient roof with modern building materials, that is, erase the national memory with new construction. The so-called “restoration” of the Khan Palace began in 2016. It is an act of vandalism and abuse of the history of the people, which, despite the colossal pressure, repression, and other forms of aggression, demonstrates to the world the commitment to the principles of democracy, territorial integrity of Ukraine, human rights and the desire for freedom by non-violent methods.
The palace in Bakhchisaray is a unique Crimean Tatar architectural monument, which is evidence of the existence, development, ethnogeny of Crimean Tatars in this territory.
Russian aggression has shown that the Kremlin is trying to destroy not only Ukrainian statehood, but also Ukrainian identity. And the war against cultural heritage is part of this programme. The Russians practise the tactics of scorched earth, not considering the victims and destruction, as well as carry out terrorist attacks on civilian objects. Among them, especially at the beginning of the invasion, there were many cultural monuments. War causes enormous damage to archaeological heritage: entire cultural layers can be destroyed during hostilities.
Russians treat cultural heritage as colonizers, destroying what they cannot use in their own interests, in particular, to promote their own vision of a “great Russian culture.”
For Ukrainian monuments, they have a limited list of scenarios:
● clearing the cultural field to replace it with their own and to claim that there was “nothing” before Russia / without Russia;
● the appropriation of someone else’s cultural heritage to then impersonate it as their own. To this end, the occupiers rob Ukrainian museums and take away valuables;
● the appropriation for the purpose of enrichment.
Such practices for the Russian state are not incidents, but a tradition that is well over one hundred years old. The lion’s share of expositions of Russian central museums falls on archaeological finds from Ukraine, samples of Ukrainian iconography, secular painting, and other monuments of Ukrainian culture, with the Cossack hetmans’ regalia inclusive. All this is presented as examples of “Russian” art.
Ukraine has the right to raise the issue of compensation for damages in the cultural sphere today. Applying both general and special provisions of international law: UNESCO conventions, UN General Assembly resolutions, the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, etc. The key instrument of reparation is restitution — the return of stolen values and restoration of the integral cultural heritage of the state by replacing the values with similar ones.
Already today, the MCIP documents crimes to further work in the legal field and bring Russia to justice. It also created a platform for the restoration of cultural monuments that suffered from Russian aggression.
Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security