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During the Russian aggression against Ukraine, not only Ukrainian citizens and infrastructure, but also cultural heritage was targeted by the enemy. Destruction of monuments, strikes on educational and cultural institutions, plundering of museums — this is not a complete list of crimes. Their number and the testimonies of employees of the affected institutions prove that we are not talking about individual cases, but about a systematic and purposeful policy.
Cultural heritage was at gunpoint of the occupiers not by chance, but because of their desire to destroy the Ukrainian identity. The actions of the aggressor can be considered as a component of the crime of genocide against the Ukrainian people.
In the year of the full-scale war, 1,332 objects of cultural infrastructure were damaged: theatres, philharmonics, museums, galleries, libraries, clubs. More than a third of them were destroyed. As of mid-May 2023, the list of destroyed cultural monuments and cultural heritage sites numbered more than 620 objects. Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Sumy, Chernihiv, Kyiv, Mykolaiv, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia oblasts suffered the most. As a result of the blowing-up of the Kakhovka HPP by the Russian invaders, almost one and a half hundred monuments of architecture and archaeology, museums of the South of Ukraine were flooded. The Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security looks back on the most high-profile and terrible crimes of Russians against Ukrainian culture.
Kherson Oblast: flooded and plundered museums
In Oleshky, water from the blown-up Kakhovka HPP flooded the house of the artist Polina Raiko, a representative of naive art, whose work is put on a par with the art of Kateryna Bilokur and Maria Prymachenko. The water destroyed the inner walls with paintings, damaged the outer walls and the ceiling. According to preliminary estimates, only 30-40% of the frescoes have survived. While Oleshky is under occupation, the destruction of the house will continue. Ukrainian specialists do not have the opportunity to work in Oleshky, and Russians have no intention of saving the monument.
In addition to the Raiko Museum, the house-museum of the writer Ostap Vyshnia, the Korsun monastery of the 18th century, the excavation site of the medieval Tiahyn fortress, and the port city of Oleshia suffered from flooding.
READ ALSO: Who Blew up Kakhovka HPP
During the occupation, 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 17-20th centuries, Ukrainian painting of the 19-20th centuries, in particular, 297 works of art and graphics by Havdzynskyi, 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 bus. According to preliminary estimates, we are talking about 15,000 units of the collection.
From the Kherson Regional Local Lore Museum, the occupiers stole collections of coins, weapons, Sarmatian jewellery from the excavations of the Soviet era and the Russian Empire, antique furniture of the 18th-19th centuries, a collection of icons, paintings, and the whole part of the exposition of archaeology. It was the core of the museum’s 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.
Zaporizhzhia: plundered Kamiana Mohyla and theft of Scythian gold
At the end of April 2022, the Russian military mined the territory near Kamiana Mohyla — a unique monument of geology and archaeology of global importance, the only place in Eastern Europe where rock art from the Late Palaeolithic to the Middle Ages has been preserved. The monument is located on the territory of the eponymous reserve near Melitopol.
The Russians robbed the reserve and took the artefacts to the occupied Crimea. In January 2023, employees of the Tauric Chersonese Museum, controlled by the invaders, went to Zaporizhzhia Oblast to “study the funds” of the Kamiana Mohyla Reserve.
Around May 20, 2023, the Russian propaganda agency Ria Novosti presented a report on the “new exhibition” in the museum-reserve Tauric Chersonese, where the artefacts of the historical and archaeological reserve Kamiana Mohyla, stolen and taken to Sevastopol, were displayed. In particular, the tooth of a mammoth of the late Palaeolithic era, sandstone with imprints of algae, a copper figure made by the Huns, as well as petroglyphs with hunting scenes, household items, ceramics, tools of the Stone Age. According to preliminary unverified information, 120 museum objects were stolen from the territory of Kamiana Mohyla.
From the local history museum in Melitopol, the Russians stole a collection of Scythian, Hun, and Sarmatian gold, silver coins from the Doukhobor treasure and historical weapons. The museum staff tried to save the artefacts. However, the local collaborator, who was appointed “director” of the institution, reported about the treasures to the occupiers. The fate of the exhibits is currently unknown.
It’s not only washing machines.— Defense of Ukraine (@DefenceU) October 9, 2022
🇷🇺 soldiers also snatched artifacts from almost 40🇺🇦 museums.
On this photo is a golden diadem of the Huns, a piece of a historical jewellery set from 90 items the ruscists stole from a Melitopol museum.
Once a war criminal, always a war criminal pic.twitter.com/GhIVRai2Hf
Kharkiv Oblast: 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 “congratulated” Ukrainians on the 300-th birthday of the philosopher in their manner. 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 activities had to be significantly adjusted.
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.
The miraculous surviving of the monument to the philosopher became a real symbol of the invincibility of Ukrainians. It was one of the central exhibits of the World of Skovoroda exhibition, dedicated to the 300th anniversary of the Ukrainian genius, held at the Ukrainian House in Kyiv.
Kyiv Oblast: 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.
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. Children with their parents were hiding in the basement of the theatre, 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 the legitimate local authorities, the Russian invaders completely removed all valuable exhibits from the Mariupol Museum of Local Lore and the Kuindzhi Art Museum. The originals of paintings by Arkhip Kuindzhi and Ivan Aivazovskyi were stolen.
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 Church of St. Peter Mohyla and the Church of the Assumption of Mary of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in Mariupol, 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 church is listed in the Book of Records of Ukraine.
Chernihiv: Tarnovskyi Museum of Antiquities
In March 2022, 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.
Donetsk Oblast: wooden skete of the Sviatohirsk Lavra
The All Saints Skete of the Sviatohirsk Lavra burned down as a result of 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 preserving wooden church architecture. The church 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.
Sumy Oblast: Leopold Koenig Manor
Retreating in April 2022 from Sumy Oblast, the Russians destroyed a monument of architecture of national importance — the house of the estate manager of Koenig in Trostianets. 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 numbered more than 15,000 books.
Kharkiv: historical buildings in the city centre
On March 1, during the battle for Kharkiv, the 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 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.
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 church survived two world wars, but was destroyed by the fire of Russian artillery in early March 2022.
Crimea: damaged Khan’s Palace and destroyed archaeological monuments
The history of Russian crimes against cultural heritage in Ukraine began long before February 24, 2022. The occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol in 2014 had fatal consequences for the monuments of the peninsula.
The construction of the Tavrida highway connecting Kerch, Simferopol, and Sevastopol in 2017-2020 was accompanied by the destruction of archaeological sites. At least 90 of them were destroyed. Due to the emergency mode of work, even the norms of the Russian memorial protection legislation were ignored, and archaeologists did not have enough time to account the finds. The settlements of the Bronze Age, Scythian burial mounds, and hillforts suffered because of the construction equipment.
In 2016, the occupiers began the notorious “restoration” of the Khan’s Palace in Bakhchysarai, which became a real act of vandalism and mistreatment of the dignity and national memory of the Crimean Tatars. The dismantling of the roof and the ensemble of coloured stained-glass windows of the Golden Cabinet, the replacement of the old roof with modern building materials is an undisguised attempt to destroy history and replace it with a new building of dubious quality. It seems that the palace of Giray irritates the Russians. After all, its very existence destroys the myth of the “eternally Russian Crimea” and is a silent reminder of the times when Moscow tsars paid tribute to Crimean khans.
Russian aggression has shown that the Kremlin is trying to destroy not only Ukrainian statehood, but also Ukrainian identity. The war against cultural heritage is part of this programme. The Russians practise the tactics of the scorched earth, not considering the victims and destruction, as well as carry out terrorist attacks on civilian objects. Among them, especially in the first months 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 the cultural heritage of Ukraine as invaders and colonizers. Destroying what they cannot use in their interests, in particular, to promote their vision of history and the myth of “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 loot Ukrainian museums and take away valuables;
- appropriation of material values for the purpose of enrichment.
Such practices for the Russian state are a tradition that is not 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 every right to raise the issue of compensation for the damage caused in the field of culture 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.
It is the reparations that one state pays to another state and the restitution of stolen values that remain the basic requirement for any aggressor.
International experts unanimously admit that this is the largest theft of art objects of the period after the World War II. Synchronization of all major registers of crimes against Ukrainian culture is quite timely. According to preliminary estimates of the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine, the looting and destruction of cultural objects caused losses amounting to hundreds of millions of euros.The Ministry of Culture and Information Policy documents crimes in order to further work in the legal field and bring Russia to justice. It also created a platform for raising funds for the restoration of cultural monuments that suffered from Russian aggression.
Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security