Art heist at the Louvre of Kherson: Russia’s war on Ukrainian identity – National

KHERSON, Ukraine — The thieves entered the museum on October 31, eliminated the work from their frames and loaded them onto cargo vans.

It took them 4 days to empty the Kherson Regional Art Museum, generally known as the Louvre of Kherson, and make off with greater than 10,000 works by Ukrainian, Russian and European painters.

Police are investigating, however who did it’s no thriller. Russian forces looted the museum and three others as they retreated from Kherson metropolis late final 12 months.

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“They stole every thing,” mentioned Alina Dotsenko, the artwork museum’s director, who ranked the incident as worse than the Nazi plundering of the metropolis in the Forties.

To Dotsenko, what occurred in Kherson was not simply an armed theft. It was half of a wider Russian marketing campaign to disclaim Ukrainians their existence as a definite individuals and nation.

Kherson Art Museum after it was looted and shelled by Russian forces.


The complete-scale invasion ordered by President Vladimir Putin one 12 months in the past this week was a land seize, nevertheless it was premised on Moscow’s declare that Ukraine is just not an actual nation.

Though Kyiv is a whole lot of years older than Moscow, Putin has tried to justify his war with an interpretation of historical past that asserts that Ukraine is a component of Russia.

For a lot of Ukrainians, the widespread assaults on cultural establishments of the previous 12 months are an try and erase their heritage and soak up them into an empire-minded Russia.

Image from citizen video showing Russians looting Kherson art museum, November 2022.

Picture from citizen video displaying Russians looting Kherson artwork museum, November 2022.



Hanna Skrypka, the Kherson artwork museum’s deputy director, estimated the Russians stole 80 to 85 p.c of the assortment of 14,000 works, together with these by Ukraine’s masters and uncommon depictions of its previous.

“This was the proof of our identity,” she mentioned.

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Per week after the Russians cleaned out the museum, Ukrainian forces pushed them out of Kherson metropolis and again throughout the Dnieper River.

However the Russians weren’t finished.

On Nov. 30, they shelled the museum with artillery.

The St. Catherine’s Cathedral was a museum of atheism throughout the years when the Soviet Union managed Ukraine. It re-opened as an Orthodox church in 1991, when Ukraine gained independence.

Inside the thick sandstone partitions, Father Vitaly lifted a entice door set into the picket floorboards and descended a staircase to a dank room.

The crypt beneath the church was the tomb of Grigory Potemkin, Kherson’s founder and the lover of Russian empress Catherine the Nice.

Father Vitaly at the St. Catherine’s Cathedral, looted by Russian troops as they fled Kherson.

Stewart Bell/International Information

The grave is empty now. The casket is gone. So are Potemkin’s bones, which had been saved in a material bag. Ten Russian troopers spirited them away, claiming the Ukrainian navy was planning to bomb the church.

As an alternative, after looting the 18th-century cathedral, the Russian military fired artillery at it. One shell landed in the grass close to the columned entrance. Father Vitaly mentioned emergency companies employees eliminated the rocket the day earlier than.

Extra shells hit the park instantly behind the church, and when the Russians blew up the TV tower subsequent door, the explosion shattered the church home windows.

Russian troopers stole Potemkin’s bones from the crypt beneath St. Catherine’s Cathedral, Kherson, Ukraine.

Stewart Bell/International Information

“Thank God, nothing else,” he mentioned.

Earlier than the invasion, the cathedral served a congregation of about 350, and 3 times as many at Easter and Christmas. However the river that has turn out to be a frontline is shut, and no extra that 60 flip up now.

“Lots of individuals left the metropolis, and this half of the metropolis is basically underneath fixed shelling,” the priest mentioned. “So they’re afraid.”

“The town is empty, like a ghost metropolis, however thank God the individuals survive and are available again and every thing shall be because it was earlier than.”

After looting St. Catherine’s Cathedral in Kherson, Russian forces fired artillery shells at it.

Stewart Bell/International Information

But it surely received’t be precisely because it was, not since the grave-robbers dropped by. Father Vitaly mentioned Potemkin’s stays had been simply bones. “We don’t should be so upset about it. It’s not spiritual, simply historic.”

“Historical past is in the coronary heart of the individuals, the reminiscence of individuals. Lots of issues had been misplaced however the main half is we should always keep in mind who we’re. Historical past is nice however the primary factor is life.”

He mentioned he tells his congregants to not be indignant, and to assist one another as a result of the struggling will finish.

“All wars end,” he mentioned.

Russia’s assault on Ukrainian cultural websites has been relentless. According to UNESCO, 240 of them have been broken in the previous 12 months — 105 church buildings, 86 buildings of historic or inventive curiosity, 19 monuments, 18 museums and 12 libraries.

Throughout the final three weeks of the Russian occupation of Kherson metropolis, Russian forces looted not solely the artwork museum and cathedral, but additionally the historical past museum and nationwide archives.

The Mariupol theatre was badly broken by a Russian airstrike, whereas civilians had been sheltering inside.

Alexei Alexandrov/AP


Members of Russian’s FSB safety service arrived at the Kherson Regional Museum on Oct. 24 and stole silver, gold, Greek vases and war relics, according to Human Rights Watch.

From the archives, Russian forces took 18th and nineteenth century paperwork, maps, city plans, pre-war newspapers, and virtually every thing associated to the pre-revolutionary interval, Human Rights Watch mentioned.

“Kherson residents had already suffered months of torture and different abuses throughout the Russian occupation, after which watched their cultural and historic heritage get packed up and brought away,” the group added.

“This systematic looting was an organized operation to rob Ukrainians of their nationwide heritage and quantities to a war crime for which the pillagers must be held to account.”

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However as a substitute of erasing Ukrainian nationalism, the war seems to have invigorated it.

Outraged at Putin, many Russian-audio system have renounced the language. Ukrainians have modified avenue names and torn down statues related to Russia.

In Kyiv, a monument to Ukrainian-Russian friendship was dismantled. An Odesa avenue was renamed after Boris Johnson, the former British prime minister.

Ukrainians name it derussification and decolonization.

An Art Museum with out Art

In the basement of Kherson’s artwork museum, gold-painted image frames with ornate edging had been stacked in opposition to the partitions. They had been all the Russians left behind.

Hanna Skrypka, deputy director of the Kherson Art Museum, in an empty storage room looted by Russian forces.

Stewart Bell/International Information

On the morning the Russians started combating their approach into Kherson from the south aspect of the river, Dotsenko went as much as a rooftop and regarded at the Antonivskyi Bridge.

“I needed to blow it up,” she mentioned.

However the Russians shortly seized the metropolis, and he or she centered on attempting to save lots of her museum. Dotsenko had labored there because it opened in 1978. The artworks had been like her youngsters.

“It was my life,” she mentioned.

At the time, the three-storey construction, as soon as the metropolis corridor, was present process renovations. It was fenced off and the work had been saved in a storage room.

Since the gallery partitions had been principally naked, Dotsenko tried to keep up the ruse that the artworks had been moved attributable to the development.

And for a time, it labored.

Kherson Art Museum director Alina Dotsenko fled the occupied metropolis as she was about to be detained.

International Information

To assist the facade, she saved workers she knew she may belief, and despatched the relaxation residence to work remotely. Plainclothes Kherson police who had been half of the metropolis’s partisan motion quietly changed her safety guards, she mentioned.

On Could 2, the Russians arrange a checkpoint close by, and a dozen gunmen entered the gallery by breaking down the door. They handcuffed the guard face down and took his keys.

Two days later, a person phoned Dotsenko and launched himself as half of Kherson’s new administration. He wouldn’t give his identify however requested her to prepare an exhibition at the authorities constructing.

She informed him the museum was empty, however he responded that was a lie and he knew every thing. He informed her to report back to his workplace at 9 a.m. “We’ll educate you to respect the new authorities,” he mentioned.

She knew what that meant. She had heard from her police contacts the Russians had been arresting their opponents and locking them in detention centres generally known as basements to be tortured and executed.

That night time, she packed a bag and left the metropolis, leaving her deputy, Hanna Skrypka, in cost.

Southern Ukraine.

International Information

Dotsenko believes the museum was betrayed by two former workers who collaborated with the Russians.

She doesn’t know what else she may have finished. The town was underneath occupation. Checkpoints clogged the streets. Sneaking out 1000’s of artworks was an unattainable activity. “How?” she requested.

On July 19, the Russians returned to the museum and appointed a neighborhood lounge singer as the new director. They searched Skrypka’s residence and took her telephone and the museum keys.

“They requested the place is the most precious, costly work,” Skrypka mentioned. She refused to assist them, she mentioned, and was informed to remain residence, however she saved watch on the museum, peering by means of fences to observe what the Russians had been as much as.

At the finish of October, the Russians referred to as Skrypka again to the museum and informed her to make an inventory of all the artworks. They locked her inside and didn’t allow her to go away for 2 nights, she mentioned.

The Russians who got here to take the work appeared to know what they had been doing. “To see their actions, in actuality they’re representatives who’ve a background in museums,” Skrypya mentioned.

About 70 employees had been concerned. Whereas they dealt with the artwork rigorously at first, they grew to become extra reckless as they ran out of time and didn’t use gloves.

Pictures from citizen video displaying Russian automobiles looting the Kherson Art Museum.


The streets outdoors had been closed. 5 vans and two college buses had been parked outdoors. Every thing was carried into the automobiles.

“We noticed how they moved it out, like garbage,” Dotsenko mentioned.

Locals filmed the operation discretely with their telephones. Satellite images captured two shifting vans and a van parked outdoors on Nov. 1. However no person may cease it.

Satellite tv for pc picture of Russian vans concerned in looting of Kherson artwork museum.


Dotsenko was despondent to see her life’s work being loaded into “soiled vans.” It was like watching her children being kidnapped, she mentioned. “I had the feeling I’m dying.”

The work that had been taken included portraits, landscapes and nonetheless lifes courting again hundred of years: “Cossacks in the Steppe,” by Serhiy Vasylkivsky; and “On the Dnipro. Kherson,” by Oleksii Shovkunenko.

“All of the time the Russians attempt to destroy our tradition,” she mentioned. “It was at all times like this.”

Skrypka additionally believes the Russians didn’t wish to go away behind any traces of Ukrainian identity, nothing that might present how Ukraine is distinct from Russia.

“I feel they wish to gather reminiscence,” she mentioned.

Work stolen from Kherson Art Museum lean in opposition to partitions at museum in Russian-occupied Crimea. To left of lady is “The Historic Partitions of Vilnius,” by Augustunas Savockas.


The theft has ruptured Kherson’s hyperlinks to its previous, she mentioned. She desires the assortment again. “Now we have hopes that almost all of our works will return,” she mentioned.

“Sure, we hope.”

Stolen Artworks Flip up in Crimea

By scanning social media, museum staff have traced some of the artworks to the Central Taurida Museum in Simferopol, a metropolis in Crimea, the Ukrainian area that Russian troops invaded in 2014.

Photographs present the work being carried into the entry corridor and stacked in opposition to partitions. In a single, a lady walked previous a stolen piece, “The Historic Partitions of Vilnius,” by Augustunas Savockas. It was casually upended at the finish of a pile.

Victor Zaretskyi’s “Nonetheless Life With Flounder” was noticed in one other picture, sitting on the ground of the Crimea gallery. Valuable artworks handled like storage sale choices.

Dotsenko mentioned workers had been working to find them. She doesn’t know if the total assortment was moved to the Crimea museum or if it was scattered.

The world must know what Russia did, she mentioned, and people accountable have to be dropped at justice for his or her assault on Ukraine’s heritage.

“The individuals cherished our museum a lot,” she mentioned. “It was actually a temple.”

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