Last fall, Ukrainian troops were closing in on Kherson, rolling back Russian forces who had seized the city after Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine.
At the Kherson Regional Art Museum, a team of armed Russians in civilian clothes arrived along with several large trucks and buses. Over five days, they hauled away more than 11,000 pieces of art, including paintings, sculptures, graphics and other works from Ukraine and around the world, said Alina Dotsenko, the director of the museum.
“It was obvious that it was all planned. The decision to loot the museum was not made on the spot,” Dotsenko said. “It was all carefully planned.”
The theft, verified by human rights monitors and independent scholars, was not an isolated incident.
A growing body of evidence suggests Russian forces are systematically stealing art and cultural artifacts from Ukraine on a scale not seen in Europe since the Nazi plunder of World War II, according to researchers and experts documenting the damage.
The theft includes precious Scythian gold jewelry dating to the fourth century B.C., ancient coins and thousands of paintings from museums and private collections, researchers said. Some art and cultural sites have been severely damaged and destroyed, including centuries-old Orthodox Christian churches, libraries and paintings by one of Ukraine’s most beloved artists, Maria Prymachenko, whose work was hailed by Pablo Picasso as an “artistic miracle.”
The organized campaign of looting and destruction, targeting hundreds of cultural monuments, churches and museums, appears aimed at wiping out Ukraine’s history and cultural identity, experts said.
Before he ordered the Feb. 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin repeatedly argued that the idea of a separate Ukrainian national identity was fiction, that Ukraine lacked “real statehood” and that it was part of Russia’s “own history, culture, spiritual space.”
“They are trying to erase Ukrainian identity, just the way the Nazis did,” said Chris Marinello, an art restitution lawyer and the founder of a stolen and looted art recovery firm.
Putin’s “forces have bombed, shelled and destroyed hundreds of sites and places that epitomize Ukrainian identity and heritage — from churches and museums to archaeological sites and monuments,” said Richard Kurin, the ambassador-at-large of the Smithsonian Institution.
“He seeks to eliminate the physical markers of Ukraine’s distinctive culture so as to conform to his warped view that there is no such culture.”
The Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
In some cases, museums or other cultural sites have been targeted far away from any front line, according to satellite imagery and researchers on the ground.
Just days after the Feb. 24 invasion, the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum near Kyiv came under bombardment, even though it was not near any fighting or military targets, according to researchers. The shelling ignited a fire that destroyed and damaged multiple works by Prymachenko, whose vivid, fantastical paintings of animals inspired painter Marc Chagall.
The attack on the Ivankiv museum is part of a pattern of “targeted destruction” of cultural sites, said Katharyn Hanson, the head of research at the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative.
The theft of priceless art in areas seized by Russian forces cannot be explained as random or spontaneous acts by Russian soldiers, Hanson said.
“Our research suggests that this looting is state-sponsored by Russia,” Hanson said.
Hanson is one of the authors of a report due to be released this month by the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative examining the plunder of cultural heritage in Ukraine since the Russian invasion.
In a modern version of the World War II-era effort to save artistic treasures from German looting depicted in the Hollywood film “Monuments Men,” Hanson is part of a team of archaeologists, historians, satellite imagery experts and other scholars trying to document the assault on Ukraine’s cultural sites.
Using satellite photos, thermal imaging, artificial intelligence tools and on-the-ground research, the U.S.-funded Smithsonian team is sometimes able to verify an incident within hours after it occurs, said Susan Wolfinbarger, the team lead in the State Department’s Office of Advanced Analytics.
“We’re really leveraging new technologies, new data feeds, to help us both document these things but to also do it quickly and at a scale that really hasn’t been previously attempted,” Wolfinbarger said.
Using a database of more than 28,000 cultural sites in Ukraine, the Smithsonian team was able to spot an attack on the museum in Ivankiv from a combination of thermal imaging from NASA and commercial satellite photos, she said.
The Smithsonian initiative is part of a wider $6 million effort funded by the Biden administration — involving a variety of American research centers — to collect evidence for possible international war crimes investigations.
Russian forces targeted cultural monuments earlier in the conflict, after having seized the Crimean Peninsula and parts of eastern Ukraine more than eight years ago, said Matthew Steinhelfer, the deputy assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations.
“We’ve seen this playbook before,” he said. “We’ve seen this since 2014, where Russia has removed artifacts, demolished gravesites and shuttered churches in the Donbas region and Crimea.”
The Hague Convention of 1954 prohibits militaries from targeting and looting museums or other cultural sites. In war crimes trials for conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Mali, international prosecutors won convictions that cited attacks on religious and cultural monuments.
As of March, UNESCO said it had verified damage to 248 cultural sites in Ukraine, including 107 religious sites and 12 libraries.
“We have this list of verified damage, and the numbers keep growing,” said Krista Pikkat, UNESCO’s director for culture and emergencies.
The World Bank recently estimated that the cost of the damage so far to Ukraine’s cultural buildings and art collections from the invasion amounts to nearly $2 billion.
International cultural organizations and Interpol are warning authorities across Europe and around the world to be on the lookout for art stolen from Ukraine. The International Council of Museums has issued an “emergency red list” of artworks at risk, which UNESCO now uses to train border officials in other countries, U.N. officials said.
Last year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials seized three ancient swords dating to the fifth or sixth century, as well as an ancient stone ax head, at New York’s JFK Airport, all stolen from Ukraine. They were returned to the government in a ceremony last month at Ukraine’s embassy in Washington.
When Ukrainian art and artifacts have been looted, Russian troops are often helped by Russian experts who travel to seized territory and know the country’s art collections, say experts in and outside Ukraine.
“There are expert groups who were specially commissioned to come to Ukraine,” said Ihor Poshyvailo, a Ukrainian curator who was trained by the Smithsonian team before the invasion.
“They were hunting for historic objects,” said Poshyvailo, a co-founder of the Heritage Emergency Response Initiative, which tries to help repair and preserve Ukraine’s cultural heritage collections.
Sometimes Ukrainians collaborating with occupying Russian forces have enabled the plunder.
After Russian forces captured Kherson in March last year, Alina Dotsenko and her colleagues fabricated an elaborate lie to try to protect the paintings and sculptures in the city’s art museum. They told the Russians that the museum was under renovation and that the art collection had been removed.
For several months, Dotsenko said, the ruse worked. But several Ukrainians in league with the occupying forces gave away their secret, and the Russians eventually learned that the art was still in the building, hidden in a storage area.
Before Kherson fell, Dotsenko had made backup copies of the electronic inventory for the museum’s collection and removed any record of it from the building. But a former colleague, she later learned, had also made a copy of the archive and gave it to the Russians.
Soon after the convoy of Russian trucks left the museum loaded with thousands of artworks in November, photos appeared indicating the trucks had arrived at a museum in Russian-occupied Crimea.
The director of the Central Museum of Taurida in Simferopol, Andriy Malgin, acknowledged to Radio Free Europe that much of Kherson art museum’s collection was now in Simferopol.
He said the artworks were in storage to protect them. “These are not our paintings. We understand this very well. There are no attempts on our part to declare that they will remain with us or we will exhibit them. We just store them,” Malgin said.
Now Dotsenko and others on the museum’s staff are working to calculate exactly what was taken away, even as Kherson continues to come under Russian shelling.
One rare book in the museum’s collection, by one of Ukraine’s most celebrated poets, was rescued before the building was looted.
As Russian occupying authorities were purging most of the museum’s staff, 66-year-old Galina Aksyutina, who oversaw the library, took a last look at the collection. She spotted an 1894 edition of "Kobzar," by Taras Shevchenko, whose writings in the 19th century were censored by the Russian empire and are now seen as the foundation of modern Ukrainian literature.
“I felt very sorry for this book. I thought this would be the first thing they destroy because of its symbolic meaning, as they destroy everything Ukrainian,” she said.
She decided to hide the book under her clothes.
“When I was leaving the museum, I was nervous. The Russians looked through all my personal belongings, but they didn’t search me personally, so they didn’t notice the book I took out.”
The book, she said, is now safely back at the museum.