Russian military forces and civilians operating under their orders pillaged thousands of valuable artifacts and artworks from two museums, a cathedral, and a national archive in Kherson, before withdrawing after an 8-month occupation of the city, Human Rights Watch said. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, its forces have reportedly looted at least five other cultural institutions in southern Ukraine – cases that amount to war crimes.
“In the final days of occupying Kherson, Russian forces loaded paintings, gold, silver, ancient Greek artifacts, religious icons, and historical documents onto trucks bound for Russian-controlled territories,” said Belkis Wille, crisis and conflict associate director at Human Rights Watch. “This systematic looting was an organized operation to rob Ukrainians of their national heritage and amounts to a war crime for which the pillagers should be held to account.”
Russian forces occupied Kherson from March 2 to November 11. During this period, and particularly over the final three weeks, Russian soldiers and other state agents working with them pillaged the Kherson Regional Art Museum, the Kherson Regional Museum, St. Catherine’s Cathedral, and the Kherson Region National Archives.
Human Rights Watch visited these four institutions in Kherson in late November 2022 and interviewed eight representatives of the institutions, witnesses to the looting, and others knowledgeable about the museums, cathedral, and archives. In the two museums, the signs of looting were clear, including empty walls and frames, broken cases and emptied shelves where art and artifacts had been stored or displayed, and packing materials. The final destination of all the looted art and artifacts remains unclear, but images posted on social media that Human Rights Watch verified indicate that at least some of the items were taken to Russian-occupied Crimea.
The deputy director of the Kherson Regional Art Museum, Hanna Skrypka, said that Russian forces installed a new museum director in July and then, from October 31 to November 4, 10 apparent Russian art specialists, with the support of at least 30 other people, stole about 10,000 items from the museum’s collection of about 13,500 artworks, mostly paintings by renowned Ukrainian, Russian, and other 19th and 20th century European artists. They hauled the looted art away in two trucks, she said.
Human Rights Watch visited the museum on November 20 and saw the vacant spaces that had held the paintings, dozens of empty frames, cardboard and other packing materials that Skrypka said the looters had used to haul away the art.
At the Kherson Regional Museum, which specializes in local history and natural history, the museum’s director, secretary, and a security guard all said that from October 24 to 26 about 70 people, most in civilian clothes or apparently part of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), looted the museum. They left the flora and fauna collection untouched but pillaged almost everything else, including silver, Scythian gold, imperial Russian medals, ancient Greek vases, and World War II relics.
On October 26, Russian forces stole the bone fragments of Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin, the imperial founder of Kherson, who oversaw the building of St. Catherine’s Cathedral in the 18 century, the cathedral’s main priest, Father Vitaliy, said. Potemkin is also known for playing a key role in the annexation of the Crimean khanate in 1783.
On several occasions, and particularly just before they left the city, Russian forces looted important historical documents from the Kherson Region National Archives, the archive’s director, Iryna Lopushinska, said. This included most of the archive’s documents of historical value from the 18th and 19th centuries, valuable regional maps and urban plans, a large collection of pre-war newspapers, and almost everything related to the pre-revolutionary period.
In each of the four locations, various individuals asked the looters why they were taking the objects and were told either that it was to protect them from Ukrainian shelling or looting by Ukrainian forces. Skrypka, the deputy director of the Regional Art Museum, said that when she asked the art specialists why they were taking the paintings away they told her to save the collection “from looting or destruction by the Ukrainian Armed Forces.”
Human Rights Watch verified one photograph of paintings being carried into the entry hall of the Central Taurida Museum in Simferopol, Crimea, and another of a painting entitled ‘Ivan Kushchin Tower’ painted in 1989 by the artist Georgy Petrov, lying on the floor of the museum. The painting is cataloged in an archived page from the Kherson Regional Art Museum from 2021.
Another painting claimed, based on social media images, to be among those taken to the Central Taurida Museum is ‘The Storm Subsides’ by Ivan Aivazovsky completed in the 1870s. An Instagram post from the account of the Kherson Regional Art Museum shows this painting hanging in the museum in July 2020. Aivazovsky is considered one of the masters of marine art.
The looting in Kherson is apparently not the first case in Ukraine during the past 10 months. On April 28, Russian forces reportedly pillaged valuable paintings, religious relics, and other items from three museums in Mariupol, in southeastern Ukraine: the Mariupol Museum of Local Lore and History, the Museum of Folk Life, and the Kuindzhi Art Museum. The Mariupol city council reported that over 2,000 items were stolen from these museums and loaded onto Russian trucks.
On April 30, Russian forces reportedly looted the Museum of Local History in Melitopol in the Zaporizka hzhia region, which included rare Scythian gold artifacts. On November 24, Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces had looted the history museum in Nova Kakhovka in the Khersonska region.
Russian forces have also damaged or destroyed dozens of cultural institutions during attacks on Ukrainian territory since the full-scale invasion began on February 24.
International humanitarian law prohibits pillage, also sometimes referred to as looting, plunder, sacking, or spoliation. Pillage is the unlawful appropriation of any property during an armed conflict against the will of the rightful owner and is a war crime. International humanitarian law also prohibits, as a ‘grave breach’ of the Geneva Conventions, and a war crime under the statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the “extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly.” Similarly, “destroying or seizing the enemy’s property unless such destruction or seizure is imperatively demanded by the necessities of war” is a war crime and prosecutable before the ICC.
All pillage, appropriation, or seizure of property from museums and cultural institutions in Ukraine by Russia is a war crime. All individuals responsible, both civilian and military, should be held to account.
“Kherson residents had already suffered months of torture and other abuses during the Russian occupation, and then watched their cultural and historical heritage get packed up and taken away,” Wille said. “The people of Ukraine are entitled to have all the stolen objects returned, and to justice for their theft.”