Before withdrawing from Kherson, Russian troops emptied one of the best Ukrainian museums of almost 15,000 objects

Last week, in what could be a major turning point in its war against Ukraine, Russia announced a withdrawal from the war-torn city of Kherson. But before the occupying troops left the strategic city, they emptied one of its most important artistic institutions.

According to Ukrainian Army National Resistance Center, Russian soldiers two weeks ago looted nearly 15,000 objects from the Oleksiy Shovkunenko Kherson Art Museum and other cultural venues in the region. The move came just days after Vladimir Putin imposed martial law on Kherson and three other Ukrainian territories, effectively legalize the “evacuation” of cultural heritage.

The Kherson Art Museum confirmed the theft in a Facebook postexplaining that between October 31 and November 3, three or four dozen Russian soldiers arrived at the institution and “brought out works of art and office equipment – everything they saw, everything their raked hands could reach”.

According to the museum, the paintings and other works of art were “wrapped in a kind of cloth,” rather than proper packing supplies, and loaded onto trucks and buses. The looted goods were then transferred to Simferopol in Crimea.

The museum explained at the time that its administrators did not know what had been stolen, but said there was no doubt the “most valuable” items in the collection were targeted.

“In their opinion, it’s called ‘evacuation,'” the museum’s message read. “According to U.S, [it is] looting under the slogans of “preservation of cultural values”.

Prior to the incident, the museum’s collection included religious paintings from the 17th and 20th centuries, Ukrainian art from the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and contemporary art from the past 100 years. In a flight press briefingthe head of the culture department of the Kherson city council, Svitlana Dumynska, called it “one of the most impressive regional museum collections in Ukraine”.

Dumynska added that the local history museum in Kherson was also targeted by Russian troops, “but we have much less information about it.”

On November 3, Kherson police opened a criminal investigation in the theft, classifying it and other attacks in the region as a war crime.

Days later, footage that allegedly showed the stolen items from the Kherson Art Museum being unloaded from the Central Taurida Museum in Simferopol circulated on Ukrainian social media. In other Facebook postthe museum identified several works of art in the photos, including paintings by Ukrainian modernists Ivan Pokhytonov and Mykhailo Andrienko-Nechitaylo.

In a November 10 interview with the Moscow time—an independent media outlet—the director of the Taurida Museum, Andrei Malgin, confirmed that the looted works of art had landed in Simferopol.

“Due to the introduction of martial law in the territory of the Kherson region, I was instructed to take the exhibits from the Kherson Art Museum for temporary storage and ensure their safety until be returned to their rightful owner,” Malgin said.

The Kherson Art Museum has been closed since the city was taken by Russian soldiers at the start of the invasion. The institution’s director, Alina Dotsenko, left for Kyiv in May after the Russian occupiers demanded that the museum hold a propaganda exhibition, according to the art diary.

This month, Dotsenko told Ukrainian media that before she left, she convinced the Russians that the museum’s collection had been moved for a planned renovation. She also deleted information about the institution’s holdings from her computers.

But Dotensko said another museum employee, curator Natalya Koltsova, led Russian troops to the stored collection in July. Koltsova, whom Dotsenko had fired the previous year, was brought back to work with the Russians, and a former cabaret singer was appointed puppet director.

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