After occupying Kherson for eight months and pledging to keep it forever, Russia’s army abandoned the city in southern Ukraine in November and retreated south and east across the Dnipro River. With them, Russian soldiers took truckloads of cultural treasures looted from the region’s museums.
Most of Kherson’s art collection, which is worth millions of dollars, has ended up on the nearby Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014; there, the director of a local gallery confirmed to Radio Free Europe’s Ukrainian service that the stolen art was “in storage” in his museum. But thousands of pieces from Kherson’s folklore museum, including ancient artifacts from the Scythians, Sarmatians, Goths, and Greeks—peoples who settled the area near the Black and Azov Seas centuries before the Russian empire—have disappeared without a trace, as have hundreds of valuable books from the city’s science library.
The Ukrainian archivists and curators who are busy trying to account for their losses compare Russia’s art theft to that of the Nazis, who looted Kherson’s museums during the nearly three years of German occupation, from 1941 to 1944. If anything, they say, this time is worse—not least because they feel betrayed: by the Russians, yes, but more so by informers and collaborators within their own ranks. “Russians told us they were our brothers,” Kherson Art Museum’s longtime director, Alina Dotsenko, told me when I interviewed her in Kyiv. But more hurtful was that “our own colleagues helped the looters to rob our museums”—even if, for every instance of collaboration, there was also an opposite act of courageous resistance by someone who worked to frustrate the enemy’s plans and save items and records from the collections.
Nevertheless, when Dotsenko entered the pillaged archives on November 11, soon after Kherson’s liberation, her heart stopped. “At least 10,000 works out of more than 14,000 art pieces were gone,” she said.
At first, after Russian invaders had captured the city in early March, Dotsenko and her loyal manager, Hanna Skrypka, managed to protect the collection. They told Russian officials that it had all been removed from Kherson during renovation work. The museum’s walls were indeed covered in scaffolding, but in fact the art had been taken down and stored in the building’s basement. The precious silver and gold frames of ancient icons in the collection were locked in a safe, for which Skrypka had the key.
The ruse worked for almost three months, and Dotsenko, Skrypka, and their like-minded colleagues began to hope that the Russians would never discover their subterfuge. But they were betrayed. Two former employees informed the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) that the art was still inside the building, Dotsenko explained.
On May 5, Russian prosecutors summoned Dotsenko for interrogation. “They said they …….