Russian troops have looted more 2,000 artworks from museums in the devastated Ukrainian port city Mariupol, according to local officials.
The Washington Post shared Telegram messages from the Mariupol City Council detailing how Russian forces systematically plundered three local museums, including the Kuindzhi Art Museum, since the invasion began in February. The collection has reportedly been transported to Donetsk, an industrial city in eastern Ukraine’s separatist region backed by Russia.
“The occupiers ‘liberated’ Mariupol from its historical and cultural heritage,” the city council wrote. “They stole and moved more than 2,000 unique exhibits from museums in Mariupol to Donetsk.”
Three paintings by Kuindzhi, as well as others by his contemporary, the Russian romantic painter Ivan Aivazovsky, were among those stolen from the city. The city council also reported the theft of several ancient icons, the Gospel of 1811 from the Venetian printing house for the Greeks of Mariupol, and more than 200 medals from the Museum of Medallion Art Harabet.
The Kuindzhi Art Museum, which is devoted to the life and work of beloved local realist painter Arkhip Kuindzhi, was damaged by a Russia airstrike in late March, according to Konstantin Chernavski, chairman of the Ukrainian Union of Artists. The museum operated in an Art Nouveau landmark and counted more than 600 paintings by 20th-century Ukrainian artists in its collection.
The museum’s three original paintings by Kuindzhi —a sketch for Red Sunset and two preparatory works, Elbrus and Autumn, Crimea—had been removed from the premises prior to the bombing.
However, Telegram messages from Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol’s mayor, alleged that the three paintings were handed over to Russian forces by Natalia Kapustnikova, the director of another Mariupol institution, the Museum of Local History.
“Natalia Kapustnikova, who knew the exact place of secret storage of masterpieces, personally passed everything from hand to hand,” Andryushchenko said.
Russian media reported that the paintings were “saved” by museum staff from shelling by the Ukrainian fighters. “When the fighting ended, we went and looked where it was,” Kapustnikova told Izvestia TV. “As soon as possible, everything was taken out.”
The removal of cultural treasures is a common casualty of war, with records of art looting dating to military campaigns waged in antiquity. During the Nazi occupation of France, Poland, and other European countries, many modern masterpieces were seized and squirreled away in private collections or sold to help finance the war. Ongoing restitution efforts by individuals and governments are complicated by the opaque and unregulated nature of the international art market.
The Mariupol City Council has promised to recover its cultural heritage and said it is preparing materials “for law enforcement agencies to initiate criminal proceedings and make an appeal to Interpol.”