Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed plans to formally annex four occupied regions of Ukraine on Friday, effectively incorporating dozens of Ukrainian museums. The announcement came days after Moscow-backed local authorities reported that a so-called referendum held in four occupied regions of Ukraine—Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia—voted overwhelmingly to join Russia. The referendum has been denounced by Kyiv and its Western allies as illegal and a “sham”.
In a statement, the United Nations under-secretary-general Rosemary DiCarlo called the annexation “unilateral actions aimed to provide a veneer of legitimacy to the attempted acquisition by force by one state of another state’s territory,” adding that while the referendum claims to represent the will of the people, it “cannot be regarded as legal under international law.”
The four regions are home to millions of Ukrainians and thousands of artworks and artifacts. It’s unclear how much Ukrainian heritage property was evacuated from the museums before the invasion.
Many museums now at risk of annexation have already suffered significant damage from Russian forces. Mariupol, the second largest city in Donetsk, faced some of the most brutal bombardment of the war. The conflict resulted in the destruction of the Kuindzhi Art Museum, which is dedicated to beloved 20th-century Ukrainian painter Arkhip Kuindzhi. Several masterworks by Kuindzhi were moved to the Donetsk Regional Museum of Local History, while others are believed to have been stolen from the wreckage by Russian troops.
Luhansk, the capital city of the region, contains one of the most significant collections of Polovtsian statues known as stone babas, dating from the 9th to the 13th centuries, several of which have already been destroyed during the fighting. The Luhansk Museum of History and Culture, which owns around 50,000 items, was previously damaged by Russian shelling in 2014 during a campaign to annex several regions in Ukraine.
Melitopol, in the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia region, has already faced rampant pilfering of its cultural treasures. In April, the New York Times reported how a Russian official tried to force a staff member of the local Museum of Local History at gunpoint to reveal the location of the museum’s prized collection of Scythian gold. The gold, which dates between the 8th century BCE and 2nd century CE, was eventually stolen. The man who brandished the gun was later identified as Evgeny Gorlachev, who has since replaced Leila Ibrahimova as the museum’s director.
Gorlachev told Russian state media that the gold artifacts “are of great cultural value for the entire former Soviet Union” and that the previous leadership of the museum “spent a lot of effort and energy” to hide them.
In an interview with the Times, Ibrahimova said of the Russian invaders that “Maybe culture is the enemy for them. They said that Ukraine has no state, no history. They just want to destroy our country. I hope they will not succeed.”