(Kyiv, December 20, 2022) -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 today. 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days of occupying Kherson, Russian forces loaded paintings, gold, silver, ancient Greek artifacts, religious icons, and historical documents onto trucks bound for Russian-controlled territories,” said Belkis Wille, crisis and conflict associate director at Human Rights Watch.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.”
Kherson Cultural Sites
Kherson Regional Art Museum
In October 2021, the staff of the Kherson Regional Art Museum moved their collection of about 13,500 pieces of art, mostly paintings, into the building’s basement and storage rooms to carry out a renovation of all the galleries, said Hanna Skrypka, the museum’s deputy director. Skrypka said Russian soldiers came to the museum in March 2022 to search the building for weapons, and then returned in May to ask if the art, which was still in storage, was being damaged by the ongoing power cuts.
A group of Russian soldiers and men whom members of the group identified as part of the FSB came to the museum on July 19, she said, with a Kherson resident who they said would be the new museum director. They demanded that Skrypka give this individual the inventory list of the museum, which Skrypka had hidden, and then searched her home while threatening and aggressively questioning her about the inventory list. Skrypka said she did not reveal the inventory’s location, but they identified a former museum employee who had an older inventory list and forced the woman to hand it over.
Skrypka continued to come to work every two to three days to check on the stored paintings. On November 1, she found 10 Russians who introduced themselves as art specialists sent by the Russian government. They were sleeping in the director’s office in the museum, with two soldiers to protect them. On a desk she found a list they had drawn up identifying hundreds of paintings that they had packed and taken away on October 31. She said:
When I got there on November 1, I found them carefully removing more paintings out of their frames and packing them. It was clear from the manner in which they were removing the frames and packing the art that they were real specialists. I corrected one man’s packaging of a valuable icon, and he understood exactly what my concern was, because he understood the fragility of the objects well.
Twice that day, a group of about 30 to 40 people wearing civilian clothes came with two trucks and took away the packaged art. “When I asked the new director why they were taking the art, she said it was to protect it from the Ukrainian army stealing it,” Skrypka said. She added that she heard them saying they were taking the art to Simferopol, in occupied Crimea.
Skrypka said that on the first days, members of the group of specialists were asking the new director for guidance on which paintings were the most valuable and prioritized taking those. They stayed until November 4, and, by the last day, they were taking whatever they could fit into the trucks. Ultimately, she said they took about 10,000 pieces, leaving mostly paintings that were too large to fit into the trucks, which she showed Human Rights Watch.
According to the Kyiv Independent, just a few days after the collection was stolen from Kherson, images appeared on social media indicating that at least some of the museum’s collection was being unloaded into the Central Taurida Museum in Simferopol. Human Rights Watch was able to verify that the images were taken inside of the Central Taurida Museum. One of the photographs shows one painting by the artist George Petrov among a stack of others in the Simferopol Museum that had previously previously been in the Kherson Regional Art Museum.
Valuable works that were looted from the museum include paintings by Ukrainian, Russian, and other European artists from the 19th and 20th centuries, including the painters Ivan Aivazovsky, Konstantin Gorbatov, Havrylo Hliukl, Konstantin Kryzhytskyi, Konstantin Makovsky, Mykola Nikonov, Petro Solokov, and Victor Tkachenko.
Researchers visited the museum on November 21 and saw the emptied-out storage facilities, dozens of empty frames, cardboard and other packing materials.
Kherson Regional Museum
A security guard at the Kherson Regional Museum who continued to work throughout the occupation, even though the museum was closed to the public, said that a small group of Russians in civilian clothes came to the museum numerous times over the summer. The guard, who requested anonymity due to fear of reprisal, said the group met with the then-museum director and her deputy, who helped them use the museum to celebrate Russian National Flag Day on August 22, and whom he saw sharing information about the collection.
On October 24, a group of about 70 people came to the museum, most in civilian clothes, while Russian soldiers stood guard at the entrance. The guard said that a few people introduced themselves as being from Crimea and said that others in the group wearing brown uniforms were from the FSB. They arrived with two covered trucks and a third fitted with an industrial hoist to load heavier items and said they were removing objects from the museum in order to “protect them from the Ukrainian army.”
The guard said two women in the group spent the day taking the art out of the glass display cases and packaging each object carefully. Then the large group carried, and sometimes dragged, objects out of the museum. He heard some men in the afternoon telling each other to rush so they could get the trucks across Antonivsky Bridge – the only road crossing from Kherson to the Russian-controlled eastern bank of the Dnipro River and the route onwards to Crimea) – and then back to Crimea before night.
Before the group left, the security guard said, a man who said he was from Crimea stole the hard drive that stores the CCTV camera footage recorded at the museum.
Two days later, on October 26, the group returned and spent the day loading another two trucks before leaving, he said.
Prior to the looting, the museum had a collection of about 180 exhibitions including about 180,000 objects. Olena Volodymyrova, the current museum director, who assumed the job after Russian forces withdrew, said it was hard to know exactly how many objects had been taken. She and the guard said the group stole the museum’s inventory catalogues, which will further complicate the task. As a result, it was impossible to quantify the monetary value of the loss.
Human Rights Watch visited the museum on November 20 and identified at least 450 objects as missing from the glass display case labels, including Scythian gold, other gold and silver, imperial Russian medals, and coins. Other missing and apparently pillaged items included a collection of religious icons, ancient Greek vases, plates, amphora-Greek or Roman vessels, sculptures and other objects excavated in the area, arms and armor, 19th century decorative furniture, historical paintings relevant to the history of Kherson and the region, World War II Wehrmacht medals and other paraphernalia, and old Soviet military uniforms. Volodymyrova does not know where the stolen items have been taken.
St. Catherine’s Cathedral
St. Catherine’s Cathedral was home to the bone fragments of Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin, the imperial founder of Kherson. A priest at the cathedral, Father Vitaliy, said that in late October a group of 10 Russian soldiers and other people in civilian clothes came to cathedral and asked for a tour, including of the crypt where the bone fragments were held. During the tour, they took notes and photographs. Later, on October 26, a group of 50 soldiers in fatigues and masks came to the cathedral and demanded access to the crypt, he said. They then stole the bone fragments and the historical fabric in which they were wrapped.
The priest noted that a group of Russian clergies had visited the church in June, but he did not know if they had played any role in the plan to loot the bone fragments. On October 26, the Russia-appointed head of the Khersonska region, Volodymyr Saldo, said that Russian troops had transported the remains “to an undisclosed location east of the Dnipro [river].” The priest said the soldiers told him they were removing the fragments because they feared that Ukrainian soldiers would steal them.
In a separate incident on October 26, the Russian-backed deputy head of the Russian-appointed occupation “government,” known as the Kherson Military-Civilian Administration, Ekaterina Gubareva, told Russian media that a monument to Potemkin had been removed from a main street in Kherson in order to protect it. “The Potemkin monument is one of the symbols of the Russian history of Kherson,” she reportedly said. “It must be saved at any cost, even at the cost of evacuation… We will not surrender the city, and we will return its cultural objects to their places. Unfortunately, there was no time to build special structures, but it was decided to dismantle and transport the monuments to a safe storage.”
Kherson Region National Archives
The director of the Kherson Region National Archives, Iryna Lopushinska, told Human Rights Watch that Russian forces had looted almost all of the Archives’ documents of historical value from the 18th and 19th centuries: material on scientific, mathematical, religious, political, and social histories, including of the area’s churches and synagogues, a collection of valuable regional maps and urban plans, a large collection of pre-war newspapers from various regions of Ukraine, and almost everything related to the pre-revolutionary period. The archives housed a rare and valuable “Code of Laws of the Russian Empire” collection and a collection of the Kherson zemstvo, a local government system instituted by the Russian Empire during the 19th century, both of which were stolen.
Lopushinska did not know exactly when everything had been looted because she was not allowed to enter the buildings while Russian forces were there, but residents of the area told her that they saw Russian soldiers and people in civilian clothes, including some residents of the city who worked with the Russian administration, take documents from the national archives on multiple occasions during the occupation. She said she first heard about this in June, but Russian forces prevented her and her staff from entering the buildings.
The Russian soldiers and others in civilian clothes apparently returned on July 29 and began to use the main building as a center for their administration, she said. Residents in the area of the archive buildings told her that from October 30 to November 4, as Russians were preparing to leave the city, they filled up multiple trucks with documents from both the main and ancillary buildings.
In early December after the authorities declared that the buildings were safe to enter, Lopushinska was able to get into both buildings and assess the extent of the looting.
Based on information provided by the Mariupol City Council, former and current directors of the three museums, and media reports, including from Russian broadcasters, Russian forces pillaged Mariupol’s Museum of Local Lore and History, Museum of Folk Life, and the Kuindzhi Art Museum after they took full control of the city in May. According to current director, the Museum of Local Lore and History was home to a scientific library with over 17,000 books and about 53,000 artifacts. The Museum of Folk Life had an ethnographic collection and various household items, including from ancient Greek, Jewish and Germanic peoples, as well as historical Ukrainian and Russian household items. The Kuindzhi Art Museum held a collection of notable paintings including by the renowned artists Arkhip Kuindzhi, a Mariupol native; Ivan Aivazovsky; Mykola Hlushchenko; and Maksym Kulikov.
Natalia Kapustnikova, the director of the three museums at the time, told media that at least some of the museums’ collections were damaged or destroyed on around March 20 because of ongoing fighting in the city. After that, and in the wake of the Russian occupation of the city, Russian media coverage suggests that Kapustnikova safeguarded some of the museum’s pieces by taking them home, in particular three Kuindzhi paintings. In late April, however, Kapustnikova appears to have told Russian forces that she was hiding the pieces in her home. A Russian media clip shows Kapustnikova bringing Mikhail Zheltyakov, the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” culture minister, some other people in civilian clothes, and a Russian journalist, Aleksandr Mozgovoi to her home, and showing them the pieces, which she had hidden in her bedroom, and the forces then took away.
The Mariupol City Council reported that over 2,000 items were stolen from the three museums. According to a Telegram message from the Mariupol City Council, Russian forces took the Kuindzhi paintings, an original painting by Aivazovsky, ancient icons, a Torah scroll, and over 200 medals made by 20th century artist Yefim Kharabet. In a clip filmed at Kapustnikova’s home and at the museums on April 28, the journalist Mozgovoi said at least some of the objects were being taken to Donetsk, in the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR), an area of the Donetsk region controlled by Russian-affiliated armed groups and currently occupied by Russia (DNR is used as a reference to this area, not as recognition of any claims to sovereignty).
On November 24 a Russian media outlet reported Zheltyakov saying that the Kuindzhi collection “will pass to the ownership of the Ministry of Culture of the Donetsk People’s Republic” and that the undamaged art was transferred “for temporary storage” to museums in Donetsk.
Oleksandr Hore, the current director of the three museums, told Human Rights Watch it was impossible to know how much of the museums’ collections had been looted or destroyed, or where exactly they have been taken.
Melitopol Local History Museum
Media also reported that on April 30, Russian forces looted the Melitopol Museum of Local History and stole rare Scythian gold artifacts, the city’s mayor and the museum director reported. Two videos from April 29 suggest that the staff at the museum hid objects in the museum’s basement, but the looters ultimately recovered and stole the objects.
According to the city’s mayor the collection at the Melitopol museum was one of the largest and most valuable in Ukraine, with 50,000 artifacts. The museum director told the New York Times that Russian forces had stolen at least 198 gold items, gold plates, rare old weapons, 300-year-old silver coins, special medals, and perhaps up to 1,700 objects. The most valuable item was a 1,500-year-old golden tiara. According to the director, a man in a white lab coat and gloves was the one who removed the most valuable gold artifacts from their display cases.
The director said that Russian forces had kidnapped and questioned her for several hours about the collection, which she and others at the museum had hidden in order to protect it. She said they later detained and disappeared a museum caretaker who refused to help them find the objects.
Nova Kakhovka History Museum
Finally, media reported that on November 24 and continuing for several days, Russian forces looted the history museum in Nova Kakhovka in the Khersonska region, one of several branches of the Khersonska region’s historical museum network. Local media reported that Russian forces looted the museum, which had over 16,000 pieces in its collection. Some of the most valuable itemsin the museum’s collection included anthropomorphic steles (stone monuments from the Yamna culture), ancient Greek amphoras (vessels), mace heads from the Catacomb culture (pierced stones mounted on top of blunt clubs), Scythian ritual pommels (gold ornamental pieces mounted on the hilt of a sword), a Sarmatian gold earring, Cuman stone figures of women, and early medieval chandeliers. Because the city remains under Russian occupation, it is difficult to verify the reports of looting. Ukraine’s Center for National Resistance reported that the stolen artifacts were taken to Crimea, but it did not clarify how this was determined.
Other Legal Standards
The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, to which Russia and Ukraine are both parties since 1957, requires states to take steps to protect cultural property in war. This includes an undertaking “to prohibit, prevent and, if necessary, put a stop to any form of theft, pillage or misappropriation of, and any acts of vandalism directed against, cultural property” and to “refrain from requisitioning movable cultural property situated in the territory of another High Contracting Party” (article 4(3)). States are also required to take all necessary steps to prosecute and impose sanctions on those who commit or order to commit acts of pillage, or other crimes that violate the convention (article 28).
The Hague Convention also addresses the obligations of occupying forces in times of armed conflict (article 5). The obligations on the occupying power are to “as far as possible support the competent national authorities of the occupied country in safeguarding and preserving its cultural property.” If it becomes necessary “to take measures to preserve cultural property situated in occupied territory and damaged by military operations,” and the competent national authorities are unable to do so, the occupying power “shall, as far as possible, and in close co-operation with such authorities, take the most necessary measures of preservation” (emphasis added). In so far as any of the Russian forces or civilians operating with them were alleging to take measures to protect cultural property, they did not, and made no efforts to do so in compliance with international law, and their acts were ones of pillage and unlawful appropriation, requisitioning or seizure, not preservation.
Crimes against or affecting cultural heritage can, alone or cumulatively with other acts, also be prosecuted as the crime of persecution, a crime against humanity.