Ukrainian Culture at Risk: The “Legalized” Looting of Ukrainian Territories Under Russian Control

By: Alyssa Perez

November 18, 2022

It is currently impossible to know the total number of Ukrainian cultural heritage sites and objects that have been looted or destroyed by Russian forces in occupied Ukrainian territories throughout the conflict in Ukraine. As of November 7, 2022, UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has verified damage to 213 sites since February 24, 2022. These sites include 92 religious sites, 16 museums, 77 buildings of historical and/or artistic interest, 18 monuments, and 10 libraries across Ukraine. Damage to cultural properties isn’t the only threat Ukrainian culture faces. In fact, it is estimated that Russian forces in Ukraine have destroyed, pillaged, and looted at least 40 museums, leaving the status of Ukrainian cultural heritage relatively unknown. While it may be possible to assess the damage of physical cultural properties in Ukraine, as the looting of cultural heritage continues, significant Ukrainian artifacts are likely to continue going missing.

War time is no stranger to looting. Infamously, Nazi Germany mandated the plunder and looting of private Jewish collections, public museums, and organizations deemed to be at odds with Nazi ideology—something private art collections and museums across the world are still grappling with today. However, under both international law and numerous international treaties, pillage during war time is prohibited. Similar to other international laws, like the Statute of the International Criminal Court and the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, UNESCO declares that theft, looting, and illicit trafficking of cultural property is a crime. Further, the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, two of the first formal statements of the laws of war and war crimes in international law, obligate military forces to prohibit, prevent, and stop any form of theft, pillage, misappropriation of, or vandalism of cultural property. Thus, the destruction of cultural heritage promulgated by Russian forces is a potential war crime and a violation of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in Conflict, of which Russia is a signatory.

Given these numerous international laws and treaties, unsurprisingly, Ukraine’s Culture MinisterOleksandr Tkachenko, took to Twitter to deliver a statement and called for the widespread theft of ancient artifacts and other Ukrainian cultural property by Russian invaders to be considered a war crime. The Ministry of Culture’s statement cited the Hague Convention and equated the mass removal of cultural property from Ukraine by the Russian occupiers to the looting of museums by Nazi Germany during World War II. The statement further declared that “[t]he actions of the Russian Federation are a violation of international law.” And that “[a]ny seizure, destruction or willful damage to religious, charitable, educational, artistic and scientific institutions, historical monuments, works of art and science is prohibited and should be subject to prosecution.” Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture concluded by appealing to UNESCO to prevent further actions by Russian forces.

Thus, if looting during war time is an international crime and Ukraine has explicitly declared such actions as prohibited, what is currently “sanctioning” the looting of Ukraine? On October 19, 2022, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, declared martial law in four illegally annexed Ukrainian territories, namely Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk. By declaring martial law, Putin effectively “legalized” the looting of cultural heritage in Ukraine. This is because, pursuant to Russian law, the decree of martial lawgrants Russian military forces the power to “evacuate” items of economic, social, and cultural significance in the name of “preservation.”

Although this decree was issued in mid-October of 2022, Ukraine’s Culture Minister estimates that the looting and destruction of cultural sites and museums in Ukraine has already generated losses in the hundreds of millions of euros. Among the looted items from the museum in Melitopol are the famous “Hun tiara,” a 1,500-year-old golden tiara inlaid with precious stones from the rule of Attila the Hun and 1,700 other artifacts. Exiled Ukrainian city council staff say Russian forces have also looted more than 2,000 items from various museums in Mariupol, a major city in the east of Ukraine that remains under Russian occupation. Among the looted items from Mariupol are pieces of art, a handwritten Torah scroll, and a 200-year-old bible. These two examples are just a selection of the many reported lootings across Ukraine. 

The threat to Ukrainian cultural heritage is very real. Luckily, some steps have been taken to counter this threat. The International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (Aliph) has partnered with the J. Paul Getty Trust to help protect Ukrainian cultural sites. The Trust has granted one million dollarsto Aliph’s Ukrainian Action Plan initiative for the preservation of Ukraine’s museums, archives, and libraries. These funds are being used to support the maintenance of these sites and transfer Ukrainian artifacts to safe, controlled storage. Like the international response to Nazi-looted artwork and cultural heritage, we might start seeing more laws, including strict import and export restrictions, trying to protect cultural property from being illicitly trafficked by Russians after being looted. Further responses may include sanctions under the Hague Convention or protections granted under the UNESCO 1970 Convention. However, the future application of international law to Russia’s actions in the Russo-Ukrainian war is unpredictable.

As of November 12, 2022, Ukrainian forces have taken back Kherson, one of the four regions included in Russia’s martial law decree. Ukrainian forces are working to rebuild critical infrastructure, like communications, water supplies, heat, and electricity, and are dismantling Russian mines and booby-traps in and around Kherson. While infrastructure can be restored, a lot remains unknown about the future plans to recover and restore the stacks of paintings wrapped in rags that were loaded into unmarked vehicles and taken from Ukraine’s Kherson Art Museum to Simferopol in Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014. Although Russian forces have withdrawn from Kherson, Ukrainian officials have warned “the war is not over” yet. And the war against the destruction of Ukraine’s culture is just getting started.

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