A broken glass box in Kherson Regional Museum, which was looted by Russia (Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty)
When you imagine war crimes, the offences include murder and torture of soldiers and civilians, rape, hostage-taking and forced deportations, all the way up to genocide. However, along with deliberate destruction of civilian propert, such as churches, factories, schools and houses, these crimes also include destruction and theft of a country’s cultural patrimony – including its art.
Ironically, it was Roman Rudenko, the chief Soviet prosecutor at Nuremberg, who presented the case against “crimes which found concrete expression in the wrecking of cultural institutions, the looting and destruction of cultural treasures, and the suffocation of the national cultural life of people in territories temporarily occupied by German armies”.
Since 1954, a refreshed Hague Convention has detailed why destruction or theft of cultural properties is classed as a war crime. It is designed to obliterate distinctive cultural identities, in this case that Ukraine is a separate nation state rather than an imperial Russian province. If the heritage vanishes then so does Ukraine, seems to be the thinking, which is exactly what the Nazis did in occupied Poland and elsewhere.
Nowadays, after the 2014-2022 Russian invasions, it is Ukrainians who are suffering the destruction and looting of their national treasures. In 2014, the Russians raided 90 museums on the Crimean peninsula and made off with rare artefacts and paintings, while Russian archaeologists availed themselves of the huge Kursk Bridge construction site to plunder ancient funerary mounds. Russia’s parliament helpfully decriminalised looting by amending the criminal code.
After the February 2022 invasion, no museum in occupied Ukraine was free from state-directed looters. In Kherson alone, which was occupied for eight months, they removed 10,000 of the 14,000 items in the city’s main museum. Only empty glass vitrines remain for the despondent curators.
One person who really knows what this means is 40-year-old artist Pavlo Kulyk, who has exchanged painting (and serving for 410 days on the front line in the army) for running the War and Art programme within the government agency that enforces sanctions – the National Agency on Corruption Prevention (NACP). You can read Kulyk the artist on his Saatchi Art webpage where his paintings can be viewed.
Kulyk says that while Ukraine’s most urgent priority is “to use military force to defang the Russian bear, the bear’s stomach also helps digest resources”.
The chief “organ” in the stomach is complicit Russian oligarchs who have helped create a Mafia-like regime that has replaced normative state institutions. Without their buy-in it would not work, since the whole system relies on President Vladimir Putin constantly reallocating spoils to winners and losers. Those who do not play the game end up in exile or jail, or falling from a high window.
Kulyk’s team has two tasks. One is to create a digital record of the stolen antiquities and art that the military and FSB have looted with the aid of Russian experts. This has also been added to the 700,000 items on the London-based Art Loss Register, which is used by law enforcement, insurers and galleries worldwide to impede the sale of suspect artefacts and art.
In this case, looted items range from ancient Scythian gold helmets and swords to the bejewelled diadem once worn by Attila the Hun. The ancient Scythian artefacts are especially poignant, since as nomads they travelled light and left little by way of material culture. Attila the Hun was so secretive that he had killed those who buried him to hide a tomb that has never been found. The Russians have also helped themselves to rare early medieval Byzantine icons and their precious frames, whether they hung in churches or museums.
In Mariupol, the Russian occupiers took away important landscapes by the Pontic Greek Arkhip Kuindzhi (1841-1910) that had been hidden to avoid the museum’s fate, which was to be hit by a Russian airstrike. Paintings such as Autumn and Red Sunset are now in Russia. Much of Mariupol is in ruins.
Beyond adding stolen Ukrainian art to the enormous restitution bill the Russian state will face when this war is eventually over, Ukraine is also urging the international community to make Putin’s circle of rich enablers feel that they are also on the front line too, along with hapless Russian juvenile conscripts. That includes those oligarchs who have benefited from Putin’s patronage to get their hands on huge industrial and banking assets.
Their vast wealth is not just ploughed into luxury mansions in London and superyachts off Sardinia and the Cote d’Azur, but into valuable works of art, which, from Fabergé eggs to paintings by Lucian Freud, are also portable.
Collecting art is also a form of social currency, which enabled Russian oligarchs to enter European society via donations to galleries or sponsoring exhibitions (such as the Royal Academy’s big Francis Bacon Man and Beast show that was subsidised by a Russian banking magnate). Some might feel that these besuited bruisers would be better fitted to being in a Bacon than owning them.
While no one can send in the bailiffs to confiscate this very conspicuous kind of wealth, nonetheless it can be made very difficult to realise its value on the international market, even when these oligarchs resort to proxies and shady moneymen to evade banking sanctions. In other words, the works themselves can be made to suffer a collapse of value.
Some Russian oligarchs have so much art, acquired before the Crimea and later Ukraine invasion, that they have opened their own museums to display it. Roman Abramovich, and his former wife Dasha Zhukova founded the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow, and he also owns vastly expensive canvases by Bacon and Freud.
The fertiliser tycoon Viatcheslav Kantor has his Museum of Avant-Garde Mastery there too, home to his collection of, among others, Delaunay, Modigliani, Chagall, Rothko, Soutine and a range of top Russian and Ukrainian painters.
It is no good Kantor claiming the war is nothing to do with him since, as a prominent Jew, active in Jewish organisational life, Kantor has helped whitewash Putin’s reputation as a “philosemite”, despite Putin’s recent claim that President Zelensky is a Western puppet concealing a regime of “neo-Nazis”. He is currently mounting a campaign to wriggle off several sanctions lists.
To this end, Pavlo Kulyk has organised a database of all sanctioned Russian oligarch-owned art. The link is here. The site values these works severally at more than $2bn and counting, which would restore a lot of churches, schools and housing. Arguably their art collections are more important to them than the mansions in Knightsbridge and luxury yachts off Nice or Sardinia. At the very least this should make it a matter of shame for anyone in the Western art world to deal with Russian oligarchs or their intermediaries, for the art world works in murky ways.
Unless the art world likes the frisson of brushing up against evil, it should think about underground torture chambers and kidnapped children, just as people would had art and artefacts come from Isis-occupied Mosul or Palmyra, for they combined greed with lust for destruction too.
Michael Burleigh is a senior fellow at LSE Ideas and author of Day of the Assassins (Picador)