Can one steal the soul of a nation?

4, Mar 2024 | Europäische Kultur, European Culture, La culture Européenne

Europe, Ukraine and culture

It is well known that Jean Monnet (1888-1979), the father of the idea of European unification, believed that if he had to start his great project all over again, he would not begin with coal and steel, but with culture.

In fact, long before today’s European state borders, there was a trans-European exchange in literature and poetry, but even more so in the “non-verbal” arts such as music and, of course, painting and sculpture. Not only the techniques and styles, but also the themes and subjects gave rise to philosophical and political inspirations.

It is to be hoped that the advances of artificial intelligence in linguistic translation tools will serve to make ideas and reflections in one language family accessible to others: To recreate the European space of ideas and values that we have been calling for.

It is difficult not to be reminded of the acts committed between 1940 and 1944 in France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy. The films “The Train” from 1964 and “The Monuments Men” from 2014 tell the story.

European history is repeated in paintings, sculptures, statues and icons: The museum in the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine housed one of the country’s most important art collections. Today, everything has disappeared. Not looted by marauding drunken soldiers, but packed up and taken away on Moscow’s orders as planned. An estimated 14,000 works of art, paintings and sculptures from the 17th to 21st centuries. Kidnapped, stolen. – TH

Can one steal the soul of a nation?

Apart from empty walls, the Russians didn’t leave much behind in the Kherson Art Museum. No bombs fell here, and yet something had to be destroyed: the identity of an entire nation.

We can imagine it. With a little imagination. The illuminated rooms, the paintings in their magnificent frames, the sculptures on pedestals, the icons and precious stones in display cases. And of course the peace and quiet, the eternal, hushed silence of the museums. But the walls of the art museum in Kherson are bare and barren, with a few frames standing around, as useless as the empty halls.

When Alina Dozenko walks through its interior, she should lose faith in everything and everyone, in God, in people, perhaps even in art. But the Ukrainian doesn’t cry or complain, she insults and swears. She condemns “Russian dogs”, “orcs with their guns”. In the end, the director calms down a little: “I was afraid of going mad. The Russians stole everything. The whole collection”.

Alina Dozenko is the director of the Oleksiy Shovkunenko Museum in Kherson. She has been working there for 45 years and has been running it for 35 years. At the age of 72, she gives the impression that the USSR has never disappeared: the hairstyle, the thick glasses, the authoritarian Soviet attitude. Today, Alina Dozenko is a museum director without a collection. A queen without a country.

Paintings, sculptures, statues, icons: The museum in this not very large city in the south of Ukraine housed one of the country’s most important art collections. Today it has all disappeared. Not looted by marauding drunken soldiers, but taken away as planned on orders from Moscow. There are an estimated 14,000 works of art, paintings and sculptures from the 17th to 21st centuries. Kidnapped, stolen. “No other collection in Ukraine was better,” said Dozenko. The director is a staunch Ukrainian nationalist, a tough nut to crack. She immediately resumes her rant: “‘Na chui idi’, I said to the Russians”. Na chui idi – Russian for “fuck you”. But it’s much rougher, really rougher.

The director runs through the cold halls, everything is empty. Not a single good word from her about the Russians. Alina Dozenko protests as she walks through unlit corridors and unheated halls, past empty displays and shelves. From room to room. As if all these halls were any different from one another – they are all empty, dark and cold. There is no electricity or gas in Kherson. Sometimes you can hear the thunder of cannons. Of course, it’s war.

Hanna Skripka has difficulty following. She is here too, in a winter coat and with a knitted hat on her head. She is an archivist and curator and, at 51, she knows the history of the collection much better than her boss, whose shouting and grand gestures are rather alien to her. She speaks matter-of-factly about the collection, the 10,000 or so paintings and the thousands of other pieces.

Everything they had here: works by painters such as Ivan Aivazovskij, Vassilij Polenow, Piotr Sokolov, Leonid Chichkan or Mykhailo Andriienko-Nechytailo. Not forgetting paintings by Europeans such as the Swiss artist August von Bayer and the Dutch-born English artist Peter Lely. Hanna Skripka rummages through a drawer in search of a catalogue. The photos of the exhibits are a little faint, the text a little dull: the small volume dates from 1987, when Mikhail Gorbachev was still in charge of the Soviet Union in the Kremlin.

“Our collection is really something special,” she says, “there are exceptional Russian and Soviet works, as well as Ukrainian works.” Which Director Dozenko immediately shook off in the only order acceptable to her: “There are Ukrainian, Soviet and Russian works of art”.

Kherson – it is also the story of an art theft, a war crime, a whim. For five months, a handful of Ukrainian museum people hid their huge collection of paintings from the occupying forces, fooling Moscow’s feared secret service, the FSB. Alina Dozenko, Hanna Skripka, the caretaker Igor Rusol and three guards risked everything to save their treasures. The fact that they ultimately lost doesn’t change the fact that there are heroes even in the darkest hours.

Director Dozenko, still eruptive, tells the story like this: “The whole city was occupied. Except for our museum. We kept the orcs out for five months”. It’s like something out of an Asterix album: all of Gaul is occupied by the Romans. All of Gaul? No. But if you listen to Hanna Skripka and Rusol, the “engineer” and guard, you realise that the museum is not the Gallic village that resisted the invader, led the Romans around by the nose and then punched them all the harder.

What seems crazy, almost funny in retrospect, in the incredible story of the museum in Kherson was in mortal danger every day. And it lasted for weeks and months. It had a lot to do with luck and even more to do with the exuberant simplicity of the occupying forces, it’s hard to believe. It was almost funny, in an absurd way. All those secret service agents and police snooping around the museum, but not realising in their omnipotence and arrogance that what they were looking for was behind the next door: the collection of Cherson’s paintings.

Why did she take all these risks? “This collection is my life,” says the curator.

The story is quickly told. When the Russian troops appeared on 2 March and took the city in southern Ukraine after a short battle, Kherson’s art museum had already been closed for months. It was being renovated. A construction fence surrounded the castle-like building with its turret and temple-like gables. The art was stored in the depots: paintings were kept in the high lattice stands in the museum’s fundus, sculptures and other artefacts were displayed on the shelves.

When the Russians came to the closed museum for the first time and asked about the art, Dozenko claimed that the collection had been moved months ago with international help due to renovation work. She did not know exactly where it was – it had probably been moved to the western part of the country. Somewhere where the Ukrainian troops are and where there is nothing to fear.

Apparently, the police and intelligence officers believed this story. And for almost five months. At least that’s exactly what Dozenko and Skripka say. So nobody searched the huge building, nobody opened the locked doors. Alina Dozenko was replaced after a few weeks by a defector loyal to Moscow: she had been dismissed by the occupying forces because she refused to take part in the celebrations for 9 May, the day of victory in the Second World War so beloved by Russia. Even under the new management, the museum remained closed, people were not interested in what was happening inside. Only Hanna Skripka and the caretaker walked through the building several times a week. The secret service agents came back two or three times and kept asking the same questions about the collection. Prorussian museum employees had apparently informed them that the artworks had never left the building. “Collaborators,” Dozenko said contemptuously. She almost spits out the word “Russian friends”. But the secret service officers weren’t really looking, they believed the story that all the artworks had been removed. Instead, they turned up at Hanna Skripka’s house several times, interrogated her, her husband and her son. They searched the flat, rummaging through drawers and cupboards. “They never asked the right questions, never dug deep”. Why did Hanna Skripka remain silent, why did she risk so much? “This collection is my life. My heart is attached to it,” she says. Igor Rusol, the caretaker, is one of the people who have actually oiled the door locks and repaired the light switches in the museum. “When our director Dozenko asked me to stay, I stayed. I don’t know why myself.” Rusol is Ukrainian. He points to a petrol can in the hallway. The occupiers have even painted their white Z, the symbol of the Russian war of aggression, on it. This 59-year-old man also took a risk, but: “At least they didn’t terrorise me like Hanna”. Much has been written about the small Ukrainian provincial capital of Kherson. About the eight months of Russian occupation, about betrayal, collaboration, murder, torture and rape, about the brutality and ruthlessness of the occupying forces. But what happened in the Kherson Art Museum has its own weight, despite the daily horror of the trenches and torture chambers. Art theft is the pursuit of politics by very, very different means. Not with troops, bombs and cannons.

The theft and destruction of art is aimed at destroying the identity of the enemy, his memory. They want to erase the Ukrainians’ memory of their own past. The collection of paintings in Kherson is perhaps the collection of a provincial museum outside the country; only connoisseurs should be able to do anything with many artists’ names. But the museum is part of the Ukrainian identity, the identity of a nation. Just like the 500 or so other Ukrainian museums and institutions that have been looted and destroyed since the start of the war in February. These include the museum in Mariupol, a harbour town that was razed to the ground by the Russians when they tried to drive two thousand Ukrainian fighters out of the catacombs of a huge steelworks – a process that took weeks. Kiev’s culture minister, Oleksandr Tkachenko, was quick to recognise the aim of the systematic barbarism beyond all military objectives: “Russia is trying to destroy everything connected with our cultural heritage”.

The occupying forces took everything away on articulated lorries, without protection. “Like rubbish,” says someone who saw the scene.

It all came to light in mid-July when a former colleague, whom Director Dozenko herself had sacked for her pro-Russian stance, uncovered the masquerade. The depots were opened, the employees had won. The collection was removed at the beginning of October. A resident of Kherson told the pro-opposition Novaya Gazeta newspaper in Moscow how this had happened: “Russian looters have been taking the pictures out for three days. They load them onto huge lorries, without packaging, without protective wrapping. Like rubbish”. Even the washing machines and kitchen appliances they looted were treated more carefully by the Russians than the art treasures from Kherson, the eyewitness reported. Where are the artworks now? Director Alina Dozenko scrolls through her mobile phone. Photos show a lorry in front of a gleaming white building where men are unloading paintings. Inside, in the long corridors of the building, paintings lean against the walls, canvases are stacked carelessly on the tiled floor. The collection is located in the Crimea, in Simferopol, in the Central Tauric Museum.

The Russians have occupied and annexed the peninsula since 2014. “Patriots from Simferopol,” said Dozenko, “sent us these pictures. They took them secretly”. Some of the photos show the inventory numbers on the back of the paintings. Andrei Malgin, director of the Central Museum of Tauria, confirmed that the looted art was in his institution. Without a trace of a sense of injustice, he told The Moscow Times: “After martial law was declared in the Kherson region, I was ordered to store the museum’s works in Kherson. I am to keep them until they can be returned to their rightful owner”. The rightful owner is the city of Kherson. But Andrei Malgin is not thinking about them. Even if Ukraine wins this war and Moscow admits its guilt, it could be years before the collection finds its way back. But the Russian troops have not only looted the art gallery. They also plundered the regional museum in Kherson, stealing the collection of historical weapons and destroying everything they could not take with them.

In the parks and squares of the city, the occupiers lifted monuments weighing several tonnes off their pedestals: Alexander Vasilyevich Suvorov is gone, the Russian generalissimo had fought for Catherine the Great against Cossacks, Ottomans and French. Or Grigory Alexandrovich Potemkin. The famous prince founded Kherson in 1778. Today, only the pedestal with the inscription remains in the centre square. The inhabitants of Kherson have repainted it. In blue and yellow, their national colours.

The Russians were not satisfied with the Potemkin statue. They even stole the worm-eaten bones of the famous aristocrat. A week before their departure, armed men took Potemkin’s bones from the crypt of St Catherine’s Church. Where the mortal remains of Catherine the Great’s lover have remained, whether they are in the Central Tauric Museum in Simferopol – apart from Putin and his secret service agents, nobody knows.

Even the town hall is currently unusable, everything has been mined.

The history of the Kherson Art Museum and its collection reveals a lot about the Russian power apparatus, about the feared domestic secret service FSB. Agents who stand in front of empty walls and display cases, but do not search for deposits. Who don’t ask their counterparts questions that are as sophisticated as they are devious, but believe the first story that comes along. From July 1998 to August 1999, the head of the FSB was Vladimir Putin. This perhaps explains why this president has been waging a war for nine months that he actually lost in the first few weeks. Incidentally, it was the FSB that prepared the attack. Now that the Russians have gone, things have not returned to normal in Kherson. On the contrary, the city is being bombarded by Russian artillery and civilians are dying. Galina Lugovaya has to keep the city running. She is currently something like the mayor of Kherson, officially calling herself the “head of the military administration”, martial law. In reality, Lugovaya is only the deputy mayor. However, the real mayor was kidnapped by the Russians and his successor, who was appointed by the occupying forces, has long since fled. Lugovaya is also not sitting in the town hall, which was undermined by the Russians. The entrance doors are labelled “Stop – danger to life” and the booby traps have yet to be defused.

So Lugovaya manages the city from a run-down office building, in a tiny room crowded with his staff. Lugovaya does not mince her words. She wants to “cleanse the city of collaborators, remove all the dirt”. She is talking about those who made common cause with the Russian occupiers. Collaborators who also existed in the museum, on Alina Dozenko’s staff.

The 46-year-old does not want to say much about the investigation into the theft of the collection: “That is a matter for the Ukrainian judiciary”. But she does need to make one thing clear, justice or not. “They can keep the bones of their satanic Potemkin. They can eat them and swallow them, I don’t care. But they have to give us back our works of art.” Source: Süddeutsche Zeitung