Can you steal the soul of a nation?

1, Oct 2023 | European Culture

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

You 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 quiet, the eternal hushed silence of museums. But the walls of the art museum in Kherson are bare and unadorned, a few picture frames stand around, useless as the empty halls.

When Alina Dozenko walks through her facility, she should actually lose faith in everything and everyone, in God, in people, maybe even in art. But the Ukrainian does not cry, she does not complain, she insults and swears. She condemns “the Russian dogs”, the “‘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 Oleksij Shovkunenko Museum in Kherson. She has been working there for 45 years and running it for 35 years. At 72 years old, she gives the impression that the USSR 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.

Pictures, sculptures, statues, icons: The museum of this not very big city in southern Ukraine housed one of the most important art collections in the country. Today it has all disappeared. Not looted by marauding drunken soldiers, but taken away as planned on orders from Moscow. An estimated 14,000 works of art, paintings and sculptures from the 17th to the 21st century were removed. Century that were abducted and stolen. “No other collection in Ukraine was better,” says Dozenko. The director is a staunch Ukrainian nationalist, a tough nut to crack. She immediately resumes her sideswipe: “‘Na chui idi’, I said to the Russians”. Na chui idi – in Russian it means something like “fuck you”. But it’s much ruder, really rude.

The director runs through the cold halls, everything is empty. Not a good word about the Russians from her.

Alina Dozenko protests as she runs through unlit corridors and unheated halls, past empty displays and shelves. From hall to hall. As if all these halls were still different from each other – they are all empty, dark, cold. There is neither electricity nor gas in Kherson. Sometimes you hear the thunder of cannons. Of course it is war.

Hanna Skripka has trouble keeping up. She is here too, in a winter coat and with a knitted cap 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 approximately 10,000 paintings and thousands of other pieces.

Everything they had here: Works by painters like Ivan Aivazovskij, Vassilij Polenow, Piotr Sokolov, Leonid Chichkan or Mykhailo Andriienko-Nechytailo. Not to be forgotten are paintings by Europeans such as the Swiss August von Bayer and the Dutch-born English artist Peter Lely. Hanna Skripka rummages in a drawer looking for a catalogue. The photos of the exhibits are a little faint, the text a little blunt: the slim volume dates from 1987, when Mikhail Gorbachev was still ruling the Soviet Union in the Kremlin.

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

Kherson – this 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 occupiers, fooling Moscow’s feared FSB secret service. Alina Dozenko, Hanna Skripka, the caretaker Igor Rusol and three guards risked everything to save their treasure. The fact that they eventually lost does not change the fact that there are heroes even in the darkest hours.

The ever-eruptive director Dozenko tells the story as follows: “The whole city was occupied. Except for our museum. We kept the orcs out for five months”. You feel like you’re in an Asterix album: all of Gaul is occupied by the Romans. All of Gaul? No. But listening to Hanna Skripka and Rusol, the “engineer” and guard, you understand that the museum is not the Gallic village that resisted the invaders, led the Romans by the nose and then punched that nose all the harder.

What seems crazy, almost funny in retrospect, about the incredible story of the Kherson museum was life-threatening, 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 residents, you can hardly believe it. It was almost funny in an absurd way. All those secret service agents and policemen snooping around the museum, but in their omnipotence and arrogance not realising that what they were looking for was behind the next door: Cherson’s collection of paintings.

Why was she taking all these risks? “This collection is my life,” the curator said.

The story is quickly told. When 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 under reconstruction. 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 racks in the museum’s fundus, sculptures and other art objects stood on the shelves.

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

Apparently, police and intelligence officers believed this story. And they did for almost five months. At least that’s what Dozenko and Skripka told. No one searched the huge building, no one opened the locked doors. Alina Dozenko was replaced after a few weeks by a defector who was loyal to the Moscow regime: she had been dismissed by the occupiers 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 went through the building several times a week. Two or three times, agents of the secret service also came back and kept asking the same questions about the collection. Prorussian museum staff had apparently told them that the artworks had never left the building. “Collaborators,” Dozenko says contemptuously. She almost spits out the word: “Russian friends”.

But the intelligence officers weren’t really looking, they believed the story that all the artworks had been moved out. Instead, they showed up several times at Hanna Skripka’s flat, interrogated her, her husband and her son. They searched the flat, rummaged through drawers and cupboards. “They never asked the right questions, never dug deep”. Why did Hanna Skripka keep quiet, why did she take such a big risk? “This collection is my life. My heart is attached to it,” she said.

Igor Rusol, the caretaker, is one of those at the museum who actually oiled the door locks and repaired the light switches. “When our director Dozenko asked me to stay, I stayed. Why, I don’t know myself”. Rusol is Ukrainian. He points to a petrol canister standing in the hallway. Even on it the occupiers have painted their white Z, the symbol of the Russian war of aggression. The 59-year-old has also taken a risk, but: “At least they didn’t terrorise me like they did 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 lack of restraint of the occupiers. But what happened in the Kherson Art Museum has its own weight, despite the daily horror in the trenches and torture chambers. The theft of works of art is the continuation of politics by very, very different means.

Not with troops, bombs and guns. The theft and destruction of art is intended to destroy the identity of the enemy, his memory. The aim is 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 make sense of the 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 war began in February. Among them the museum in Mariupol, the port city razed to the ground by the Russians as they drove two thousand Ukrainian fighters out of the catacombs of a huge steelworks – that lasted for weeks. Kiev’s culture minister, Oleksandr Tkachenko, was quick to recognise the aim of systematic barbarism beyond any military objectives: “Russia is trying to destroy everything that has to do with our cultural heritage”.

On articulated lorries, the occupiers took everything away unprotected. “Like rubbish”, said someone who had observed the scene.

In mid-July, everything came to light; a former colleague, whom Director Dozenko herself had dismissed for her pro-Russian stance, uncovered the masquerade. The depots were opened, the staff had won. At the beginning of October, the collection was taken away.

A resident of Kherson told Moscow’s pro-opposition Novaya Gazeta how it happened: “For three days, Russian looters have been bringing out the paintings. They load them onto huge trucks, without packaging, without protective cover. Like rubbish”. Even the washing machines and kitchen appliances they looted were treated more carefully by the Russians than the Kherson art treasure, the eyewitness reported.

Where are the works of art now? Director Alina Dozenko scrolls through her mobile phone. Photos show an articulated lorry in front of a gleaming white building, men 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 in Crimea, in Simferopol and in the Central Taurian Museum.

The Russians have occupied and annexed the peninsula since 2014. “Patriots from Simferopol,” says Dozenko, “sent us these photos. They took them secretly”. Some of the photos show the inventory numbers on the back of the paintings. Andrei Malgin, the director of the Central Taurian Museum, confirmed that the looted art was in his institution. Without a trace of injustice, he told The Moscow Times, “After martial law was imposed in the Kherson region, I was ordered to store the artworks from the museum in Kherson. I have 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 were to win this war and Moscow had to admit its guilt, years could pass before the collection finds its way back. However, the Russian troops did not only loot the art gallery. They also looted the regional museum in Kherson, stole the collection of historical weapons there and destroyed everything they could not take with them.

In the parks and squares of the city, the occupiers lifted monuments weighing tons from 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 had founded Kherson in 1778. Today, only the pedestal with the inscription remains on the central 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 wormy bones of the famous aristocrat. A week before the departure, armed men took Potemkin’s bones from the crypt of St. Catherine’s Church. Where the remains of Catherine the Great’s lover have remained, whether they are in the Central Taurian Museum in Simferopol – apart from Putin and his secret service agents, no one knows.

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

The history of the Kherson art museum and its collection says a lot about the Russian power apparatus, about the feared domestic intelligence service FSB. Agents who stand in front of empty walls and showcases but do not look for the deposits. Who do not 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 may explain why this president has been fighting a war for nine months that he actually lost in the first few weeks. Incidentally, it was the FSB that had prepared the attack.

Now that the Russians have left, normality has not returned to Kherson. On the contrary: the city is being bombed by Russian artillery, civilians are dying. Galina Lugovaya has to keep the city running. She is currently something like the mayor of Kherson, officially calling herself “head of the military administration”, martial law. In reality, Lugovaya is also only the deputy mayor. However, the actual mayor was kidnapped by the Russians and his successor, appointed by the occupiers, has long since fled.

Lugovaya is also not sitting in the town hall, which has been undermined by the Russians. “Stop – danger to life” is written on the entrance doors, and the booby traps have yet to be defused. So Lugovaja administers the city from a run-down office building, in a tiny room crowded with his staff. Lugovaya does not mince words. She wants to “clean 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 justice system”. However, there is one thing she must make clear, justice or not. “They can keep the bones of their fucking Potemkin. They can eat them and swallow them, I don’t care. But they have to give us back our works of art”.