KYIV — In late April, Tetiana Buliy, head of the Arkhip Kuindzhi artwork gallery in Mariupol, was dwelling close to Kyiv when her telephone rang.
It was the gallery’s caretaker, who had remained in Mariupol, asking the place the keys had been.
Buliy had locked the constructing on February 25, the second day of Russia’s large bombardment of the southern Ukrainian metropolis. By late April, Mariupol was nearly solely underneath Russian management.
The gallery keys had been in Buliy’s Mariupol flat. She had fled from there along with her husband in March as Russian missiles devastated the town.
Talking firmly down the telephone, Buliy replied: “I don’t discuss to collaborators.”
However her defiance was futile.
On April 27, a video appeared in Russian media. In it, Buliy’s boss, Nataliya Kapustnikova, director of Mariupol Native Historical past Museum, unwrapped a bundle of images and confirmed them to the digital camera — small, jewel-like landscapes and seascapes by Nineteenth-century masters Arkhip Kuindzhi and Ivan Aivazovsky.
The artwork had been hidden by the top of the gallery, Kapustnikova defined within the video. Now the Russians had them and so they had been destined for Donetsk, a Ukrainian metropolis that has been underneath Russian management since 2014.
The work had been among the many most treasured gadgets of Mariupol Native Historical past Museum’s assortment, which ranged from uncommon prehistoric burial finds to one in every of Ukraine’s first Olympic gold medals, gained by Mariupol native Vyacheslav Oliynyk for wrestling at Atlanta 1996.
Amid the mass destruction of the town after Russia’s invasion, fireplace destroyed many of the assortment, which nobody had time, or orders, to evacuate. And in a situation repeated all through occupied Ukrainian territories, Russia — typically with native help — intentionally looted the remaining.
“The images weren’t broken, they had been betrayed,” says Buliy. “They had been stolen by the enemy.”
The destruction of Ukraine’s cultural heritage since late February has been on a scale to match Russia’s brutal assault in opposition to individuals. Greater than 200 historic websites, buildings and monuments have been broken, in accordance with UNESCO’s verification — whereas Ukraine places the determine at as much as 800, with 1000’s of artifacts eliminated or destroyed.
Within the newest mass looting to emerge, Russian forces emptied Kherson’s native historical past museum and artwork gallery earlier than being compelled out of the town in early November.
They transferred the work and artifacts to Russian-occupied Crimea — together with statues of two 18th-century Russian battle leaders and even the mortal stays of Grigory Potemkin, the final behind Russia’s authentic conquest of this steppe area that’s now southern Ukraine.
Many see the theft and destruction as persevering with a colonialist coverage to wipe out Ukraine’s historical past and rewrite it as a part of Russia’s, in step with President Vladimir Putin’s debunked rationale for the battle that Ukraine has no historical past of its personal and subsequently no proper to exist as a rustic.
“Behind [Russian] techniques is a battle in opposition to our id,” Ukrainian Tradition Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko informed POLITICO. “Every little thing which is related to Ukrainian historical past and Ukrainian heritage both ought to be ruined, in accordance with their ideology, or robbed.”
However Ukraine was late to sufficiently promote and defend its cultural heritage, permitting Russia to subvert it for years earlier than lastly ruining or overtly stealing its most precious objects.
Within the confusion previous to Russia’s invasion and all through the fog of battle, it was left to Ukraine’s museum staff to guard the properties and artifacts of their care, as they made life-or-death choices whether or not to remain or flee, and whether or not to cover or hand over the collections.
In uncommon instances, workers managed to save lots of works. Work by famend people artist Maria Prymachenko in Ivankiv, north of Kyiv, had been extensively reported to have been destroyed when the native museum was shelled in March. The truth is, workers had taken them out of the constructing and preserved them. However in Mariupol, as in different occupied cities like Melitopol and Kherson, comparable makes an attempt failed.
Tetiana Buliy, 62, who ran the Mariupol Arkhip Kuindzhi artwork gallery because it opened in 2011, returned to work from sick depart on February 23. She was going to oversee an area artwork exhibition as a result of open two days later within the gallery’s small, sleek, peach-painted constructing.
Folks had been speaking about whether or not Russia would assault, however neither central nor native governments had referred to as to evacuate the town, which was then lower than 30 kilometers from the prevailing Donbas entrance line.
“We’d lived for eight years close to the entrance line, and I feel that made us too relaxed,” stated Buliy.
Tradition Minister Tkachenko says he spoke to the town mayor on February 23 to debate evacuation, however received the reply, “We don’t want panic.” The mayor has denied this account.
There was a protocol for evacuating the museum, with essentially the most vital objects marked with stickers. However with none orders, not to mention packing supplies or transport, “all we might do was take down a very powerful and attention-grabbing issues, and conceal them,” stated Buliy.
Buliy hid three small works by Mariupol-born painter Kuindzhi, together with footage by his contemporaries together with the seascape painter Aivazovsky, in a safe room within the basement.
She requested a safety firm to bolster the alarm system on February 23, locking the constructing after them and returning dwelling with the keys.
It was her final go to.
Russia’s taking pictures, shelling and bombing had been relentless. The telephone sign disappeared, plunging Buliy and her husband into an info vacuum. Two neighboring flats had been hit, their occupants killed and finally buried within the flowerbed exterior. One other day a bomb landed within the courtyard, killing 4.
On March 15, the couple left in a humanitarian column of about 20,000 Mariupol residents.
Simply down the street from the gallery was Mariupol Native Historical past Museum, a historic three-story constructing with stone “babas” — Seventh- to Thirteenth-century monuments from the encircling steppe — standing exterior. Right here, workers underneath Nataliya Kapustnikova’s course put essentially the most useful of the collections into protected storage on the primary flooring on March 24, in accordance with Oleksandr Gorye, then-head of the museum’s science and schooling division.
Gorye managed to go to the museum in early March, and noticed doorways and home windows had been damaged; individuals dwelling close by informed him they’d seen possible native looters inside. A hearth tore via the constructing in late March. The Kuindzhi gallery was hit twice by missiles, damaging the roof and home windows.
In interviews with Russian media in late April, Kapustnikova stated that 95 p.c of the museum assortment was destroyed in a fireplace, and blamed the Ukrainian Azov Battalion, which was amongst forces defending the town.
That was when Buliy received the telephone name concerning the gallery keys.
Gorye, who had fled the town in mid-April, had already alerted her to Kapustnikova’s interviews. Buliy was shocked by the betrayal.
“It was so painful once I noticed it,” she informed POLITICO. “How are you going to work with those who destroyed our metropolis and killed individuals you knew? How?”
In addition to the Nineteenth-century works, officers from Russia and Russian-controlled Donetsk took an icon, books, ornamental objects and a few footage from the modern exhibition which had been as a result of open on February 25. In addition they emptied the historical past museum’s undamaged library and the close by affiliated ethnographic museum.
There isn’t any details about whether or not the gadgets are nonetheless in Donetsk, or have been moved on to Russia.
Russian officers declare cultural treasures from occupied territories are being eliminated for safekeeping. However Russia has been transferring artwork and archaeological finds from its colonized lands to the central museums of Moscow and St. Petersburg for hundreds of years.
“They’ve such a convention,” stated Gorye, now in Odesa and the Mariupol museum’s appearing head. “The brighter and extra useful the objects, the additional they despatched them away.”
In Soviet instances, just a few issues got here again — the three Kuindzhi footage had been transferred to Mariupol within the Sixties from St. Petersburg (then Leningrad). They had been on everlasting show within the Kuindzhi gallery, though Mariupol metropolis authorities had not supplied funds to insure them. On the native historical past museum, some gold and silver treasures lived in storage, Gorye stated, because the museum was not outfitted with alarmed show instances.
The town was planning a serious refurbishment of the museum. In line with Tkachenko, lately Ukraine had began a nationwide restoration program, elevated centralized funding for tradition, encouraging native authorities to do the identical, and stepped up promotion of Ukrainian arts and literature overseas via new state our bodies just like the Ukrainian Institute, established in 2017.
“Since 2014 we had a renaissance of Ukrainian tradition, as a result of this battle for id grew to become clearer for a lot of stakeholders,” he stated.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and covert invasion of east Ukraine in 2014 was a wake-up name to protect and promote Ukraine’s cultural heritage, stated Alim Aliev, deputy director normal of the Ukrainian Institute.
Within the final eight years, Russia has destroyed or eliminated many cultural objects from Crimea, usually within the identify of restoration tasks which change real, if crumbling, historic artifacts and constructing supplies with trendy copies, then reframe the previous to current Crimea as quintessentially Orthodox Russian territory, Aliev says.
In one in every of a number of efforts to map the continuing battle’s cultural impression, the Ukrainian Institute’s Postcards from Ukraine undertaking presents before-and-after footage of broken buildings which illustrate the wealthy complexity and context of Ukraine’s heritage, from Greek and Turkic traces in Mariupol and Crimea, to Chernihiv’s central European-influenced baroque.
“We’re recording each story, as a result of it’s not simply the structure of Ukraine, however of Europe,” stated Aliev.
Kuindzhi additionally represents this complicated and colonial historical past. The painter got here from Mariupol’s Greek group, which was resettled from Crimea after the area was included into the Russian empire. He moved to St. Petersburg, however lots of his best-known works are of the Ukrainian panorama.
“It was deep in his soul,” stated Buliy, who can also be from this Greek group.
A lot of Mariupol’s Greek historical past has been misplaced within the battle, together with a decree from Catherine II granting the Greeks particular rights, which was within the museum and presumably destroyed within the fireplace.
Kuindzhi’s nice nephew Serhiy Danilov lived in Mariupol alongside along with his daughters, educating at college and frequently attending gallery occasions, Buliy recalled.
In March 2022, he was killed in his flat by a missile strike, alongside along with his son-in-law.
Whereas Ukraine is working to just about recreate some objects from Mariupol museum, the life they characterize of Ukrainian artists, professors, researchers and curators has vanished. Those that survived really feel impelled to bear dwelling witness to historical past.
“So many individuals I do know died,” says Buliy. “The town was virtually destroyed. I used to be all the time a peaceable individual, however I’m so offended now. I’m on a mission to speak about what this battle has finished.”