Kherson's museums now display shattered cases and missing treasures
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Kherson's museums now display shattered cases and missing treasures
A smashed display case at the regional history museum in Kherson, Ukraine, on Sunday Nov. 20, 2022. The museum is another cultural institution ransacked and looted by Russian forces before they withdrew from the city in defeat. (Lynsey Addario/The New York Times)

by Lynsey Addario

KHERSON, UKRAINE.- The principal artist designing the exhibitions at Kherson’s regional history museum, Anatoliy Gryaznov, was near tears. The collection to which he had dedicated a lifetime was mostly gone, he said, another cultural institution ransacked and looted by Russian forces before they withdrew from the city in defeat.

Glass display cases were smashed. Deep gouges in the floor marked the paths along which Russian soldiers had dragged tombstones and other heavy objects.

“I spent my whole life working in this museum,” Gryaznov said. “And now it is all gone. Twenty years of my life — gone.”

According to the head of the culture department at its City Council, Svitlana Dumynska, Kherson had “one of the most impressive collections of regional museums in Ukraine.”

They are now in ruins. At the regional history museum, the section on guns and weapons was decimated, the Russians taking everything they could carry. A few heavier objects remained, alongside the whole of the nature exhibit.

At the nearby Kherson Art Museum, local officials said, religious paintings from the 17th and 20th centuries were torn from the walls. Ukrainian art from the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries was missing, along with contemporary art from the last 100 years.

The Kherson police have opened a criminal investigation, classifying looting as a war crime.

Ukraine’s minister of culture, Oleksandr Tkachenko, said about 80% of the museums’ collections were gone: “Mostly the most valuable things were stolen.”

The deputy governor of the Kherson region, Serhii Khlan, told journalists on Monday that there were reports that a second branch of the regional history museum — in Kakhova, east of the Dnieper River, near an important hydroelectric plant — had also been robbed.

The Russians also cleared out the entire section of Kherson’s history museum that was dedicated to World War II, including the identification documents and medals of a Nazi soldier bearing Hitler’s signature.

They seem to have done little to conceal what they were taking.

Days after their soldiers fled the city, images circulated on Ukrainian social media that appeared to show objects from the Kherson Art Museum being unloaded at a museum in Crimea, the peninsula that Russia unlawfully annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

Museum experts identified several works of art in the pictures, including paintings by Ukrainian modernists Ivan Pokhitonov and Mykhailo Andrienko-Nechitaylo.

In an interview this month with the news outlet The Moscow Times, the Crimean museum’s director, Andrei Malgin, confirmed that the artworks had come to his institution, the Central Museum of Taurida in Simferopol.

“I have been instructed to take the exhibits of the Kherson Art Museum for temporary storage and ensure their safety until they are returned to their rightful owner,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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