2,000 stolen artworks attest to Putin’s desire to erase Ukraine’s history

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, the director of the Museum of Local History in Melitopol in the south-east of the country, Leila Ibrahimova, arranged for a hoard of gold artefacts from ancient Scythia to be hidden. Just a few weeks later, she was kidnapped and interrogated by Russian troops. They demanded to know where the Scythian gold was; she refused to cooperate. Subsequently the museum’s curator Galina Andriivna Kucher was taken at gunpoint to the museum and asked to show a Russian “expert” and agents where the gold was. She also refused to locate the collection. Kucher was later abducted from her home on 30 April and her whereabouts remains unknown.

According to a report on the theft in the New York Times, Russian troops eventually found the gold hoard, which dates back to the fourth century BC, boxed up in the museum’s basement. The items were taken to Donetsk, in the Russian-controlled Donbas region, for “safety”, with the museum’s newly installed puppet director, Evgeny Gorlachev, stating that the gold artefacts were not just for Ukrainians but “of great cultural value for the entire former Soviet Union”. His carefully chosen words were designed to erase the collection’s Ukrainian heritage and replace it with a Soviet one, one that suggested Ukraine was back within Russia’s sphere of influence and control.

To date, Russian forces have caused the destruction or severe damage of 250 museums and institutions in Ukraine. Twenty-five paintings by Ukrainian folk artist Maria Prymachenko were incinerated after the Museum of Local History in Ivankiv was hit by a missile. The Arkhip Kuindzhi museum in the besieged city of Mariupol was badly damaged by an airstrike that left paintings exposed to the elements, hanging on walls amid piles of rubble. The Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab, run by the Virginia Museum of Natural History in association with the Smithsonian, has already logged more than 110 memorials destroyed by Russian weapons. But as well as destroying museums and galleries, Russian troops are accused of having stolen an estimated 2,000 artworks. In addition to the theft of the Scythian gold in Melitopol, in Mariupol a handwritten Torah scroll and a valuable gospel printed in Venice in 1811 were all have been taken.

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