A screenshot of a Telegram post by Mariupol City Council showing works allegedly looted by Russian forces (screenshot Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)

The Mariupol City Council stated on Telegram that Russia has stolen over 2,000 works of art from three museums in the city. The council is preparing for Interpol to start a criminal investigation.

“The occupiers ‘liberated’ Mariupol from its historical and cultural heritage,” the post reads, mocking President Vladimir Putin’s narrative of “liberating” Ukraine. Among the alleged stolen works are a handwritten Torah scroll, paintings by Arkhip Kuindzhi and Ivan Aivazovsky, a bible from 1811, Orthodox icons, and 200 medals from the Museum of Medallion Art.

The Kuindzhi Art Museum, dedicated to 19th-century landscape painter Arkhip Kuindzhi, was among the looted institutions, Mariupol officials said. Workers had hidden three Kuindzhi paintings before the museum was damaged in an airstrike last month. However, a city official alleged that the director of another local museum — the Mariupol Museum of Local History — handed over the three paintings to the Russian forces. Works by the Romantic painter Ivan Aivazovsky, known for his seascapes, were also looted. Both painters were born in Ukraine (Aivazovsky in Crimea and Kuindzhi in Mariupol), but are often described as Russian.

According to the city council’s Telegram post, the Russian forces took the stolen art to Donetsk, a Russian-occupied border region.

In another southern Ukrainian city, objects in the Melitopol Museum of Local History were also reported stolen. They included gold artifacts from the ancient Scythians, a nomadic people who lived in Siberia and modern-day Ukraine from 200 to 900 BCE. Museum workers had hidden the gold in the basement when a squad of armed Russians arrived and took it. Melitopol’s mayor said in a statement that he did not know the current whereabouts of the objects.

A gold Scythian sword sheath (c. 430 BCE) in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (image via Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Since the Russian invasion in late February, dozens of Ukrainian cultural sites have been damaged or destroyed — as of April 25, UNESCO confirmed damage to 110 sites, including 10 museums and six libraries. The Ukrainian Cultural Foundation created a map showing “culture loss” across the country and estimates that at least 150 locations have been partially or completely demolished.

Meanwhile, many museums across Ukraine have been removing art from their walls and moving it to safe locations, and Ukrainians have been placing sandbags around statues to protect them from Russian attacks.

In Mariupol, once a city of nearly half a million, now only 100,000 people are thought to remain. Those who have managed to escape the besieged and razed city call it a “hell on earth.”

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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