May 11 — The fog of war. What really happened in Mariupol, Melitopol, and at the Hryhorii Skovoroda Literary Memorial Museum?

Over the past few weeks, the Russian campaign has focused on the Donbas region and the southern parts of Ukraine. The bombardment of Kharkiv continues; however, it seems that the aggressors’ target of choice has shifted from the city center to densely populated districts in the outskirts. The names Mariupol, Melitopol, and Kherson have become commonplace, thanks to intense, if sometimes misguided, media coverage.

News coming from Mariupol, which is now virtually completely occupied, is fragmented and contradictory. On March 23rd, Ukrainian newspapers reported that the Kuindzhi museum had been destroyed. According to the story, only three paintings were saved. Russian bombs had allegedly destroyed all the other canvases, including Ivan Aivazovsky’s, “Sunrise on the Shore of the Caucasus,” which supposedly burned during the bombing.

We don’t yet know who saved the Kuinddzhi’s canvases, but it now seems that Aivazovsky’s famous seascape was saved from the fire, along with other works that have yet to be catalogued.

However, news of its survival isn’t provoking too much joy. According to a statement by representatives of the Mariupol city council, the Russian occupiers made off with priceless objects from the Regional Museum, including an ancient Torah scroll, an early Nineteenth Century Greek gospel printed in Venice, and a selection of icons. The Russians also “confiscated” more than 200 medals from the Ukhim Kharbet Memorial Museum. Paintings from the Kuindzhi Museum, including “Red Sunset over the Dnieper” and Aivazovsky’s famous seascape, also became war trophies.

According to the Mariupol city council, Russian forces made off with approximately 2000 objects belonging to Mariupol museums. Some museum directors are reported to have collaborated in the looting, whether voluntarily or under duress.

These were not individual acts of larceny. There is mounting evidence that the looting of museum collections in Ukraine has been well organized and carefully targeted. The stolen objects have reportedly been transported to Russian-controlled Donetsk.

This systematic theft in the chaos of war calls to mind the activities of the Soviet trophy brigades, which removed more than 2,000,000 objects of cultural property from occupied Germany and other European countries at the end of the Second World War. Apparently, the Russian military wants to reenact the war with the “Nazis” in all its details, not omitting the wartime practice of plundering art.

Many are asking why the collections of the Mariupol museums weren’t evacuated in a timely fashion.

On April 30th, Oleksandr Tkachenko, Ukraine’s Minister of Culture and Informational Policy, said that he offered to evacuate the city’s museums at the beginning of March, but that his offer fell on the deaf ears of local officials. He also claimed that the museum collections of Chernikhiv and Kherson were not evacuated because of the speed of the Russian advance.

On April 27th, the Military Administration of the Zaporizhie Region stated that Russian occupiers had “confiscated” a collection of Scythian gold artifacts hidden by the staff of the Melitopol Regional Museum.

The story was that a collaborator had betrayed the location of the collection to the occupiers. Ukrainian and international newspapers reported this as news. However, on April 29th, Oleksandr Starukh, head of the Military-Civil Administration of the Zaporizhie Region, retracted the statement. He claimed that the Scythian gold had been evacuated from the Mariupol Museum in early March. Starukh went further by stating that everything of historical-cultural value had been evacuated from all city museums.

Vladislav Moroko, director of the Department of Culture and Informational Policy of the Military-Civil Administration of the Zaporizhie Region, said that the museum had never actually had the original Scythian gold objects.

Numerous Ukrainian newspapers reprinted this statement, but on May 11th, Ukraine’s Office of the Prosecutor General announced that it had started an investigation into the removal of gold objects from the Melitopol Museum by Russian occupiers “in violation of the laws of war.” The museum’s director, Leila Ibragimova, bitterly commented, “I think that the Ministry of Culture, which didn’t think about anything and did nothing, is guilty in such an outcome.”

In other news, on the night of the 6th of May, a Russian missile destroyed the Hryhorii Skovoroda Literary Memorial Museum in the village of Skovorodynivka, not far from Kharkiv.

The museum was in a late-18th-Century manor house that once belonged to the Kovalevsky family. Hryhorii Skovoroda (1722- 1794), the famous Ukrainian philosopher and poet, spent his last days there. The museum included Skovorada’s reconstructed rooms furnished with pieces of period furniture.

The museum’s collection was composed of documents and family heirlooms connected to the philosopher. Skovoroda loved the manor grounds and wanted to be buried there. His grave is near the manor house. His self-composed epitaph — “The world tried to catch me, but didn’t succeed –” is carved on his tombstone.

The bombardment of the museum seems to have been an act of deliberate cultural destruction. It had no tactical importance and wasn’t connected to any military activity.

The first reports of the museum’s destruction suggested that there had been plenty of time to evacuate the entire collection. However, photographs of the bombed-out exhibit halls show the bust of the philosopher on the floor, surrounded by debris.

Perhaps it was too heavy to carry away.