Ukrainian Museums after 24 February 2022
More details
Hide details
Національний музей історії України (Narodowe Muzeum Historii Ukrainy) вул. Володимирська 2 01001 Київ
Submission date: 2022-11-14
Final revision date: 2022-12-09
Acceptance date: 2022-12-13
Online publication date: 2022-12-20
Publication date: 2022-12-31
Wiadomości Archeologiczne 2022;LXXIII(73):293-305
From the Editors: While the text by Maxim Levada is not scientific in nature and goes beyond the archaeological “comfort zone” of our journal, we nevertheless decided that it could be an important contribution in the discussion regarding the future, post-war, relations with Russian archaeologists, museum professionals and museums, which have now been frozen for exceedingly obvious reasons. We expect it may be read by not only professionals, which is why – as an exception – we transcribed Ukrainian and Russian names and surnames.

I preface my account with a short introduction to better orient the readers in Ukraine’s current situation. The process of incorporation of Ukraine into the Muscovite state began in 1654 and ended in 1775, when Catherine II abolished the Zaporozhian Sich and Ukraine became part of the Russian Empire. Library collections, old documents, icons and church equipment were transported to Moscow. The Russian language was imposed on the Ukrainians, and the most talented individuals were forced to resettle in St Petersburg or Moscow, where they could continue their activities but already in the Russian cultural environment. It is also important to remember that the Ukrainian culture was not only supplanted by the Russian culture but also entirely forbidden. A decree banning the publication of religious books, textbooks and educational works in Ukrainian was issued in 1863, with another one, banning the use of the Ukrainian language in churches, theatres, publishing houses and primary schools, issued in 1876. Both regulations remained in force until the revolution of 1905.

The interest in antiquities began in Russia in the 19th century, with the creation of first archaeological collections, which soon developed into large museums. Today, archaeological collections of museums such as the Hermitage in St Petersburg or the Pushkin Museum and the State Historical Museum in Moscow are based primarily on finds from the Ukrainian territory. This is particularly true of the collections from the ancient cities of the Black Sea region, as well as assemblages of Scythian, Slavic and Kyivan Rus’ artefacts. Unique documents, relics and personal effects dating to the Cossack period were also taken to Moscow and St Petersburg.

The Ukrainian culture suffered even greater losses as a result of the revolution of 1917. With the introduction of the dogma of class conflict, many museums, especially smaller ones, were closed down, and their collections were partly destroyed as “class-alien”. In the 1930s began the repression of the Ukrainian intelligentsia, and many of its representatives – historians, archaeologists, museum workers – were executed. Throughout the existence of the USSR, any manifestation of Ukrainianness was considered influence of the “bourgeois Ukrainian nationalism” and tracked by the KGB. As an example, I present my university years in Kyiv in the first half of the 1980s, when our professors were forced to teach even Ukrainian history in Russian.

The revolution was followed by the export of cultural property to Moscow and Leningrad. Today, one of the most famous exhibits in the Eastern Collection of the Hermitage is the bronze water vessel “Shirvan” bearing the inscription “made by Ali, son of Muhammad, son of Abul-il-Kasim, the artist”, dated 1206 (603 AH) (Fig. 1). The vessel comes from the collection of Bogdan and Varvara Khanenko, well-known Kyiv patrons of culture, which included approximately 1,200 works of western European, Egyptian, Byzantine, Old Ruthenian, Japanese and Chinese art. It also contained paintings by Vincenzo Bellini, Perugino, Francisco de Zurbarán, Jacques-Louis David, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Antoon van Dyck, Paolo Veronese, Giotto di Bondone, Caravaggio, as well as Scythian, Slavic and Old Ruthenian archaeological artefacts, works of masters of Ukrainian art, collections of old icons and more than 300 gold and silver objects; their library counted 3,000 volumes.

A year before his death, in May 1917, Bogdan Khanenko donated the collection to the city of Kyiv. When the Bolsheviks occupied Kyiv in 1919, the Khanenko Museum was nationalised, and a political official was appointed director. After Varvara Khanenko’s death in 1922, the collection was split up, with many paintings and exhibits taken to various museums in the Russian Federation and some others sold to the USA and Great Britain; the proceeds were used to purchase weapons and military equipment. In1928, the “Shirvan” water vessel was valued at 3,000 roubles and destined to be sold abroad. However, together with other looted objects, it was sent to Leningrad, where in 1932 it was added to the Hermitage collection under unclear circumstances. I wrote this introduction to remind the readers that not much has changed in a hundred years.

* * *

In 2019, the most interesting artefacts from an Staryi Krym museum were taken for a Tatar history exhibition in Kazan. They included the material from the excavations at the Solhat hillfort, former residence of the governors of the Crimean khans (Fig. 2). After the closing of the exhibition, they were to be returned to the original museum. However, at the end of 2021, to the astonishment of Crimean archaeologists and museum professionals, it turned out that they would not be returned, as they had become the property of the Hermitage. Moreover, we learned from the exhibition catalogueSu that in 2001−2004, long before the outbreak of the war, the Hermitage Museum repeatedly bought archaeological artefacts discovered illegally in Crimea from private individuals.

Such a practice is fully in line with the Russian government’s repeated statements over the past 10−15 years that Ukraine is not an independent state, that it was invented by Lenin and has no history of its own. The issue, therefore, concerns not only denying the existence and the destruction of the state but also of the history of the entire nation. It was in such a situation that Ukrainian museums have been confronted with the reality of the current war.

In early May, a rocket completely destroyed the Skovoroda Museum (Національний літературно-ме­­мо­ріаль­ний музей Г.С. Ско­вороди) in the Kharkiv region. Hryhorii Skovoroda (Григорій Савич Сковорода; 1722−1794) was a Ukrainian wandering philosopher, poet and educator. He is a symbol of all things Ukrainian. In 2024, Ukraine will celebrate the 300th anniversary of his death. On his grave, there is the epitaph “The world hunted me but did not capture me...” (Світ ловив мене, та не впіймав...). The museum is located in the tiny village of Skovorodynivka, which has neither military nor industrial facilities. The village was hit by only one rocket, aimed at the museum. This is how the “Russkij mir” captured Skovoroda (Fig. 3).

At this point, I would like to share my direct experience with my Polish colleagues, in the hope that they will not have to make use of it. First and foremost, it is important to understand that all war contingency plans these days work very badly. The first to be affected was the museum in Okhtyrka (Охтирський міський краєзнавчий музей), a small town in the Sumy region, 50 km from the Russian border. The Russian army went around it, aiming to reach Chernihiv and Kyiv as quickly as possible. Okhtyrka was surrounded and methodically shelled. The museum building was damaged already on the first night of the war; the exhibition had not yet been dismantled at that time (Fig. 4). The small museum had only a few employees. Some lived not in Okhtyrka itself but in the surrounding villages. The director of the museum, Lyudmila Mishchenko, was left practically alone. There was no electricity in the town, banks and shops were closed, it was impossible to buy food or to fill up with petrol to bring the boards and plywood that her colleagues, directors of other museums, wanted to donate. Despite these conditions, Lyudmi­la Mishchenko managed to gather a group of volunteers and save the museum collection (Fig. 5).

Even before the outbreak of the war, some museum directors, alarmed by the news of escalating tensions at the borders, publicly called on the Ministry of Culture to begin preparations for evacuation. We now believe that a policy was adopted at the government level that such actions would lead to panic, and this would be the most terrible thing that could happen. Thus, the calls of the museum workers were ignored. In the first days of the war, the connection with the Ministry of Culture was severed, to be restored only many days later. Under such conditions, museums can rely only on themselves, and evacuation is not the best option.A standard evacuation plan, in addition to packing exhibits and documents, should include ensuring transport and direction of evacuation, its final destination and protection. Not every museum can organise such an evacuation on its own. It must be remembered that, apart from museums, there are also schools, universities, libraries, archives, hospitals and other institutions, all of which should also be evacuated. In addition, inhabitants themselves begin to escape the war in large numbers. In the first few days, all Ukrainian airfields were attacked, and the roads were filled with refugees heading west and military columns moving in the opposite direction. There was also a high risk of shelling of troops and railway depots. Under such conditions, it was not possible to evacuate museums. The attack on Ukraine came from various directions, including Belarus. It would seem that it would have been possible to plan the evacuation of the Regional Museum in Sumy (Сумський обласний крає­знавчий музей), located in eastern Ukraine close to the Russian border, somewhere inland, for example to Chernihiv. But Chernihiv itself, attacked from the north, was also encircled and besieged for a long time. That the collections of the Regional Museum in Chernihiv (Чернігівський обласний історичний му­зей імені Василя Тарновського) were saved is due only to the unprecedented bravery of the staff. Over time, it became clear that evacuation as such was pointless, as the rocket attacks covered the entire city, so it became paramount to find places that could withstand bombing and artillery fire.

For the Kyiv museums, the first day of the war began at 5am, when Russia struck both airports and the TV tower. We were immediately confronted with logistical problems (in Kyiv, traffic on the bridges over the Dnieper River practically ceased, and residents on the left bank who had not managed to cross to the right bank were cut off from the city centre for several weeks) and just plain human fear. Fear is a basic human reaction in times of war and must be anticipated. People rush to save their families, hide from bombings. In such a situation, you can only count on what you will not find in any manuals − loyalty. As recalled by the director of the National Museum of the History of Ukraine (Національний музей історії України), Fedir Androshchuk, only 20 people, counting technical staff, came to work on the first day of the war. They dismantled the exhibition and labelled exhibits. The next day, there were even fewer, as some young male and female workers went off to join the army. I would like to draw attention to an important circumstance here – the majority of young workers will be mobilised at the start of war, so only a minimal workforce can be counted on when making any war contingency plans.

As an example of successful war preparations, I can mention the activities of the director of the Regional Museum in Sumy, Vladyslav Terent’yev. He was aware of the threat due to proximity to the border with Russia and the tense political situation already ongoing since 2014. The proximity to the Russian border has already been giving him food for thought since 2014. This museum is located in a free-standing building erected in the early 20th century to house a bank. It has deep and spacious cellars, with strong ceilings, that once served as bank vaults; all were inspected and renovated. The museum made its own efforts to procure the necessary packing material. The director drew up a plan for dismantling the exhibition and carried out the necessary training with the staff – as it later turned out, this happened a few weeks before the outbreak of the war. All museum staff were divided into task forces: one opened the showcases, removing the heavy glass, while another packed the exhibits, properly labelling the crates and boxes. Another group moved them to the basement, plotting their positions on a map. Each worker knew his or her place and the order in which to do things. Still, the museum in Sumy was “lucky”. As the Russian army was pushing towards Kyiv, it did not enter the city; instead, it orchestrated a blockade and limited itself to shelling industrial and military facilities.

The Chernihiv museum (Чернігівський обласний іс­то­ричний му­зей імені Василя Тарновського) also survived the long blockade of the city, having hidden its collections in the cellars. However, the situation there was different; the blockade was very aggressive, with important facilities of urban infrastructure damaged as a result of shelling; there was no electricity or water. Museum employees who managed to reach their workplace on the first day of the war were forced to stay there. The director of the museum, Serhij Layevs’kiy, allowed the residents of neighbouring houses to take refuge in the museum basement, as the area was regularly shelled (Fig. 6). Therefore, he had to secure the collections and keep people safe at the same time, while having no supplies of water, food and medicine.

Today, we know that preparing museums for war must include securing their own means of generating electricity (generators), lamps, water containers, and food and medicine supply. It is important to be aware that when the electricity runs out, alarms will turn off. Also, the system for marking exhibits with electronic barcodes may not work. The plans must also take into account that it may not be possible to dismantle the exhibition. Taking stock of the most valuable artefacts and their possible separate evacuation must, therefore, be carried out in advance. Large-sized objects that cannot be temporarily moved must be secured with boards or sandbags.

Another problem is providing the museum with adequate protection, which is difficult to reinforce in the first days or weeks of war. There is also a real threat from looters or diversionary groups whose job is to sow panic. The most important thing, however, is that every museum director is prepared to act in the event of occupation; in doing so, he or she must above all take care of the lives of his or her subordinates.

Above, I have only written about those museums that survived the Russian attacks in relative safety. Now it is time for other examples. Today, we know that in the war that Russia is waging against Ukraine, no international humanitarian law is at work. It is vain to invoke conventions or count on the education or magnanimity of enemies, or Blue Shield designations.

The first completely destroyed Ukrainian facility of this type was the museum in Ivankiv (Іванківський історико-краєзнавчий музей), a small village north of Kyiv, in the direction from which the Russian troops encroached on the well-known Bucha and Hostomel. It boasted the works of Marija Prymachenko (Марія Оксентіївна Примаченко; 1909−1997), a Ukrainian primitivist, the most outstanding representative of the Ukrainian folk style. It was only because the Russian army tried to reach the borders of Kyiv as quickly as possible, without stopping in small towns, that the artist’s woks were saved. The residents of the neighbouring houses noticed that the museum was burning and literally pulled the paintings out of the fire (Fig. 7).

In fact, it is already clear that Russia, while announcing the “rescue” of Ukrainian territories and recognising them as its own, is in fact engaged in total looting of local museums. The first news that the Russian occupiers were deliberately searching for and exporting museum collections came from Melitopol. The local museum (Ме­літопольський краєзнавчий музей) housed an archaeological collection known primarily for some 300 Scythian and Hunnic gold ornaments (Fig. 8). The city was occupied very quickly, but the museum director Lyeila Ibrahimova managed to bury the most valuable exhibits under construction rubble in the building’s basement. On 10 March, in the morning, armed Federal Security Service (FSB) officers came to her house – she was the first in the city to be arrested. She was interrogated around the clock while the museum was searched. Nothing was found at that time, and the director was let go. None of the staff revealed where the artefacts had been hidden, but searches were repeated regularly, and the staff were called in for questioning. The hiding place was found, however, and the artefacts were taken to Crimea. Lyeila Ibrahimova managed to save herself and travelled abroad via Kyiv...

In Mariupol, there were nine museums before the war. The most famous were the Kuindzhi Art Museum (Ху­дожній музей імені Куїнджі) and the Regional Museum (Маріупольський краєзнавчий музей) with its large and famous archaeological collection. During the storming of the city, all Mariupol museums were in the war zone, and the buildings were ruined. The Kuindzhi Art Museum’s collection consisted of 2,500 paintings; in addition to the works of Arkhip Kuindzhi himself (Архип Куїнджі; 1842−1910), a landscape painter and prominent representative of luminism, there were works by Aivazovskij, Yablonska and other painters. On 21 March, a bomb hit the museum building, destroying it completely (Fig. 9). Kuindzhi’s paintings had already been taken away somewhere, possibly to Donetsk, while other works were most likely destroyed.

The collections of the Regional Museum in Mariupol numbered 53,000 exhibits, the library consisted of 17,000 volumes. During the storming of the city, all this was taken away by Russian soldiers. At the beginning of October 2022, a delegation of the Russian Historical Society, which included the director of the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Nikolaj Makarov, arrived in Mariupol. He stated: “Archaeologists have always been interested in the Azov steppe; there is the famous Mariupol Bronze Age cemetery, medieval sites and many others. However, we should not start with archaeological excavations but with the reconstruction of the museum and the creation of scientific infrastructure”.

The Regional Museum in Kherson (Херсонський крає­знавчий му­зей) was founded in 1890 by archaeologist Viktor Goshkevych, who donated the finds from his excavations. Subsequently, the collection was enriched with the material excavated by Georgij Skalovskij in Berezan and Boris Farmakovskij in Olbia. Before 1917, the collections were studied by Karl Schuchardt and Ture Arne, among others. Before the current Russian occupation, the collections numbered 173,000 artefacts, including items from a large lapidarium and a coin collection. One of the most famous objects is a marble lion sculpture from Olbia dating to the 5th century BCE (Fig. 10, 11). Before fleeing Kherson, the Russians looted all the museums. From the Art Museum (Херсонський художній музей імені Олексія Шовкуненка), the entire nineteenth-century collection, over 10,000 exhibits, all the archaeological artefacts from the exhibition and some from the storerooms were taken to Crimea. It is already known that present during the loading of the collection onto the cars were Russian Federal Security Service officers, who selected individual exhibits and took them to their cars. The fate of these artefacts remains unknown.

Finally, I would like to express a few words of hope, but no one knows when or how this war will end. Last year, Magdalena Mączyńska and I wrote an article about Klaus Raddatz’s military service in Ukraine during the Second World War and the fate of Ukrainian museums. While writing that text, I was surprised to realise that many archaeological collections from Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Vinnytsia, Poltava and other Ukrainian museums that had been taken to Germany did not return to Ukraine but were “repatriated” to Moscow. At the time, I thought a lot about museums during wartime, but I could not even imagine experiencing it myself. I finished my part of the article on the eve of the Russian attack. I emailed the text with the illustrations to the co-author on the first night ofthe war, during air raid alerts, thinking that the Internet might stop working at any moment, and that this might be my last article.

Today, I am again reflecting on the future of Ukrainian museums. My colleagues and I are constantly following the news and trying to analyse their situation. That is why I am addressing all Polish friends, not only on my own behalf but also on behalf of my colleagues, Ukrainian archaeologists and museologists. We urge you to break all contacts and cooperation not only with Russian institutes and museums but also with their staff. We had known them for many years and had a very friendly relationship with them. But since the start of the war, only five of them have approached me with words of sympathy and support. My Kyiv colleagues say the same. Browsing sometimes through the websites of my former Russian acquaintances, I see that some even rejoice in the war.

The Muscovite state was created and has always developed as an aggressive organism. The entire history of Russia, from Ivan the Terrible onwards, is a history of oppression and conquest. After the war – and we believe with you that it will end in our victory – there will be no peace until what has been exported over 350 years – museum collections, archives and libraries − is returned to us. We want to reclaim our history, we want Russia to never again be a danger to its neighbours. That is why we need it to stop being an empire. If other nations once oppressed by Russia give us their support, we will see what Russia’s true history and culture is.

Kyiv, 2 December 2022
Journals System - logo
Scroll to top