Museums unite to save Ukraine’s cultural treasures from destruction and looting by Russian troops
As Vladimir Putin sets about eliminating the very idea of Ukrainian nationhood, there are fears that he will try to achieve this by looting and destroying Ukrainian culture, including treasures housed in the nation's museums.
With the obvious parallels of Nazi and Soviet looting of Polish culture and art in World War Two, leading Polish museums have now joined together to set up the Committee for Assistance to Museums of Ukraine to offer help and practical support to their Ukrainian museum colleagues.
The help it is planning to provide ranges from advice on how to best protect collections from bombardment to even transporting Ukraine’s treasures to Poland.
The committee was set up on the initiative of the Warsaw Rising Museum. Almost 20 institutions from all over Poland have already joined the project.
Committee organiser Jan Ołdakowski, director of the Warsaw Rising Museum said: "We stand in solidarity with the Ukrainians defending their homeland. Every war causes great losses of national heritage and culture."
The museum’s spokesperson Anna Kotonowicz said that Poland understands the plundering and destruction of culture all too well.
“In our country this took on exceptional proportions during World War II. The culmination was the complete robbery and annihilation of our capital city during the Warsaw Uprising and immediately after its fall,” she said, adding, “No nation or state should ever again suffer such losses. Today, unfortunately, this threatens Ukraine.”
The committee plans to support all museums and cultural institutions in Ukraine to help protect their collections.
Specific assistance will involve documenting, digitising and making inventories of collections, providing materials needed to secure and hide collections.
It will also help in gathering evidence of the looting and destruction of Ukrainian cultural property so that perpetrators can be brought to justice after the war.
On 3 March, Ukraine's culture minister Oleksandr Tkachenko posted on Facebook suggesting that Russian soldiers have permission from above to loot and destroy Ukrainian monuments.
This has sinister similarities to the Red Army trophy brigades that stole thousands of Polish cultural artefacts, many of which have never been seen since.
Kyiv is particularly vulnerable to looting as the city occupies an important place in Putin's interpretation of Russia's historical roots.
Fears that Ukraine’s treasures will disappear into the vast archives of Russian museums is not unfounded.
Many discoveries of Scythian settlement made in the 19th century and during its time as a Soviet republic have never been returned.
Already, works by the folk painter Maria Prymachenko, known all over the world and admired by Picasso, have been destroyed after the destruction of a museum housing her work in Ivankiv near Kyiv.
In Kharkiv, the Dormition Cathedral of the Mother of God and the historic buildings of Vasyl Karazin University have been damaged by Russian bombardments.
Historical sites have also been destroyed in Zhytomyr, Mariupol and Kherson.
Ukraine has several UNESCO World Heritage sites that are under direct threat of destruction.
Kyiv is home to St Sophia Cathedral, which contains unique mosaics and frescoes from the early 16th century, as well as the Pechersk Lavra, an Orthodox monastery founded in 1051.
Also on the UNESCO list and under threat are the wooden Orthodox churches in the west of the country.
The National Museum of the History of Ukraine contains centuries of history from the Byzantine to the baroque periods.
Lviv, whose historical centre has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1998, is preparing for the shelling of its monuments.
Workers have been busy erecting makeshift shields around immovable statuary on the city's streets.
The Lviv National Art Gallery contains paintings by Polish artists including Jan Matejko and Julian Fałat, while the Lviv branch of the Ossolineum is a Polish cultural institution that houses a collection of Polish manuscripts.
Meanwhile, yesterday, deputy culture minister Jarosław Sellin declared Poland’s readiness to provide a safe haven for Ukraine’s cultural treasures.
“We are ready for them,” he said.
Though he added: “We cannot and should not put pressure on Ukraine and the Ukrainians to do this.
“It is their decision; we do not know if they will take it. The decision will be made by the Minister of Culture of Ukraine himself.”