Ukraine suffered “colossal” looting during World War II

The Art Newspaper 1 June 2009

By John Varoli

Research challenges Russians’ claim that they own many cultural valuables from the independent state 

 Mosaic of Mychailovskyi catedral, 12th century.

Mosaic of Mychailovskyi cathedral, 12th century.

KIEV/MOSCOW. New research by a Ukrainian scholar is shedding light on a previously unknown chapter of cultural losses in his country during World War II. According to Serhii Kot, a scholar at the Institute of History of Ukraine of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, during World War II Ukraine lost a “colossal amount of cultural valuables’’, on a scale unheard of since the Mongols invaded the country in the early 13th century. 

Mr Kot’s research also challenges claims by Russia about the extent of its cultural losses during the war. At a conference in Moscow in February, “Trophies—Losses—Equivalents: Cultural Items as Victims of War” (The Art Newspaper, April 2009, p20), some Russian scholars and experts reiterated claims that western nations were failing to return items looted from the Soviet Union. However, the matter became embarrassing for the Russians when Patricia Grimsted, research associate of Harvard University’s Ukrainian Research Institute, argued that many so-called Soviet losses, which the Russians claim as their own, were in fact items looted from the territory of what is now an independent Ukraine.

“In all the books in the West about restitution there is no information about Ukraine’s cultural losses, except for one book by Patricia Grimsted,’’ said Mr Kot. He says that most authors use “Russia” as a synonym for the Soviet Union. “When speaking about Russian losses during the war, Russian officials often show total figures for the USSR,” said Mr Kot. 

All of Ukrainian territory was occupied by Germany, whereas in Russia the troops did not succeed in occupying occupied Moscow and Leningrad, the two main repositories of cultural treasures. While most Moscow and Leningrad collections, such as the Hermitage Museum, were evacuated by the Soviet government, “only a maximum of 3% of Ukraine’s 3.5 million museum items were evacuated”, Mr Kot added. 

The Nazis systematically looted Ukraine’s cultural treasures, which by the end of the war accounted for about 55% of all Soviet cultural losses from museums. Losses included as many as 250,000 items missing from 21 major Ukrainian museums, and about 50 million books. Around 150 of Ukraine’s 174 museums suffered severe physical damage. 

It was not only a matter of quantity. About 74% of the most valuable Soviet cultural losses came from Ukraine museums, Mr Kot claimed. These include about 300 Dutch and Flemish 16th- and 17th-century paintings from the Uman regional art museum. The paintings have not been seen since the Nazi occupation. In addition, about 800 precious icons assembled by the Nazis from various museums, and which dated from the 11th to 18th centuries, also disappeared.

According to Ms Grimsted, the Ukrainian government still needs to devote more resources to research this issue: “Perhaps Ukraine should follow the Russian example in this respect and establish a centralised website with lists and illustrations.” 

After the war, the Soviets recovered many works of art from Germany, but research shows that Germany was not alone in depriving Ukraine of its cultural heritage. According to Ms Grimsted, the Americans returned to the Soviets about 534,000 cultural items from 1945 to 1948, and about 167,000 of these items originated from Kiev. However, many items never made it home, and instead settled in cultural institutions in Leningrad and Moscow. 

Mr Kot said Russian museums rarely want to cooperate in determining just how much looted Ukrainian art they possess. At the end of the 1990s, however, Ukrainian researchers learned Russia was in possession of 26 mosaics and frescoes from the walls of the 12th-century St Mikhail’s Cathedral in Kiev that the Soviets destroyed in the 1930s. After years of negotiations, 11 of the frescoes, held in the Hermitage, were returned to Ukraine in two shipments: February 2001 and February 2004. The others remain in Russia. 

Ms Grimsted says that Ukraine must also do more about the art that it looted from Germany. “Ukraine should be more open about trophy receipts,” she said.
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