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Russian forces steal priceless Ukrainian artwork during occupation of Kherson


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

William Brangham: As the invasion of Ukraine grinds on, preserving that country's artistic heritage has taken on new urgency.

Earlier this month, in a major blow to Moscow, Russian soldiers withdrew from the southern city of Kherson. But, before retreating, those troops looted homes and businesses throughout the city, and they emptied one of Ukraine's most precious art museums.

Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News has that report..

Lindsey Hilsum: Ukraine's national anthem echoes across the streets of Kherson. Russian posters are being torn down. This is a culture war. A brutal battle for the soul and identity of a people.

No one knows that better than the director of the Kherson Art Museum, famed for having one of Ukraine's best collections of European paintings which she had put in storage.

Alina Dotsenko, Director, Kherson Art Museum (through translator): Here, Britain, France, Poland, Latvia were all represented. It was a huge collection. There were paintings from the 17th century to the 20th century.

Lindsey Hilsum: Over five days, just before they withdrew, Russian soldiers turned up in trucks and stole the most valuable paintings, icons and sculptures.

Alina Dotsenko, Director, Kherson Art Museum (through translator): There wasn't even room for an apple to fall. There were 14,000 items in total. How many are left now, I just don't know.

Lindsey Hilsum: They did everything they could to protect the collection. They put it in storage. And they locked the doors. But, look, everything is gone. It is not the monetary value. It is the cultural value. That is incalculable for the people of Kherson and Ukraine.

According to the director, five of the 20 museum staff collaborated with the Russians, telling them what was where. She has been sent photos of the paintings which the soldiers took to a museum in Simferopol, the capital of Russian-occupied Crimea. She can recognize the markings and labels.

Ukraine's minister of culture came from Kyiv to tour the Kherson Art Museum and see what has been lost.

Are you shocked?

Oleksandr Tkachenko, Ukrainian Minister of Culture: Shocked. Shocked, it's not the word. I am furious, because this particular show would -- does Russia mean when they're fighting our identity? So, these are our heritage. There is our identity. If they stole heritage, they believe that we wouldn't continue to live and to create. But we will.

Lindsey Hilsum: One woman filmed from her apartment Russian soldiers coming in the dead of night to the main pedestrian street. The next day, everyone could see the empty plinths from which they had removed the statue of an 18th Century General Alexander Suvorov, one of three statues honoring Russian imperial heroes that the Russians stole.

St. Catherine's Cathedral contained a relic even more resonance for President Putin. For him, religion and history have become inseparable. He often says that he regards Ukraine as part of Russia, as it was at the height of the Russian empire.

The bones of Prince Potemkin, Catherine the Great's lover, who founded Kherson in 1778, have lain here since his death. The priest took me into the vault from where Russian soldiers stole the bones in late October, not for money, but because this is a war of imperial re-conquest.

Father Ilya, St. Catherine's Cathedral (through translator): On this pedestal lay the coffin with the bones of Prince Potemkin. The Russians came one evening and carried it away. Now this place is empty, this place where his remains rested for more than 200 years.

Lindsey Hilsum: The Russian ideology that made them steal Potemkin's bones, is that the same ideology which made them invade Ukraine?

Father Ilya (through translator): Yes, no doubt. Their main aim is to restore the empire. And, for that, they use force, violence. They committed violence against those who live here in the name of those ideas of theirs and because of this imaginary connection with the past.

Lindsey Hilsum: Armies have looted and claimed God is on their side since time immemorial. Today, the Russian state has embarked on the kind of plunder Potemkin himself would have recognized, as if stealing the emblems of the past could recreate it now in the 21st century.

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