The destruction of Ukrainian cultural heritage as a component of the Russian imperial policy of Russification and denationalization of Ukraine

16 November 2022

Russia kills, rapes, and destroys Ukrainian cultural heritage. The destruction and mass removal of cultural values from Ukraine by the Russian occupiers is striking in their scale. They are commensurate with the actions of Nazi Germany in the occupied territories and the destruction of values by the Islamic State. All Saints Hermitage Svyatogorsk Lavra in the village of Tetyanivka, the library of the Church of St. Peter the Grave, the Church of St. George in the village of Zavorychi and the Church of the Ascension in the village of Lukyanivka in the Kyiv region, the ancient railway station in Okhtyrka in the Sumy region, Mariupol Art Museum named after Arkhip Kuindzhi, the Ivankiv Museum of History and Local Lore, the Vasyl Tarnovsky Museum of Ukrainian Antiquities in Chernihiv, dozens of museums and private collections were looted. However, these are only the most well-known facts. The purposeful barbaric attitude towards the history of the Ukrainian people and the deliberate destruction of anything that can reflect the Ukrainian identity is obvious. Trying to erase the culture and history of Ukraine, the Kremlin seeks to erase the very concept of the Ukrainian nation.

Forced Russification and denationalization are components of Russia’s centuries-old imperial policy in Ukraine. Efforts to destroy any foundations and symbols of one’s own Ukrainian political and military past, to assimilate the Ukrainian ethnic group, and to appropriate its ancient and original history and culture were characteristic of the Russian Empire at all stages of its existence and “post-imperial” transformation into a new super-centralized state — the USSR.

The dramatic defeat of the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917-1921 and Ukraine’s loss of statehood had fatal consequences for the fate of its national assets. During the formation of the totalitarian regime in Ukraine, its national cultural heritage, which was considered by the Bolsheviks as the bearer of foundations hostile to the ideology and worldview of Bolshevism, suffered irreparable losses. Monuments of history and culture were declared “old junk”. At that time, the massive destruction of churches began.

In accordance with historical circumstances, the mass destruction of cultural heritage and the export of historical and cultural values from Ukraine to Russia were carried out in different ways. Mass — in the form of forced seizure of cultural values from Ukrainian churches, monasteries, museums, archives and libraries, from private individuals during inspired mass campaigns of the 20s and 30s. Selectively — as a result of the transfer to Russian institutions of cultural values from Ukrainian repositories by administrative means on the orders of central all-Union authorities, based on departmental orders and directives, as well as by the appropriation of cultural values that were sent to museums and other institutions on the territory of Russia for exhibitions under the conditions of temporary storage and on display or for restoration, and which were not returned to Ukraine to the rightful owners.

The seizure of cultural values began with private collections. Moreover, the robbery of the owners of antiques and art collections was disguised under the guise of false concern for the fate of cultural values. By the Decree of the Council of People’s Commissars of the UkrSSR dated March 11, 1921, “On the purchase of museum valuables for state museums from private individuals”, “all significant collections of art monuments and antiquities, as well as various things of value,” were declared “national” property. The state acquired the right to forcibly purchase them and, in case of the owner’s refusal – the “right to sequester the thing” for museums.

However, the transfer of monuments of art and antiquities to museums did not guarantee their preservation. On February 3, 1922, the government of the UkrSSR allowed the seizure of exhibits without museum value from the museum fund for their sale abroad. But the principle of selectivity was not observed, and the seizure of museum objects and even museum valuables became total. In Kyiv alone, 150 private collections were “registered and confiscated” – more than 200,000 objects of antiquity and an art worth about one billion rubles in 1915 prices (the approximate value of the entire gold reserve of Tsarist Russia). Seized valuables were transported to the “State Store of Valuables of the RSFSR” created in 1920 (the so-called “Gokhran”) under the People’s Commissariat of the Russian Federation and from there – abroad.

The attention of the Bolshevik authorities was also attracted by the values used to be in churches, synagogues and other places of religious cults for centuries. On March 8, 1922, the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the UkrSSR adopted a decree “On the Seizure of Church Valuables to the Starving Assistance Fund,” according to which it was supposed to seize all items made of gold, silver and precious stones from church communities and send them to the People’s Commissariat of Finance of the RSFSR to fight hunger. At the same time, the Central Committee of the CP(b)U sent a circular letter to the localities, in which they demanded that the most decisive measures be taken to extract church valuables.

Painting by Ivan Vladimirov (source — “Local history”).

The campaign of seizure of church valuables, which ended in September 1922, concentrated in the hands of the Kremlin about 34 poods of gold and 24,000 poods of silver, 14,770 diamonds, more than 1.5 poods of pearls and more than 2 poods of various precious stones.Of them, as of May 16, 1922, 3 poods 3 pounds and 75 zolotniks of gold, 3,105 poods of 22 pounds and 54 zolotniks of silver, other precious metals — 15 pounds and 40 zolotniks, 852 pcs. of diamonds, 117 pcs. of pearls and one string of pearls weighing 19 pounds 55 gilts and 108 carats, 2,725 other precious stones weighing 1 pound 34 zolotniks 100 carats, 125 rubles in gold and 8,615 rubles in silver, and 24 mitres studded with precious stones and 26 other precious things. 

According to the instructions of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the UkrSSR, “On the procedure for the seizure of church property” dated March 21, 1921, objects of historical and artistic significance should be transferred to the monument protection authorities of the People’s Commissariat of Education of the UkrSSR. However, the seizure commissions neglected this rule. It indicates the fact of the seizure of valuable relics of the Ukrainian people from the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, including museum items from the “Lavra Museum of Cults and Life” (created on the recommendation of the All-Ukrainian Academy of Sciences), which is known to Ukrainian art historians F. Ernst and D. as “a serious crime against history.” In 1932, the remains of valuable art objects from the Lavra sacristies, which could not be seized, were moved from the Lavra Museum to the Kyiv office of the State Bank. And after that, the collection miraculously ended up in Moscow.

Not everything that ended up in Gokhran was sold abroad by the Soviet authorities. The Special Commission of the People’s Commissariat of Education of the RSFSR spent more than nine months examining the treasures collected during the campaign to seize churches valuables and eventually took about 10,000 items with a total weight of 400 poods to the Armory of the Moscow Kremlin.

The following year, in 1923, a new robbery of the religious property began, which was carried out during the mass closure of monasteries. In general, during 1918–1923, the Moscow Bolsheviks seized from the controlled least 10 million monuments of history and culture, and household items worth 10 billion rubles at the exchange rate of 1913.

In the late 20s — at the beginning of the 30s, the sale of cultural values abroad became one of the main items of state export. The only source where it was possible to get them in sufficient quantity, by Bolshevik standards, in a looted and torn country, there were still museums.

The destruction and seizure of cultural values from Ukraine continued. Their essence remained unchanged — the national cultural assets of the Ukrainian people, which were seized and exported from the territory of Ukraine, served either as a source of financial and logistical support for the existence of the Soviet regime centred in Moscow or were used to replenish the funds of leading Russian museums, archives and libraries with the most valuable and unique objects of antiquity and art, documents and publications.

leading researcher
Holodomor Research Institute
The National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide