“It’s sacred: once it’s in a museum, it’s beyond return”. How war artifacts and stolen Kherson exhibits make their way into Russian museums
Дмитрий Швец
“It’s sacred: once it’s in a museum, it’s beyond return”. How war artifacts and stolen Kherson exhibits make their way into Russian museums
25 January 2024, 21:41

Art: Boris Khmelny / Mediazona

Since the beginning of the full scale invasion of Ukraine, dozens of Russian museums have launched exhibitions honouring the memory of fallen soldiers. These displays now feature an array of personal belongings and “trophies”—from Ukrainian Armed Forces badges to shrapnel from Ukrainian munitions, alongside commemorative coins and historic documents. A Mediazona investigation has revealed that a number of these exhibitions have been curated in line with directives from the federal government, aimed at presenting a uniform narrative of the “special military operation.” Moreover, Russia currently holds thousands of artefacts, illicitly removed during the occupation of Kherson. Presently, these items are simply stored in Crimea, unsorted and uncatalogued, due to the absence of necessary computing resources.

Underwear with butterflies, a helmet adorned with Pushkin, letters from the frontline

21-year-old Nikita Nosyrev from Mozhga in Udmurtia was killed on March 29, 2022, barely into the conflict. His university’s website carries a bureaucratese acknowledgement of his death: “Thus, this warm-hearted, ever-smiling, life-affirming young man found himself in the inferno of a struggle to preserve peace on our lands. I am convinced he was at the forefront there—among those who are acutely aware of their responsibility…”

Among the collections of the Kuzebay Gerd National Museum of Udmurtia are 38 possessions once owned by Nosyrev: a shirt, underwear, several pairs of footwear (meticulously catalogued as individual items—left and right), a sewing needle, a comb, an unused notebook, and a glass from a toiletry kit, to name a few.

Nosyrev’s personal items were displayed in the “From Heroes of Bygone Times” exhibition, dedicated to natives of Udmurtia who participated in wars from 1812 up to the invasion of Ukraine. According to goskatalog.rf, “State Catalogue,” a website that compiles information on exhibits from state museums across Russia, the collections have been enriched with hundreds of similar items over the past year and a half.

Larisa Pryalkina, the chief curator of the Pyatigorsk Local History Museum in southern Russia, which also includes personal belongings of Russian soldiers, describes the process of acquiring these exhibits. “Initially, we contacted the military draft board, and then they provided us with [the relatives’] contact details upon agreement. They came and brought these items to us,” she explains. “Primarily, these belonged to those who had fallen, after whom streets in the city have been named.”

The addition of war-related items to museum collections was first noted by Polygon in November 2022. By then, for instance, the Alexeyevsk Local History Museum in Belgorod region already had socks belonging to Vadim Rozhkov, who died in the war. Director Grigory Shapovalov told Mediazona that the relatives of the deceased locals began bringing their belongings to the museum.

“Some assholes start exploiting people’s grief just to provoke someone. I say they need to be castrated. They call and then start scrutinizing, looking for something said wrongly in the conversation, and then they bring up the museum collections. But this is sacred: once it’s in a museum, it’s beyond return, it becomes state property,” says the director bluntly. By the end of the conversation, it becomes clear that he sees risks in publicly discussing the museum’s exhibits: “If you have any negative intentions—fear God, I ask you, please don’t, just out of humanity.”

Not all items listed in the “State Catalogue” are displayed for public viewing, and some of them are quite puzzling. The Starooskolsky Local History Museum in Belgorod region, for instance, houses a letter from 12-year-old Masha Shishkina to a soldier. In this letter, the schoolgirl shares her love for ballet, which she can pursue thanks to the soldier’s protection. She also mentions her cat, which runs to her whenever helicopters fly nearby. The letter, adorned with drawings of a cap with a star and a smiling cat, ends with wishes of good health and thanks. However, it never reached its intended recipient and was instead directly acquired by the museum.

Elena Andrusenko, the deputy director of the museum, told Mediazona that the letters were part of a city-wide campaign, with museum workers requesting to keep some of the children’s messages to the front for their collection. Andrusenko noted that they also have letters that reached the soldiers and were returned to the Belgorod region through “museum friends—the Cossacks.”

Another striking artefact intended for the front but ended up in a museum is acid-green underwear with butterflies, part of “humanitarian aid sent to the Special Military Operation zone.” The My History Park in Saratov, where the item is listed in the “State Catalogue,” did not respond to our queries.

The Moscow Pushkin Museum preserves a military helmet with a painted portrait of the poet. The Yelabuga Museum (Tatarstan) keeps scripts for military funeral ceremonies and a printout of a RIA Novosti news piece titled “[Head of the republic Rustam] Minnikhanov Promises Maximum Support to SMO Participants from Tatarstan.” The Orenburg Governor’s Historical and Local Lore Museum’s collection now includes a Wagner Group recruitment leaflet and a pamphlet from the National Liberation Movement, complaining about the “fifth column” hindering Russia from posing a “real threat” in the USA, and calling for the purification of the country from “traitors.” The museum could not explain to Mediazona how these items were acquired.

Dozens of exhibits in the “State Catalogue” are labelled as “trophies,” mainly fragments of Ukrainian munitions and patches of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. For example, the Military History Museum of the Pacific Fleet holds a patch reading “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.”

Some items in museum collections border on looting. The Saratov Regional Museum of Local Lore has several letters sent in 1945 by a frontline soldier, Shulzhenko, to his family in Donbas, in the village of Lozove. Located near the border of the occupied part of the Luhansk region until the full-scale invasion in 2022, it was captured in the first weeks of the conflict. A museum employee revealed that the letters were found “in the ground” by a Russian soldier on leave, who gave them to his wife, and she in turn donated them to the museum.

Another example is a commemorative one-hryvnia coin, issued for the 2012 European Football Championship hosted by Ukraine and Poland. The museum responded that the coin was donated to their collection by local activist Sergey Shestakov, whom Mediazona was unable to contact.

State-sanctioned exhibitions

In April 2023, Vladimir Putin ordered the creation of museums related to the war in Ukraine and the procurement and transfer of “artefacts connected with the special military operation” to museum professionals. Under the auspices of the Russian Historical Society (chaired by Sergei Naryshkin, the Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service and a prominent critic of the West among Russian officials), an inter-museum group within the Ministry of Culture was established to seek out exhibits.

These are showcased in large travelling exhibitions with titles such as “Ordinary Nazism” or “Z Faithful.” The Russian Historical Society declined to connect Mediazona with anyone involved in sourcing potential exhibits, arguing that publication in a media declared a “foreign agent” in Russia would be illegal (which is not true).

Similar efforts were undertaken by Tatyana Shandra, who became the director of the Kherson Local History Museum during the Russian occupation. When Russian forces left the city, Desyatova, along with some of the exhibits, moved to Henichesk.

“You visit institutions, acquaintances, strangers, gather information, conduct interviews. If items are handed over, they must be accompanied by a story: just taking a helmet is one thing, it won’t have much value; but if it belonged to a specific soldier of a particular company, that’s valuable, because we need to tell the story of the unit, the event the soldier participated in. It’s a lengthy process, a systematic collection for the future. We plan to keep adding and evolving; we still hope to return to Kherson, as the premises that Henichesk can offer us are not quite adequate,” Shandra hopes.

Moreover, 24 multimedia parks titled “Russia, My History” are now open across the country. For instance, the Saratov branch of this park currently displays underwear intended for soldiers on the front line. The websites of these parks call for volunteers to come and help weave camouflage nets. Branches are also being set up in occupied territories: the opening of the park in Melitopol was attended by Sergey Kiriyenko, the First Deputy Chief of Staff of the President’s Administration.

It seems likely that numerous regional museums’ exhibitions related to the invasion of Ukraine were also created under Putin’s directive. Mediazona obtained internal documents from the Surgut Local History Museum in northern Russia, which in October opened the “Heroes of the Surgut Land” exhibition. These documents include budgets, official memos, and guidelines from the Ministry of Culture and the Russian Historical Society for creating thematic exhibits.

They contain recommendations on items to be displayed: personal belongings of Russian soldiers, flags of Ukrainian units, trophy weapons, as well as “children’s toys with blood traces, damaged toys,” “broken and damaged religious items: icons, lampadas, icon covers” and other “household items that bear witness to the humanitarian catastrophe.” These are followed by detailed historical overviews with a pro-Russian interpretation of Ukrainian and Donbas history since the late 19th century—around the time when modern Donetsk was founded.

The Surgut exhibition itself consists of portraits of local residents who died during the invasion of Ukraine, mounted on easels. Among the internal documents was this text file: “Good day, Ksenia Olegovna! While working on the list for the ‘Heroes of Russia’ project, it was discovered that some Wagner Group fighters were recruited for the Special Military Operation from places of imprisonment, where they were serving sentences for committed crimes. This information is publicly available online and could cause a negative public reaction. I attach the list with biographies.”

A meticulous employee indeed attached to the photographs of seven deceased who came to the Wagner Group from prisons, their brief biographies. First, the official part (born-studied-worked-died-buried), then a summary of the court verdict from the judicial records:

“Alexander Vladimirovich Kovyazin appears in the judicial records in connection with two criminal cases. The first case involved theft and was heard in the Surgut City Court in 2019. The defendant was sentenced to two years probation. The second criminal case was opened for causing grievous bodily harm. As stated in the verdict of the Surgut City Court, Kovyazin brutally beat his partner over personal animosity.”

Despite the concerns of one of the organizers, the portraits of the convicts were still displayed. The initiative to hold the exhibition came from the city mayor Andrei Filatov, who passed the order to the local department of culture. Numerous local media outlets reported on the opening of the exhibition, with some directly stating: “The idea for the project originated from the city administration.”

Личные вещи скифов

The most valuable exhibits added to Russian museum collections were stolen from Kherson. During the occupation, pro-Russian managers were appointed in museums and other institutions. When the Russian army withdrew from the right bank of the region last autumn, the evacuation of exhibits from at least two regional museums—the art and local history museums—was organized. A portion of these exhibits is now in Crimea, confirmed by Andrey Malgin, director of the Central Museum of Tavrida, as of last December.

“We are merely storing them; inquiries about their future fate should be directed to the management of the Kherson Regional Art Museum,” he told Mediazona, referring to the Russia-appointed leadership.

The authority is Natalya Desyatova, who admits her background is in music education and her experience with museums was limited to visits. Local authorities referred to her as a singer from the Teatralnoye cafe. She is under sanctions from the US and EU for the theft of the exhibits.

“When the memorable events of February happened, director [Alina] Dotsenko, who was pro-Ukrainian, fled. They were looking for someone to take charge—no one wanted to, so I got involved, though I’m not... well, I’m a person of culture anyway,” Desyatova explains. “And everything was fine, if not for this evacuation. Work began with the staff, despite the presence of the ‘wait-outs’ who were reporting back to Dotsenko, as it turned out, there was more than one person. Now they are heroes of Ukraine, ha-ha-ha... But there were few staff.”

Desyatova recalls the “evacuation”, noting that the Russian leadership didn’t even warn her about the need to leave: “I left on November 12, when the Ukrainians were already in the city. The exhibits were moved on Saldo’s orders, but again, there was no formal order, no packing materials. When I started to panic, thankfully, the Crimean colleagues appeared, like the director of Tavrida, the representative of Crimea’s Ministry of Culture Patrushev—I don’t remember his exact position.”

Desyatova and her colleagues from Crimea prepared the theft of exhibits from the Kherson Regional Museum “day and night.” The last loading, she recalls, occurred on November 9, when “people in military uniform” came to take away 19th-century works needing restoration. “I resisted for a long time—the material responsibility. Imagine, a call sign Shaman comes, and I hand over to him. Where will he take it all? I can’t even see his eyes, it could be anyone,” Desyatova laments. “To write an order—it’s ten minutes of work, scan it and send it to me on Telegram. My hair’s gone grey.”

Of the staff, according to Desyatova, two people moved to territories controlled by Russia; they are based in Henichesk and already participating in inter-museum seminars. Desyatova says that since 2014, she “lived as if underground,” feeling “the Bandera plague with her skin.”

“They even attend our seminars and take photos. Why are you photographing us?” she says. “She takes my picture with her phone and sends it to her friends at the same Kherson Local History Museum.”

The museum was not provided with a space equipped for exhibition activities, nor even a computer for cataloguing the exhibits, so Goskatalog.rf does not yet include items from Kherson museums. But, Desyatova assures, work on this is ongoing.

The local history museum, whose exhibits were also transported to Crimea along with the pro-Russian administration, did not receive a computer or a building in Henichesk either. Unlike the art museum, she says, they managed to move only a smaller part of the exhibits to Russian-controlled territory. Some items were damaged during loading. According to her, the exhibits remaining in Ukraine are planned to be declared missing, yet even the stolen ones have not been uploaded to “State Catalogue.”

“It’s difficult to upload to an electronic catalog when there are no computers. We have a personal computer for one person, and mostly we work from phones,” she explains. “The electronic catalog won’t be updated soon, mostly it’s paperwork. Everything is ready for work, we’re just waiting for funding.”

Branches of the local history museum in Henichesk, Skadovsk, and Kahovka remain under Russian control. There, Shandra continues, “there should be computers,” but most of the staff are over 70 years old.

However, even under these circumstances, the museum intends to open an “exhibition dedicated to the Special Military Operation”. “For now, theoretically, it’s a hall in the ‘Russia’ cinema theatre,” Shandra clarifies. It’s located at 3 Tsentralnaya Street—before the occupation, it was the ‘Ukraine’ cinema theatre.

Editor: Dmitry Golubovsky

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