Friday, June 12, 2009

World War II and Art in Ukraine

An article in the Art Newspaper reports on the work done by several scholars--in the US and Ukraine--on the losses suffered by Ukrainian art museums during World War II.

From the Art Newspaper:
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 [Sehii] Kot [of the Institute for History of Ukraine at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences]. 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.

While in Ukraine I heard several stories from museum staff about the destruction during World War II. At the Donetsk Regional Art Museum, the entire collection was destroyed. Current staff members at the National Museum of Toys had worked with staff who had saved the museum's collection by taking it home, and then returning it after the war. Colleagues interested in research in Russian collections often mentioned that it was very difficult to gain access to Ukrainan materials in Russian archives and museums.

The misunderstanding about the characterization of all Soviet losses as Russian losses is common. Some friends and colleagues in the US asked about how my time in Russia was...I was in Ukraine! I'd reply, with an explanation of the difference. As an independent nation, Ukrainians rightly make important distinctions about their heritage as separate from the overall Soviet state.

But as Ms. Grimstead says above, the Ukrainians also still possess some "trophy art," taken from the Germans. In recent years some of this art has returned to its country or owners of origin and I'm hopeful that increasing openness will lead to increased collaboration and sharing of information.

Top: The new St. Michael's Cathedral, Kyiv

Bottom: Toys from the National Toy Museum, Kyiv


Maria said...

Interesting regarding Ukraine vs. Russia. When I was a kid, my grandmother always referred to "Russia" as the old country where she grew up. Only later did I find out that to her, "Russia" was actually Ukraine!

However, she herself was not "Ukrainian". She belonged to a minority group that settled in Ukraine in the late 1700s to early 1800s; they're typcicially called the "Germans from Russia" (again, not called Ukraine). Both her people and the Ukrainians suffered a lot of hardships under the Soviet rule. (She witnessed both her father and grandfather being taken away in the middle of the night.)

The history of these people living in Ukraine is pretty much taking over my life right now; I'm working on an independent film -- called Under Jakob's Ladder. I did a lot of the research for the film. And believe me, we had quite a few discussions about whether or not to use the word "Ukraine" or "Russia"... Just as you discovered, a lot of Americans don't really seem to know the difference.

Linda Norris said...

Thanks Maria for the observations, and interesting to learn about the film. Where in Ukraine was your grandmother from that she thought of it as Russia? And it seems without question that almost everyone, Russian or Ukrainian suffered under Soviet rule. Please keep me posted about the film--is it being shot in Ukraine?

Maria said...

My grandmother grew up in a small village near Dnepropetrovsk (on the Dnieper River.) She was only about 16 years old when they managed come out (during the chaos of the war). Her frame of reference probably had something to do with school. When she went to school, it was Russian that she had to speak (not Ukrainian; although she still spoke the German language at home).

One thing that always made an impression on me is that when she ever referred to the Soviets, it was always as "They", as in "They took my grandfather," etc. I think it was a code word of sorts among her people, afraid of being turned in for saying the wrong thing.

P.S. I'd be happy to let you know when the movie comes out. If you want, you can go to the website and sign up for
email updates here