Three Years Ago, I Had Dinner With Vladimir Putin. What He Told Me Makes Me Fearful for Ukraine’s Cultural Heritage
My impression then, as now, is that Putin fundamentally views Russian culture as indisputable evidence of superiority.
I didn’t know if I was supposed to bow or extend my hand in greeting when I came face-to-face with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2019. I ended up settling on an awkward combination of both.
Shortly after arriving at a black-tie dinner in Moscow, I was presented to Putin by my companion and translator as an expert in Byzantine Christian art. To my astonishment, the mention of my specialty caused Putin’s impassive expression to brighten. He insisted I visit Moscow’s Cathedral of the Annunciation, which has, in its main vault, icons by Byzantine painter Theophanes the Greek.
Later that evening, I was instructed to move from my perch near the end of a long mahogany table to one now vacant at the center. Right across from Putin. I could feel the blood roaring in my ears as I shakily took the seat.
“The President would like to know about your study of Christian art,” a woman to my left said with an icy smile. “And what you think of Russia’s rich artistic history.” A sense of unease clawed up my spine.
The Tip of the Iceberg
Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea reminded us that one way to destroy a people is to destroy and loot its culture. During the conflict, the Donetsk Regional Museum of Local History was struck 15 times by anti-tank missiles. The blitz destroyed approximately 30 percent of the museum’s collection, meaning some 45,000 artistic and archaeological treasures were lost. In this current full-scale invasion, which is only two weeks old, Russian troops have already burned down the Ivankiv Museum.
The annexation of Crimea also demonstrated the Russian state’s propensity for looting material culture, particularly treasures connected to Russian history or the Orthodox Church. According to a Ukrainian ministry, at least one million archaeological artifacts were transported from Crimea to Russia in the years following the invasion. A coordinated looting effort of that magnitude would have likely required Putin’s approval.
Today, Russian forces have occupied the expansive region of Donbas in South-Eastern Ukraine. Donetsk, the region’s de facto capital, is home to over 140 museums. The Donetsk Regional Art Museum alone contains rare Byzantine icons and numerous later icons that employ Byzantine iconographic style. From my limited interaction with Putin, I’m fairly certain he will want those treasures on Russian soil.
The Kharkiv Art Museum in Eastern Ukraine is another target Putin may have his eye on, given its 11 paintings by prolific Russian artist Ilya Repin (1844–1930). Fetching auction results of up to $7.3 million, Repin’s work hangs in prestigious Russian institutions like the State Tretyakov Gallery and the State Russian Museum.
Appropriating Imperial Russia
Putin’s assumption of the Russian presidency at the turn of the century coincided with a concerted effort to reacquire Romanov treasures sold by the Bolsheviks during the 1920s and ‘30s. Viktor Vekselberg, one of Putin’s favored oligarchs, with a net worth as much as $9.3 billion, led the charge with his bullish collecting of Fabergé Imperial Easter eggs.
Vekselberg now owns more Imperial eggs than any other individual, having purchased nine from the Forbes publishing family in 2004 for a staggering $100 million. The eggs—which include the first-ever produced in 1885 by order of Tsar Alexander III—were immediately transported to Russia and displayed at the Kremlin.
Two years later, Vekselberg and his Link of Times Foundation were granted permission by the Kremlin to rent and restore the 18th-century Shuvalov Palace in St. Petersburg to function as a museum in the style of the Hermitage, once the Winter Palace of the Tsars. By 2013, Vekselberg opened his Fabergé Museum and accomplished his goal of bringing the Imperial eggs back to their home city.
Putin’s affinity for Fabergé persists. He publicly gifted the Hermitage Museum the sumptuous Rothschild Fabergé egg clock to mark the museum’s 250th anniversary in 2014. While Putin made the official presentation, the Rothschild egg was actually acquired by Russian oligarch Alexander Ivanov for a record-breaking $14 million at Christie’s London in 2007. By gifting the egg to the Hermitage Museum at its jubilee, Putin masterfully intertwined his image with the imperial legacy of the museum and Fabergé. In November, I saw the egg on display at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum as part of its sold-out exhibition “Fabergé in London: Romance to Revolution.”
Following the 2014 annexation of Crimea, several Russian oligarchs were sanctioned by the United States and European Union. In 2020, the U.S. publicly accused oligarch brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg—both billionaires and Putin’s Judo partners— of buying high-value artwork to launder money despite U.S. sanctions.
The current fear is that other oligarchs will employ similar tactics to evade the latest rash of harsher sanctions imposed in recent weeks. Greater still is the concern that looted material culture from Ukraine could be sold on the illicit art market, which UNESCO estimates is worth nearly $10 billion dollars annually.
What the West Can Do
Reflecting on my surreal evening in Moscow, what stands out most is the fervor with which Putin spoke about Russia’s “unparalleled cultural legacy.” It was bewildering to hear the Russian President discuss great repositories of artworks, sounding more like a parent boasting about a gifted child than the dispassionate politician I had seen on the news.
His mouth flattened into a thin line when he learned that I had not yet visited St Petersburg’s Fabergé Museum. Yet he smirked with amusement when I volunteered that Carl Fabergé may have helped craft the infamous Botkin enamels acquired by St. Petersburg collector M.P. Botkin, and flatly noted that I knew quite a bit for “someone from Canada.”
My companion later told me that was a compliment: Putin apparently views North America as having a lesser artistic legacy. Evidently, the Russian President sees cultural heritage as an area in which Russia bests other nations in a geopolitical version of “my horse is bigger than yours.”
My impression then, as now, is that Putin fundamentally views the wonders of Russian museums as indisputable evidence of his nation’s superiority. And I wholeheartedly worry he will enrich them with treasures seized from Ukraine with a sense of entitlement.
Given what is already lost, the art world must increase efforts to help Ukraine safeguard its artistic inheritance. Specialists in all fields need to liaise with their Ukrainian colleagues and the Smithsonian Culture Rescue Initiative to assist in establishing official master catalogues of culturally significant artworks. With the websites of many Ukrainian museums now offline, detailed inventories will prove invaluable for future restitution efforts.
It is also incumbent upon culture ministers from nations that have sanctioned Putin directly (the U.S., U.K., Canada, Japan, and the EU) to announce an end to all cultural exchanges with the Russian state. Spain, in particular, should permanently scrap plans for a Hermitage Museum satellite in Barcelona. There is no rationale for exporting and elevating emblems of Russian Imperialism.
The Western art world is not an island, nor is it unaffected by the carnage in Ukraine. In the words of English poet John Donne: “And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Maya Asha McDonald is a writer, art historian and advisor on cultural restitution. She holds an MA from the University of St Andrews, specializing in art history and business statistics, and an MA in the history of art from the Courtauld Institute of Art specializing in Byzantine Christian and Islamic art.
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