As efforts continue to secure safe passage for the resident’s of Mariupol, reports have surfaced about the action’s of Russian forces in the occupied city. Ukrainian officials accused Moscow’s army of seizing “over 2,000 artworks” from museums.

Officials said that the artworks were taken from Mariupol and moved to areas of the Russian-controlled Donbas region.

“The occupiers ‘liberated’ Mariupol from its historical and cultural heritage. They stole and moved more than 2,000 unique exhibits from museums in Mariupol to Donetsk,” the Mariupol city council said in a statement posted on its Telegram channel on Thursday.

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The artworks included several original pieces by the 19th-century Mariupol native Arkhip Kuindzhi and the famed Russian romantic painter Ivan Aivazovsky as well as a unique handwritten Torah scroll, and the Gospel of 1811 made by the Venetian printing house for the Greeks of Mariupol.

“Mariupol city council is preparing materials for law enforcement agencies to initiate criminal proceedings and make an appeal to Interpol,” the council added.

Meanwhile, Petro Andriushchenko, a member of the city council, also released a statement saying that Russia seized three original paintings by Kuindzhi, who gained global fame for his portraits of the Russian landscape.

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All the artwork were taken from the three local museums, including the Kuindzhi art museum, which was heavily damaged during a Russian airstrike on 21 March 2022, the Mariupol city council said.

Natalia Kapustnikova, director of the Mariupol Local History museum, told the pro-Kremlin outlet Izvestiya that she handed over the works of Aivazovsky and Kuindzhi to the Russian forces “following the end of the hostilities.”

“The head of the Kuindzhi art museum hid the paintings when the war started. I knew where they were … They were then moved to safety,” she said.

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Russian forces took control of the south-eastern port city of Mariupol, which nearly turned into rubble following several bombardments. An estimated 2,000 Ukrainian troops and up to 1,000 civilians are still stuck in the besieged Azovstal steel plant on the outskirts of the city.

If the art seizure is confirmed, it would be the first case of mass cultural looting by Russian forces since the war began on 24 February. 

After Russia invaded Ukraine, the latter rushed to preserve its art objects and monuments as they feared Moscow could target the country’s cultural heritage.

A number of leading museums across the country have since moved their art to undisclosed locations.

“The material cultural heritage of the world is our common heritage, the identity and inspiration for all humanity. Cultural heritage has the power to unite us and is critical for achieving peace,” the global arts organisation Getty said. “It is also too often the target of war, another way to destroy and overtake a society by erasing its memory.”