Museum gangsters: How Moscow loots and appropriates Ukraine's unique Jewish heritage objects

A hollow niche where a carved stone slab used to sit above the entrance to the synagogue in Pidhaitsi (left); this same slab and a carved door stolen from the Chortkiv synagogue are on display in a Moscow museum (right). Photos: Chortkiv-online website.

The International Council of Museums (ICOM), headquartered in Paris, is the most prestigious global organization of museums and museum professionals. In mid-June 2024, President of ICOM Ukraine Anastasiia Cherednychenko spoke at the annual meeting of ICOM governing bodies, demanding, in the strongest possible terms, to stop the creeping return of the Russian Federation to ICOM. Back in 2022, Russia was removed from participating in ICOM projects for having looted Ukrainian museums and destroyed Ukrainian cultural heritage treasures during the barbaric war it launched against Ukraine.

The things Russia has stolen or destroyed in Ukraine include Ukraine's Jewish heritage objects. The highest-profile case had to do with the theft of two unique Jewish artifacts from the Ternopil region and their illegal transfer to Russia. This happened at the beginning of Russian aggression in the summer of 2014 but came to light only recently. Unidentified criminals stole 300-year-old carved doors from the Chortkiv synagogue. At about the same time, unique relics also disappeared from the ancient synagogue in Pidhaitsi: a baroque decoration carved in white stone that belonged in a niche in the prayer hall and a carved tablet with the inscription "This is the gate of the Lord through which the righteous may enter" (Psalm 118:20).

Local historians did not know what happened to these artifacts until 2023, when photos of the stolen items were discovered on the official website of the Museum of the History of Jews in Russia, where they were included in the exhibit "Challenging Oblivion." This private museum was founded in Moscow by the businessman Sergei Ustinov. As noted on the website, the museum "strives to reconstruct a comprehensive picture of Jewish life in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union," and trips of its employees within Russia and to Eastern Europe "represent one of the most important means of expanding the collections of the museum." Thus, from the point of view of this Moscow museum, gangster raids on synagogues in Ukraine are "trips to expand the collections," and the brazen exhibition of stolen artifacts from Ukraine is "rescue from oblivion." The projected message is, "We didn't steal. Rather, we saved them." This is precisely the perverted logic Russians employ in their ongoing aggression, claiming they have come to "save" Ukraine and Ukrainians, even as they launch missiles and raze Ukrainian cities to the ground.

So, what actually happened in Chortkiv and Pidhaitsi? Looting, corruption, and vandalism of historical objects. Local officials were bribed; an ancient slab was yanked out of its place; an external decoration on a synagogue wall was destroyed; stolen artifacts were smuggled across the border. Both synagogues are historical monuments of national importance. There was no way those artifacts could have been removed legally. It could only have been done through corruption and vandalism, which is what the Moscow museum commissioned.

The indifference of the Ternopil regional authorities to the ancient, 350-year-old synagogues is a bitter reality, but it does not justify the theft of unique artifacts from it. Indeed, the Ukrainian authorities lack funds to maintain ancient buildings in proper condition, but this is no justification for smuggling historical artifacts in the rob-a-colony-to-enrich-the-imperial-capital style.

In 2023, the discovery of Jewish antiquities from Ukraine in a Moscow museum outraged many scholars, including specialists in Jewish studies and Jewish art from Ukraine, Israel, and the United States. They signed and sent a letter to Ukraine's Minister of Culture and Foreign Affairs Minister, urging Kyiv to make an international push for the return of the stolen Jewish historical artifacts. The letter, whose signatories demanded that Ukraine, the U.S., and the EU impose sanctions on Sergei Ustinov, the owner of the Museum of the History of Jews in Russia, read:

"The dismantling and transfer of these artifacts across the border directly contradict Ukrainian legislation. These actions could in no way have taken place legally and constitute criminal offenses for which the commissioners, the executors, and the beneficiaries must be held responsible. Synagogues in Chortkiv and Pidhaitsi date back to the 18th and 17th centuries, respectively, and are architectural monuments of national and local importance (protection numbers 1742M and 1559).

"As objects of the material heritage of the Jewish communities, which were practically annihilated during the Holocaust, they have great historical and cultural value. Their loss or damage cannot be compensated in any way and is irreparable. The current derelict state of these and other similar structures is a shame for Ukrainian society, but this is no authorization to commit criminal acts.

"We especially emphasize that the illegal transfer of these objects across Ukraine's border and the display of their parts on the territory of the Russian Federation are part of another, bigger crime of the aggressor country, which is the purposeful destruction and looting of Ukrainian historical and cultural heritage.

"Among other things, these actions, as well as their impunity, harm Ukraine's relations with foreign partners, particularly the State of Israel, enabling Russian propagandists to instrumentalize the topic of the Ukrainian-Jewish past in order to damage Ukraine's international image."

The letter was signed by Dr. Sofiya Grachova from the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto; Marla Raucher Osborn, head of the Rohatyn Jewish Heritage project; Dr. Artem Kharchenko, associate professor at the Kharkiv National University of Arts; Dr. Serhiy Hirik, senior lecturer at the master's program in Jewish studies at Kyiv Mohyla Academy; Dr. Marta Havryshko from Clark University; Professor Yevhen Kotliar from the Kharkiv State Academy of Design and Arts; Dr. Sergey Kravtsov, senior research fellow at the Center for Jewish Art, Hebrew University (Jerusalem), and others.

The curators of the Moscow museum published a response, but their attempts to justify theft and smuggling are immoral and not worth quoting. Behind all their pitiful excuses hides defiant confidence that Moscow can appropriate any objects in the post-Soviet space.

Ironically, neither Chortkiv nor Pidhaitsi of the 17th and 18th centuries had anything to do with the "Jewish history in Russia," as these towns were then part of the Kingdom of Poland. Therefore, this Russian crime is nothing else but neo-colonial appropriation of another nation's heritage to boost Moscow's imperial status.

This text is intended to serve as a notch for our shared Ukrainian-Jewish memory. We must remember that throughout the entire decade of Russian aggression against Ukraine, Putin's regime has sought not only to erase Ukrainian heritage from the face of the earth but also to loot, uproot, and appropriate Ukraine's Jewish heritage. When the day of reckoning comes, the long list of Russia's reparations to Ukraine should include these two Jewish artifacts brazenly stolen and smuggled to Moscow.

Shimon Briman (Israel)
Translated from the English by Vasyl Starko.