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Saving Ukraine's art collections from Russian aggression

Saving Ukraine's art from Russian assault
Saving Ukraine's art from a Russian war on culture 05:05

This week, "60 Minutes" traveled to Ukraine to investigate what Ukrainians say is Russia's ongoing campaign to deliberately destroy their cultural institutions

Churches, cathedrals, museums and libraries across the country have been bombed, burned and shelled. Museum employees have been arrested and kidnapped by Russian soldiers. And thousands of paintings, antiques and artifacts have been stolen from museums, looted by invading Russian forces.

Standing in a ruined church, the building having been shelled by Russian forces, Ihor Poshyvailo, co-founder of The Heritage Emergency Response Initiative, an organization documenting these attacks, told "60 Minutes" correspondent Bill Whitaker that Russia's intentions are clear.

"'We don't need your traditions, beliefs, your culture. You will not exist,'" Poshyvailo said. 

The Khanenko Museum in the capital of Kyiv is trying to prevent their artwork from suffering the same fate that many other collections in Ukraine have suffered. They have packed and moved every painting, artifact, and sculpture they can to a secret location in hopes of keeping the items safe. 

Whitaker took a tour of the empty museum with its acting director, Yulia Vaganova. Walking from room to room, they found empty display cases with captions describing objects that were no longer on display. Walls where paintings once hung now only contained outlines, ghostly silhouettes etched in dust.

Khanenko Museum in Ukraine
Paintings were removed from the walls of the Khanenko Museum in Ukraine. 60 Minutes

"It's very sad," Vaganova told Whitaker. "[A] generation of people grows [up] without the museum, without this art, without this culture, because they cannot see it."

The constant threat of missile and drone attacks is driving the museum's efforts to hide its collection. Last year, a Russian missile struck close to it, shattering museum windows. In August, while the "60 Minutes" team was reporting in Kyiv, 28 cruise missiles and 16 drones were launched at the city. One drone caused a fiery explosion near the hotel where they were staying. 

Yulia Vaganova told "60 Minutes" that even in a more secure location, the artwork is not totally protected from these attacks. 

"The missile could hit any part of Ukraine, unfortunately. It means that wherever you hide the art…it's not totally protected," she explained.

Despite its hollow state, the Khanenko Museum remains open to visitors. Vaganova said that visitors are welcome to tour the museum and remind themselves of what they used to have.

Whitaker asked Vaganova what she felt justice would look like. She answered that Russia should return all the stolen artwork, pay for the destruction they have caused, and admit what they have done for the world to hear. 

"This is exactly what we call acknowledgment," she said. "This is only the way."

The video above was produced and edited by Will Croxton.

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