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Ukraine accuses Russia of looting museums, destroying churches as part of heritage war

Ukraine accuses Russia of looting museums
Ukraine accuses Russia of targeting its culture, heritage and identity | 60 Minutes 13:06

Last month a UN report found new evidence that Russia had committed war crimes in Ukraine with deliberate killings and widespread use of torture. But they have yet to examine the intentional destruction of cultural property, which also is a war crime. Ukraine accuses Russian forces of targeting churches, libraries, and looting the country's most important museums. And while plunder is as old as war itself, Ukrainian investigators say this is different. They see a campaign of cultural genocide to destroy Ukraine's identity as a nation. Today, a network of cultural warriors in Ukraine is building the case against Russia. It's a heritage war, one told us. And we joined them on the frontlines. 

Not much was left of the tiny village of Viazivka, a few hours northwest of Kyiv, after Russian forces overwhelmed the region last March. But we weren't prepared for this…

Bill Whitaker: My God, so Ihor what happened here?

Ihor Poshyvailo: Liberation of Ukraine by Russian occupation forces. You see what this liberation means.

Bill Whitaker: Why would they target a church?

Ihor Poshyvailo: In this small village this was the main place. And it was targeted just to destroy what keeps the whole village and the whole community together.

Bill Whitaker and Ihor Poshyvailo
Ihor Poshyvailo shows Bill Whitaker art from a destroyed church in Ukraine. 60 Minutes

Ihor Poshyvailo is director of the Contemporary Maidan Museum in Kyiv. He'd brought us to see the carcass of the Church of the Nativity on Ukraine's heritage list. Poshyvailo told us the Russians had deliberately shelled it when they retreated last year. There was no fighting nearby. Built in 1862, the church had survived two world wars, communism, and a revolution. but not this. 

Bill Whitaker: So what message do you think the Russians were trying to send by destroying this church?

Ihor Poshyvailo: We are strong. You should be afraid of us. And we will do what we want to do. We don't need you on this land. We don't need your traditions, beliefs, your culture. You'll not, you'll not exist. 

Bill Whitaker: Erase you.

Ihor Poshyvailo: Erase you, exactly. 

As we sifted through the wreckage, Poshyvailo told us the church had been famous for its unique centuries-old folk art.

Bill Whitaker: And these are all paintings?

Ihor Poshyvailo: Yes, and you can see that they still have…

Bill Whitaker: Wow, look at that.

He told us this was one of 700 churches that have been hit so far. Some were collateral damage. Many were not. To document the destruction, Poshyvailo co-founded the Heritage Emergency Response Initiative, a sort of cultural SWAT team that travels to damaged sites, interviewing eyewitnesses, and saving what they can.

Ihor Poshyvailo: It's a nightmare for me because every morning I get up and I think that's it's, it's not reality, what we have and at the same time, the feelings that we will never forgive.

Bill Whitaker: Never forgive?

Ihor Poshyvailo: We will never forgive. I mean, the cultural legacy, cultural heritage, this is what makes us rich and what we have to protect and pass to future generations. That's why I can see that it's one of the front lines of this war. Because destroying our past, Russians tries to destroy our future.

It's not only churches. Hundreds of museums, libraries, and monuments have been bombed, burned, or shelled. Last February, the Russians razed this small folk museum near Kyiv to the ground. Nearby buildings were untouched. Farther east, Russian artillery destroyed this museum. Locals carried out the only surviving statue of its patron saint like a wounded patient. 

Poshyvailo—and others—told us they believe it's a strategy that comes straight from the Kremlin. For years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly dismissed Ukraine's right to exist at all. "We are all Russians," he said. Many museum workers have been arrested—even kidnapped—by Russian soldiers.

Bill Whitaker: You don't usually think of museum workers as being in danger. 

Milena Chorna: Oh they are among the first people Russians come for.

Bill Whitaker: Why?

Milena Chorna: Well first of all, they are interested in the collections. Where did they hide the collections? Uh what is the value of the collections? And the second reason is, uh, museum workers are leaders, uh, in their community. 

Milena Chorna
Milena Chorna talks to Bill Whitaker 60 Minutes

Milena Chorna is head of international exhibits at the National War Museum in Kyiv. She helped set up a museum crisis hotline for workers in the war zone trying to save their collections. They were soon swamped with calls for help: sending money for Russian bribes, devising escape routes, hiding paintings, and sometimes just to talk. 

Milena Chorna: You cut off all your emotions trying to do everything you can to help. Putting it all through yourself, it is really difficult. And at some point, you realize, yeah, that you have PTSD already, although you haven't been to the forefront. 

Milena Chorna told us many workers actually moved into their museums to help guard the collections, even as the bombs fell. In the north, during the siege of Chernihiv, she told us about one museum worker who moved in with her 8-year-old daughter. There was no electricity, no water, no heat. 

Weeks later, volunteers trying to deliver a generator to the museum were killed. 

Bill Whitaker: She stayed?

Milena Chorna: She stayed. She stayed until the liberation, yes. And now, she is in the army.

Bill Whitaker: What do you think of that? 

Milena Chorna: I believe at some point, she might have, uh, acknowledged that, uh, what we are doing is not good enough. And at some point we will all have to become soldiers, we might all have to become soldiers.

Ukraine has accused Russia of looting more than 30 museums, calling it the biggest art theft since the Nazis in World War II. In Kherson, Russian soldiers cut paintings from frames, dragged out priceless antiques, and cleaned out more than 10,000 works of art. Even so, Chorna told us, many museum workers wouldn't leave.

Milena Chorna: How can I leave these things to be looted or destroyed, if I know it's the history that will last for generations? 

Bill Whitaker: Can you explain that passion to me? 

Milena Chorna: I might not be able to say that without emotions uh, but um um I think that um well speaking of myself uh, I understand that uh the value of these items it's much higher than the price of my life.

Bill Whitaker: Higher than the price of your life?

Milena Chorna: Yes, yes, because the scope of affect these artifacts can have on future generations, it's uncomparable to the scope of affect, me, myself, a single person, can do for the culture. 

Chorna told us a top Russian target was Ukraine's priceless Scythian gold collection at the Melitopol Museum. Museum workers hastily hid the treasures in cardboard boxes in the museum's dank unfinished basement. When the Russians invaded, they wasted no time before heading to the museum, threatening to shoot the locks off the door to break in. This CCTV footage—never broadcast before—shows the Russians harassing employees, searching the museum, stashing what they took in white cloth sacks. That morning, they left without finding the gold. Undeterred, a group of soldiers turned up at the door of museum director Leila Ibrahimova and kidnapped her.

Bill Whitaker: They put a bag over your head and kidnapped you?

Leila Ibrahimova in Ukrainian (English translation): I was very scared, she told us. There were eight of them. They were wearing balaclavas and carried machine guns. One soldier did all the talking. They turned my house upside down, then they put a bag on my head and put me in a car. 

Ibrahimova is in hiding so we agreed not to show her face. She told us the Russians interrogated her about the museum but she refused to cooperate. They let her go but when her name later surfaced on a Russian execution list, she fled the country.

Leila Ibrahimova in Ukrainian (English translation): My life was at risk, she told us, and staying would jeopardize my colleagues, my family. I was afraid my husband and son would be searched again. 

In the end, the Russians found the gold: 198 ancient gold artifacts worth untold millions.

The Russians' plunder has all the earmarks of a war crime, according to Vitaliy Tytych, a criminal lawyer of 30 years. 

Vitaliy Tytych
Vitaliy Tytych 60 Minutes

He leads a new unit of the Ukrainian military investigating Russia's targeting of heritage sites. Intentionally looting or destroying cultural property during a war is a crime. But Tytych told us, the Russians have flipped the law on its head.

Vitaliy Tytych in Ukrainian (English translation): The Russians keep saying they're evacuating these artifacts to safeguard them during the fighting, he told us, and they will return them when the war is over. That is a lie and we are ready to prove it.

But Tytych told us he's under no illusions. There have only been two convictions for cultural war crimes since the law was passed in 1954.

Bill Whitaker: So Ukraine wants to prosecute Russia for war crimes. How likely do you think they will actually be prosecuted?

Vitaliy Tytych in Ukrainian (English translation): I'm worried, he told us. The International treaties to prevent war crimes have not proven effective. Nor, he said, has the international criminal court but that's all we've got. 

In the village of Lukashivka, outside Chernihiv, museum director Ihor Poshyvailo showed us what was left after the Russians set up a base camp inside this church, a protected architectural monument. 

Destroyed church in Ukraine
60 Minutes

In the battle to force the Russians out, a massive fire demolished the church's historic frescos.

Ihor Poshyvailo: Here's also you can see, you can see the plaster from the wall…

Bill Whitaker: You still have the cross here.

Ihor Poshyvailo: Yeah, so the the church itself had so many layers of history and culture but everything is lost now.

In the nave…this was all that was left. Ooshyvailo told us this war is about more than land.

Ihor Poshyvailo: This is a war against our historical memory, against our being Ukrainian.

Bill Whitaker: You said before against your soul.

Ihor Poshyvailo: Against, exactly, against our soul, against everything which makes us Ukrainians different from Russia. And this war has signs of being a genocide war against Ukrainian nation. 

Bill Whitaker: Genocide? You consider this genocide?

Ihor Poshyvailo: Yes. Because it's, it's an attempt to totally destroy Ukraine and Ukrainian nation.

But it will never work, Poshyvailo told us. The more the Russians attack, the more resilient Ukrainians become. We saw proof of that at the Holy Dormition Cathedral in Kyiv. A 3D laser scanner was meticulously capturing every architectural detail so that if disaster strikes, the church can be rebuilt. It's work that's going on across the country, saving the cultural soul of Ukraine for future generations.

Produced by Heather Abbott. Associate producer, LaCrai Scott. Broadcast associate, Mariah B. Campbell. Edited by Craig Crawford.

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