We are rapidly approaching the one-year mark of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the latest and most extreme in a series of Russo-Ukrainian conflicts. The past year has seen widespread destruction throughout the country, with over eight million refugees leaving their homes to flee the violence. [1] This invasion did not appear out of the blue—on the contrary, there is a long history of political and military conflict between the two nations. Among the most recent examples of this is the 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine and subsequent annexation of Crimea, a widely condemned action that resulted in Russia’s expulsion from the G8. [2] As with many other military conflicts, one of the most fragile—and most symbolic—elements endangered by violence and looting is art. As material representations of history and identity, works of art ranging from religious objects, paintings, sculptures, and architecture can become rallying symbols for revolutions or desired prizes through which victors can proclaim their ownership of a certain culture.

This brings us to the crucial role that Russia and Ukraine’s shared history plays in the motivation and propaganda surrounding this conflict. Kyivan Rus, which at its peak spanned a considerable part of Eastern Europe, was the largest kingdom by territory between the 11th and 13th centuries. At its heart was the city of Kyiv, which is today the capital of Ukraine. From roughly 882 to 1240 CE, this kingdom produced a significant cultural output and gave rise to several figures still important in the region today. Among these is St. Olga, who functioned as regent of Kyivan Rus during the reign of her son and is now revered with the epithet “Equal to the Apostles.”

Monument to Olga in St. Michael’s Square in Kyiv, Ukraine. Source: Risu.

Kyivan Rus is, of course, not the only instance in which the territories of modern Ukraine and Russia were conjoined. Beginning in the 18th century, Ukraine was controlled by the Russian Empire and, by 1922, it become part of the USSR. The last century has seen Ukraine face challenges such as the Holodomor, a man-made famine that resulted in the deaths of millions of Ukrainians between 1932 and 1933, and the infamous Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which made a part of northern Ukraine uninhabitable. It was only on December 1st, 1991 that Ukraine declared independence from the USSR.

For Ukraine, Kyiv remains the center of the mighty kingdom that once dominated Eastern Europe. For Russia—or, rather, for several Russian leaders like Vladimir Putin—Kyivan Rus is proof that the Ukrainians are Russian, and thus must be brought back into the fold of Russian leadership. [3] It is partly with this logic that Putin’s government justified the invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing violence in the region.

At the heart of the use of this history is the presence of artworks originating from Kyivan Rus, whose cultural significance gives their holder a currency through which to claim the past. A recent report from The Art Newspaper investigates this topic, raising concerns about the looting of the Ukrainian cultural patrimony at the hands of invading Russian troops. [4] The report centers around Kherson, a city on the Black Sea that was invaded at the beginning of the war in 2022. When Ukrainian troops reentered the city in October 2022, the Kherson Regional Art Museum had survived, but its collections were missing. Andrei Malgin, director of the Crimean Simferopol art museum, has stated that he was “instructed to take the exhibits of the Kherson Art Museum for temporary storage and ensure their safety until they are returned to their rightful owner.” [5] The Art Newspaper highlights the close ties between Malgin and Putin, as well as Malgin’s vocal support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The “rightful owner” in the eyes of Russian-controlled Crimea may very well not be a Ukrainian museum, and, as of today, the works have yet to be returned.

The Kherson Art Museum in Ukraine, photographed here before the Russian invasion. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The fate of the Kherson Regional Art Museum is sadly similar to many other institutions and collections affected by the war. Around thirty museums throughout Ukraine have been the site of raids and looting under the supervision of Russian curators. [6] Russia has felt the effects of the feverish need for material propaganda from Ukraine as well. The art historian Zelfira Tregulova was fired from her position as director of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow after she had “come under intense criticism from Russia’s hawkish proponents of the war in Ukraine due to the Tretyakov’s alleged resistance to the patriotic fervor that has engulfed the country’s elite.” [7] She was replaced by the daughter of a senior member of Russia’s Federal Security Service.

On the event of the one-year mark of the invasion, the exhibition “Ukraine: Connected Histories & Vibrant Cultures” will be opening at Tisch Library. It is organized by Prof. Alice I. Sullivan (Department of the History of Art and Architecture) and Anna Kijas (Lilly Music Library), in collaboration with faculty, staff, as well as undergraduate and graduate students at Tufts University, including members of the Ukrainian community on campus. This exhibition features the history and cultural heritage of Kyivan Rus and its function in the conflicts between Russia and Ukraine in the 20th and 21st centuries. Further, it will outline current efforts to study and preserve this rich cultural history that has been threatened and manipulated during the Russo-Ukranian conflicts. The exhibition will open March 6th, with a reception at 5 PM, in the Tisch Main Library Lobby.

Learn more about the exhibition and reception!


[1] “Operation Data Portal: Ukraine Refugee Situation,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, https://data.unhcr.org/en/situations/ukraine

[2] Acosta, Jim. “U.S., Other Powers Kick Russia out of G8,” CNN, March 24, 2014. https://www.cnn.com/2014/03/24/politics/obama-europe-trip/index.html

[3] Mick, Cristoph. “How Moscow Has Long Used the Historic Kyivan Rus State to Justify Expansionism,” The Conversation, March 8, 2022. https://theconversation.com/how-moscow-has-long-used-the-historic-kyivan-rus-state-to-justify-expansionism-178092

[4] Bailey, Martin. “Special Investigation: Serious Concerns Over Fate of Ukraine’s Museum Works Taken by Russians,” The Art Newspaper, February 1, 2023. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2023/02/01/special-investigation-serious-concerns-over-the-fate-of-ukraines-museum-works-taken-by-russia

[5] Beardsworth, James. “Kherson Museum Art Collection Looted Ahead of Russian Retreat,” The Moscow Times, November 11, 2022. https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2022/11/10/kherson-museum-art-collection-looted-ahead-of-russian-retreat-a79342

[6] Geanous, Jacob. “Russian Art Curators Have Reportedly Helped Loot Dozens of Ukraine Museums,” New York Post, February 4, 2023. https://nypost.com/2023/02/04/russian-art-curators-have-raided-dozens-of-ukraine-museums/

[7] Ilyushina, Mary. “Russia Ousts Director of Elite Museum as Kremlin Demands Patriotic Art,” The Washington Post, February 9, 2023. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2023/02/09/russia-tretyakov-gallery-director-ousted/

Article by Francesca Bisi

MA Candidate in Art History and Museum Studies, Tufts University