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Ukraine needs a Marshall Plan to help restore and rebuild its looted cultural treasures

May 2022, Kyiv: Damaged artefacts found in the de-occupied villages around Kyiv, National Museum of the History of Ukraine | Alamy

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Our papers have been full of shocking images of destruction but not enough attention has been given to the merciless attack on Ukraine’s cultural heritage

In the most recent issue of The House magazine focused on art and culture, I was glad to have an opportunity to reflect on that day in 1974 when a few of us, alarmed at the danger the proposed wealth tax posed to the continued existence of our historic country houses, came together. Ted Graham (the late Lord Graham of Edmonton), Andrew Faulds (renowned Labour thespian), and I formed the All Party Arts and Heritage Group and Ted presented a petition in the Commons signed by a million people. Denis Healey dropped his proposals, influenced by his deputy, the late Robert Sheldon who became our president when he stepped down from government. I was thinking of what cross party consensus has achieved in the art and heritage world when, as a united Parliament, we greeted President Volodymyr Zelensky on 8 February and when, the next day, we debated Ukraine in the Lords. I reflected too on how important a nation’s heritage is to its very identity, and on the assaults on Ukraine’s heritage over the past 12 months, since Putin launched his wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of a country which merely wanted to keep the nationhood that had been guaranteed by the United Kingdom, United States and Russia shortly after its independence was proclaimed.

Over this past year, the headlines have been understandably dominated by the courageous resistance of the Ukrainian people and by the destruction and carnage wrought by an aggressor who has shown no respect for civilian or civilised values and committed some heinous war crimes in the process. Our papers have been full of shocking pictures of destruction and desolation but not enough attention has been given to the sustained and merciless attack on Ukraine’s rich cultural heritage.

At the Kherson Regional Art Museum 10,000 of the 13,500 works were taken

Let me give just a few examples. Ukraine’s culture minister Oleksandr Tkachenko has revealed that Russian soldiers have looted thousands of artefacts from over 40 museums. They include a 1,500-year-old golden tiara from the 5th century, during the time of Attila the Hun, from the museum of local history in Melitopol; 198 pieces of 2,400-year-old gold from the era of the Scythians, nomads who migrated from Central Asia. In Mariupol alone 200 items have been pillaged, including a unique Jewish Torah scroll and many valuable paintings by local artists. The list goes on. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has also compiled a list of damaged cultural sites. It records damage to 238 sites: 150 religious, 18 museums, 85 buildings of historical and artistic interest, 19 monuments and 12 libraries. Human Rights Watch published an article in December surveying items taken from Kherson during its occupation. At the Kherson Regional Art Museum, 10,000 of the 13,500 works in the collection were taken. Mostly paintings by renowned Ukrainian, Russian and other 19th and 20th century European artists, as well as silver and gold artefacts, ancient Greek vases and Second World War relics. The Russians also stole bone fragments of Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin, the imperial founder of Kherson.

During our debate on 9 February there was much talk of the need for a Marshall Plan to ensure that the trillions of pounds/dollars, which will be needed to restore the fabric of an independent Ukraine, are available. Let us not forget the need to restore and rebuild as much as possible of its built heritage and to repatriate as many as possible of the looted treasures. The money should, of course, be provided by Russia but that is an unlikely prospect. All Ukraine’s European neighbours and the US, therefore, will have a major role in order to ensure restoration as meticulous as that achieved in Dresden. The UK, with the expertise possessed by bodies like Historic England, English Heritage and the National Trust, can play a very significant part. It is one that should be encouraged by the Arts and Heritage APPG in Westminster, as we prepare to begin our second half century.

Lord Cormack is a Conservative peer, president of the All Party Arts and Heritage Group, and life president of The House magazine

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