Military marauding is an enduring concept in warfare. However, the sight of Russian soldiers pillaging, killing and looting in Ukraine stands out starkly among other armed conflicts of the recent decades. In fact, what distinguishes the Russian invaders is their arrogance and greed.
During World War II, the Red Army seized thousands of paintings, books and archive documents from defeated Nazi Germany, in part to satisfy the demands of Joseph Stalin. The Soviet dictator ordered special squads to carry out the looting and bring the stolen goods back to Moscow, where he planned to open a grand museum of trophy art. But, after a few pieces were displayed in 1946, the plan was scrapped and the treasures were locked up in secret vaults, their existence denied, and in some cases, they were assumed to be lost forever.
Military marauding has a long tradition in the Russian army, going back to the establishment of the Soviet Army, which was built on the principle that stealing from your enemy is the norm. These traditions have been repeatedly manifested during different Soviet and Russian wars.
Traditional pillaging becomes “law” under the Bolsheviks
Prior to the 1917 Revolution, the Russian Imperial Army rarely went beyond the “norms” of its time in terms of looting. But, there were instances of widespread military marauding. For example, historians chronicled the ruthless character of the Russian Army as it advanced into eastern Halychyna (Galicia). The principal city, Lemberg (now Lviv) fell into Russian hands on 3 September, 1914. Throughout the occupation, the Tsarist officials pursued a policy of integrating Galicia with the Russian Empire, forcibly russifying Ukrainians, and confiscating all assets and property.
After seizing power in Petrograd and Moscow in October 1917, the Bolsheviks built a completely new army, which was to carry the communist revolutionary idea to the world at large. At the same time, Lenin’s party began expropriating private and state property and valuables under the slogan “Steal what’s already been stolen!” (“Грабуй награбоване!”). The seized funds and assets were then used to support the regime, subsidize the “world revolution” and purchase weapons.
Where did this phrase come from? On 16 January, 1918 at the Third Congress of Soviets, a Don Cossack put forward the slogan “Steal what’s already been stolen!” Lenin later quoted this phrase several times. On 29 April, 1918, Vladimir Lenin openly declared:
“I don’t find anything wrong with using the slogan – “Steal what’s already stolen!” – in terms of our history. After all, we’re ready to use the phrase “expropriation of the expropriators”, so can’t we just do without Latin words and use our own?
The American historian Sean McMeekin notes that the Bolsheviks distorted and ideologically interpreted the idea of property and understood law and morality in a completely different way. The Bolsheviks, like the French 19th century socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, believed that property in itself represented a kind of theft. Lenin claimed that his government was only stealing what had already been stolen, because the wealth accumulated by the aristocracy, industrialists, merchants, and bureaucrats had been previously stolen from the proletariat and was now being justifiably returned. McMeekin underlines that not all the Bolsheviks believed this rhetoric, but it suited many and justified their heinous deeds.
Thus, the Red Army became an instrument of mass theft. The call to steal and loot attracted the dregs of society to the ranks of the Red Army. In fact, many criminals volunteered to join not because they believed in Lenin’s revolutionary ideas, but in order to get weapons and have the right to pillage and plunder.
Military marauding – a conscious Russian tactic
In December 1918, Bolshevik troops invaded the Ukrainian National Republic (UNR). Mikhail Muraviov, who commanded the attack on Kyiv, encouraged his soldiers to crack down on the “enemies of the revolution” and promised to let them loot and plunder Kyiv.
When the Red Army entered Kyiv, the Russian soldiers staged a massacre in the city and began looting and stealing whatever they could find.
However, some Bolshevik leaders did not tolerate such behaviour. In the spring of 1918, Mikhail Muraviov was arrested. Felix Dzerzhinsky, chairman of the Cheka (All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage), testified to the negative impact of Muraviov’s tactics:
“Our worst enemy couldn’t have done us more harm than Muraviov with all those massacres, executions, his despotic nature and giving his soldiers the right to plunder cities and villages. And, he did this in the name of the Soviet government, turning the entire population against us. His tactics consisted of stealing and violence. He achieved instant success, but such tactics ultimately led to defeat and disgrace.”
However, other Bolsheviks, such as Volodymyr Antonov-Ovseenko and Mykola Muralov, defended Mikhail Muravyov. They did not perceive his actions as a crime and argued that looting did not harm their cause. In June, Muraviov was acquitted and was deployed as commander to the Eastern Front, where he organized a revolt against the Bolsheviks and was shot while resisting arrest.
The Russian Civil War, with its official slogan “Steal what’s already been stolen!” and mass looting disguised as “expropriation”, continued until the end of the war. By December 1921, the Bolsheviks had sold $1.2 billion worth of jewelry and valuables to different western buyers (approximately $120 billion in current money). But, many Russian commanders and ordinary Red Army soldiers literally pocketed thousands of priceless items and brought them home.
Wristwatches – the most coveted trophies of war
Military marauding, along with rape, was one of the most widespread war crimes committed by the Red Army in World War II. When Soviet soldiers entered Europe, they were amazed by the prosperity and affluence of western homes. European elegance contrasted greatly with their gray Soviet reality and the low standard of living in the USSR.
The Red Army arrived from war-torn territories and many soldiers no longer had homes. They lived from one day to the next, burning with revenge, and bolstered by feelings of impunity and permissiveness. In addition, they were often uneducated and uncultured. Their officers and the supreme command partially encouraged looting and tried to maintain the soldiers’ fighting spirit with such “rewards”.
Wristwatches were the most coveted trophies for Soviet soldiers. They were not familiar with such items, so they often stole and wore women’s watches. Some military photographs show Soviet soldiers wearing watches on both hands. Gunner Isaac Kobyliansky described one such day of marauding:
“I noticed that to my left, the guys were collecting “trophy” watches. So, I turned to them [the German prisoners]: ‘Now I ask you to give this Soviet officer a good-quality watch.’ There was a moment of hesitation. The Germans were somewhat confused by what I meant by a ‘good-quality watch’. So, I told them to give me all they had, and in an instant the pockets of my uniform were filled with all kinds of watches.”
Zhukov filled seven train wagons with stolen furniture
Soviet soldiers and officers were allowed to send home parcels with “trophies”. Marshal Georgiy Zhukov, a legendary symbol of Soviet victory, filled seven train wagons with the most expensive German furniture. He sent home complete sets of furniture for the living room, dining room, bedrooms of his apartment and dacha – a total of 194 items.
When an investigation into the “trophy case” began in January 1948 on Stalin’s orders, police officers searched Zhukov’s homes and found over 4,000 metres of silk, brocade, panne velvet, and other fabrics; 323 sable, monkey, fox, cat and astrakhan skins; 44 ancient carpets and large antique tapestries stolen from Potsdam and other German palaces; 55 priceless paintings in artistic frames; seven large boxes with porcelain and crystal ware; two boxes with silver cutlery and tea sets. The items were listed in the official document submitted by the Minister of State Security of the USSR Viktor Abakumov.
Zhukov’s dacha so impressed Abakumov that he wrote an extensive report for the investigative commission.
“In all rooms of his dacha, on windows, shelves, tables and bedside tables we found many bronze and porcelain vases, statuettes, as well as various foreign-made items. It seems that all the objects – starting from furniture, carpets, dishes, decorations and ending with the curtains – come from other countries, mainly Germany. There is literally nothing of Soviet origin in the dacha, except for the paths that lead to Zhukov’s home. We found no Soviet books, but we documented many German works in beautiful bindings with gilt embossing.”
“The Russians have outdone the Chinese in the Far East!”
Most Russians continue to believe that Soviet soldiers were allowed to do as they please during WW II, because they were taking revenge for the Nazi crimes committed in the USSR. Thus, not only looting and pillaging, but also rape and senseless violence were justified. Soviet soldiers behaved in the same way in other European countries, particularly in Yugoslavia and Hungary.
In February 1945, the Hungarian communists of the town of Kőbánya (now a district of Budapest) wrote an appeal to the Soviet command.
“Drunken soldiers raped mothers in front of their children and husbands. Twelve-year-old girls were taken from their parents and gang-raped by groups of 10-15 soldiers, many of whom had sexually transmitted diseases. One group finished; another group replaced them. Several of our comrades were killed while trying to protect their wives and daughters … The Russian soldiers continue looting to this day.”
The Soviet soldiers behaved in the same way in the Far East in the summer of 1945. US military officials recalled that Soviet soldiers in Shenyang raped women at bus stops, train stations, and sometimes directly on the streets.
“The Russians have outdone the Chinese in looting, pillaging and rape. The Red Army steals and kills. And they steal from everyone, not only from the Japanese. Some Soviet soldiers wear a dozen watches on their arms…” said the head of POW repatriation missions.
The US Navy Attaché to Chiang Kai-shek’s government recalled meeting Soviet soldiers in Manchuria.
“Russian soldiers broke into homes and carried away everything they could, except for the large pieces of furniture. Then, a military truck pulled up and picked up the furniture. Soviet officers usually overlooked the thefts and crimes committed by their soldiers, and often took part in them themselves.”
The Gold of Ancient Troy and the Russian legacy of military marauding
During the war, the Soviet authorities were ready to legalize looting, so they created the Central Trophy Department.
According to the department’s official data, 21,834 wagons of assets and 73,493 wagons of building materials and “apartment goods and valuables” were removed from the Soviet zone of occupied Germany.
Raw materials, machines and industrial equipment from German factories were also transported to Russia. 100 tons of uranium were stolen from Germany and were used to establish the first industrial reactor in the USSR.
In addition, the Trophy Department registered a separate category of “war trophies”, namely all kinds of art objects, historical relics, precious documents, and antiques from German museums and private collections. In particular, the Russians stole the legendary gold treasure of ancient Troy, widely known as Priam’s Gold, from Germany and took it to Moscow.
Following in the footsteps of the Soviet Army
The modern Russian Army is a direct descendant of the Soviet Army. The behaviour of Russian soldiers in Ukraine testifies not only to the prolongation of “traditional military marauding”, but also to widespread poverty in the depressed regions of the Russian Federation.
A case of looting was recorded by surveillance cameras in Sumy Oblast in mid-June, 2022. Video: Inform Napalm
As of the early 1990s, the Russian Federation was involved in several conflicts, during which marauding and plundering was officially approved. The Chechen wars in the 1990s were perceived as an internal conflict, which allowed the Russians to hide the some of the world’s greatest war crimes.
The Russo-Georgian war erupted in 2008. The Russian army razed towns and villages, followed by armed militias that engaged in plundering, rape, burning and kidnapping.
Former Georgian MP Givi Targamadze recalls:
“They behave like medieval hordes. They steal computer equipment… well, I guess that’s all right. But household items, kitchen stools?! I don’t know what planet they live on. Apparently, the Russians have neither military bases nor normal houses. They probably don’t get paid, but are instead encouraged to engage in looting during such raids.”
There was no lack of pillaging during the 2014 Russian invasion of the Ukrainian Donbas. When the Russian-backed militants shot down the Malaysia Airlines MH17 aircraft in the Donbas on 17 July 2014, the world watched in horror as the killers walked among the scorched debris, searching the bodies, and collecting valuables and personal items at the crash site of the Boeing 777.
Russia’s policy of terror
It is no surprise to see a repetition of such gruesome activities during Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine. In April, the Russian army left Bucha, Irpin, Borodianka, and other cities in Kyiv Oblast, leaving a trail of destruction and horror. A few days later, social media users saw videos of Russian soldiers in a Belarusian shipping service sending home hundreds of parcels with items and appliances looted in Ukraine. Thanks to footage from three-hour video surveillance cameras, many war criminals have been identified.
On March 12, the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine announced:
“The Russian occupiers have one goal – to strengthen their positions, hiding behind the local population. At the same time, some of Putin’s troops are cut off from supplies and have been instructed to “provide for themselves” until further notice. This means that Russian soldiers are allowed to steal everything and anything from the local population, and rob warehouses, shops, and pharmacies… This is Russia’s policy of terror, and it’s formally encouraged by its high command.”
In total, Russian soldiers have reportedly stolen one hundred kilos of private assets per head, but only because this is permitted. And the fact that the Kremlin and Russia’s military command tolerate looting is evidenced by official permission to use military equipment to transport washing machines, plasma-screen TVs and other stolen items.
A call allegedly intercepted by the SBU/SSU between a Russian soldier and a woman. The soldier explains that he is taking part in looting and pillaging. He confirms that Putin allowed it and gave orders not to prosecute soldiers for stealing. Video: Armed Forces of Ukraine
At present, the situation is not getting any better as the Russian occupiers have Moscow’s official permission to rob Ukrainian museums, industrial enterprises and warehouses. Grains and cereals grown on Ukrainian soil, as well as metal products are shipped by land and sea to Russia.
Today, the Russian army is no better than its predecessor, a worthy heir to the Kremlin’s tradition of military marauding.
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