“War crimes”: Destruction of Ukrainian culture on an industrial scale

Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – The exquisite golden tiara, set with precious stones by master craftsmen some 1,500 years ago, was one of the world’s most valuable artefacts from the bloodshed reign of Attila the Hun, who rampaged with mounted warriors deep in Europe in the 5th century.

The Hun diadem is now gone from the museum in Ukraine that housed it — perhaps forever, historians fear. Russian troops carted away the priceless crown and a heap of other treasures after capturing the Ukrainian city of Melitopol in February, museum authorities say.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, now in its eighth month, has been accompanied by industrial-scale destruction and looting of historical sites and treasures, Ukrainian authorities say.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Ukraine’s culture minister claimed that Russian soldiers had used artifacts in nearly 40 Ukrainian museums. The looting and destruction of cultural sites has caused damage estimated at hundreds of millions of euros (dollars), Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko added.

“Russians’ attitude towards Ukrainian cultural heritage is a war crime,” he said.

At the moment, the Ukrainian government and its Western backers, who supply arms, are mainly focused on defeating Russia on the battlefield. But if and when peace returns, preserving Ukraine’s art, history and culture collections will also be crucial so that war survivors can begin the next struggle: rebuilding their lives.

“These are museums, historical buildings, churches. Everything built and created by generations of Ukrainians,” Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska said in September while visiting a Ukrainian museum in New York. “This is a war against our identity.”

Workers at the local history museum in Melitopol first tried to hide the Hun diadem and hundreds of other treasures as Russian troops stormed the southern city. But after weeks of repeated searches, Russian soldiers finally discovered the building’s secret basement, where staffers had carted away the museum’s most prized objects — including the Hun diadem, according to a museum employee.

The worker, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity and feared Russian punishment for even discussing the events, said Ukrainians did not know where the Russian troops were taken, which included the tiara and some 1,700 other artifacts belonged.

The crown excavated from a burial chamber in 1948 is one of only a few Hun crowns in the world. The museum employee said other treasures that disappeared with Russian soldiers were 198 2,400-year-old pieces of gold from the time of the Scythians, nomads who migrated from Central Asia to southern Russia and Ukraine and established an empire in Crimea.

“These are ancient finds. These are works of art. They are priceless,” said Oleksandr Symonenko, chief researcher at the Ukrainian Institute of Archaeology. “If culture disappears, it’s an irreparable catastrophe.”

The Russian Ministry of Culture did not respond to questions about the Melitopol collection.

Russian forces also looted museums as they ravaged the Black Sea port of Mariupol, according to Ukrainian officials, who were forced out of the southern city, which was relentlessly hit by Russian bombardments. It did not come fully under Moscow’s control until May, when Ukrainian defenders clinging to the city’s steelworks finally capitulated.

Mariupol City Council-in-Exile said Russian forces stole more than 2,000 items from the city’s museums. The most valuable items included ancient religious icons, a unique handwritten Torah scroll, a 200-year-old Bible and more than 200 medals, the council said.

Also looted were artworks by Mariupol-born painter Arkhip Kuindzhi and Crimean-born Ivan Aivazovsky, both famous for their seascapes, exiled councilors said. They said Russian troops took their stolen bounty to the Russian-held Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.

The invasion also caused significant damage and destruction to Ukraine’s cultural heritage. The United Nations Cultural Agency maintains a list of places hit by rockets, bombs and grenades. With the war now in its eighth month, the agency says it has verified damage at 199 sites in 12 regions.

According to UNESCO, this includes 84 churches and other religious sites, 37 buildings of historical importance, 37 buildings for cultural activities, 18 monuments, 13 museums and 10 libraries.

The Ukrainian government’s figures are even higher, with authorities saying the number of religious buildings destroyed and damaged alone is up to at least 270.

While the invading forces hunted for treasure to steal, Ukrainian museum employees did what they could to keep it out of Russian hands. Tens of thousands of items were evacuated from the front lines and regions affected by the battle.

In Kyiv, the director of the Museum of Historical Treasures of Ukraine lived in the building and guarded its artifacts during the first weeks of the invasion, when Russian forces tried unsuccessfully to encircle the capital.

“We were afraid of the Russian occupiers because they destroy everything that can be identified as Ukrainian,” recalls director Natalia Panchenko.

Fearing that Russian troops would storm the city, she tried to confuse them by removing the plaque at the entrance to the museum. She also dismantled exhibits and carefully packed artifacts into crates for evacuation.

One day, she hopes, they will return to their rightful place. At the moment the museum only shows copies.

“These things were fragile, they survived for hundreds of years,” she said. “We couldn’t bear the thought that they might be lost.”

https://www.wane.com/news/national-world/war-crime-industrial-scale-destruction-of-ukraine-culture/ “War crimes”: Destruction of Ukrainian culture on an industrial scale

Dais Johnston

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