‘War crime’: Industrial-scale destruction of Ukrainian culture

The exquisite golden tiara, encrusted with precious stones by master craftsmen around 1,500 years ago, was one of the world’s most valuable artifacts from the bloodthirsty reign of Attila the Hun, who rampaged with warriors on horseback deep into Europe in the 5th century.

The Hun diadem has now disappeared from the Ukrainian museum that housed it – perhaps, historians fear, forever. Russian troops took away the priceless crown and a trove of other treasures after capturing the Ukrainian town of Melitopol in February, museum authorities said.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, now in its eighth month, is accompanied by the destruction and looting of historic sites and treasures on an industrial scale, according to Ukrainian authorities.

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

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

At the moment, the Ukrainian government and its Western arms donors are primarily focused on defeating Russia on the battlefield. But if and when peace returns, the preservation of Ukrainian collections of art, history and culture will also be vital, so that war survivors can begin the next fight: rebuilding their lives.

“These are museums, historic buildings, churches. Everything that has been 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 Melitopol Local History Museum first tried to hide the Hun Tiara and hundreds of other treasures when Russian troops stormed the city from the south. But after weeks of repeated searches, Russian soldiers finally discovered the building’s secret basement where staff had hidden the museum’s most valuable artifacts, including the Hun diadem, according to a museum employee.

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

Unearthed from a burial chamber in 1948, the crown is one of the few Hun crowns in the world. The museum worker said other treasures that went missing with the Russian soldiers include 198 2,400-year-old gold coins from the era of the Scythians, nomads who migrated south from Central Asia of Russia and Ukraine and founded an empire in Crimea.

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

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

Russian forces also looted museums as they devastated the Black Sea port of Mariupol, according to Ukrainian officials who were driven out of the southern city, which has been relentlessly pounded by Russian shelling. It only fell under full Moscow control in May, when the Ukrainian defenders who clung to the city’s steel mills finally surrendered.

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

Works of art by Mariupol-born painters Arkhip Kuindzhi and Crimean-born Ivan Aivazovsky, both famous for their seascapes, were also looted, exiled advisers said. They said Russian troops transported their stolen bounty to the Russian-occupied Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine.

The invasion also caused significant damage and destruction to Ukraine’s cultural heritage. The UN cultural agency keeps a tally of sites hit by missiles, bombs and shelling. With the war now in its eighth month, the agency says it has verified damage at 199 sites in 12 regions.

They include 84 churches and other religious sites, 37 buildings of historical significance, 37 buildings for cultural activities, 18 monuments, 13 museums and 10 libraries, according to UNESCO.

Ukrainian government counts are even higher, with authorities saying their number of destroyed and damaged religious buildings alone is at least 270.

As the invading forces searched for treasures to steal, Ukrainian museum workers did what they could to keep them out of Russian hands. Tens of thousands of items have been evacuated from front lines and areas affected by the fighting.

In Kyiv, the director of the Museum of Historical Treasures of Ukraine lived in the building, guarding his artifacts, during the first weeks of the invasion when Russian forces sought, unsuccessfully, to encircle the capital.

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

Fearing that Russian troops would storm the city, she sought to confuse them by removing the plaque at the entrance to the museum. She also dismantled the exhibits, carefully packing the artifacts into boxes for disposal.

One day, she hopes, they will find their rightful place. For now, the museum only shows copies.

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

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Christi C. Elwood