Evelina Kravchenko, archaeologist, candidate of historical sciences
The Russian-Ukrainian war opened up, in addition to the problems of the global security system, another global challenge – the low effectiveness of the system for protecting cultural property during an armed conflict .
Let’s try to analyze the main trends regarding cultural heritage in the aggressor-occupied territories.
The statements from the aggressor-controlled “media”, that are available for analysis, as the development of events shows, are only the tip of the iceberg of the criminal scheme for the theft of cultural heritage by the occupying state.
The main normative act regulating the handling of cultural property during armed conflict is the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict of 1954 with two Protocols. Ukraine has ratified all these documents.
Russia ratified the Convention only with its first Protocol. However, as can be seen from the situation with cultural heritage throughout the entire period of hostilities since 2014, the aggressor systematically neglects the requirements of this international treaty.
There are two more international documents that regulate the handling of cultural heritage in military conflicts. These are the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, 1970 and the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, 1972.
Since 2014, Russia has been criminally “alienating” movable and immovable cultural heritage objects of Ukraine in several ways. The occupiers unlawfully “issue” fake “orders and regulations”, according to which Ukrainian museums, reserves, archives and libraries are criminally declared as allegedly “state institutions of Russia” with the corresponding illegal “financing, management and subordination”.
Since 2014, the aggressor in the occupied Crimea has been carrying out a criminal “passportization” of archeological monuments in accordance with the “laws of Russia”. Ukrainian monuments that have the status of national importance are criminally “determined” and “taken into account” as allegedly “federal significance” . In the same criminal “procedure”, collections of moving objects of cultural heritage, which were stored in museums as of 2014, are “taken into account”.
Such a criminal practice has been applied by the aggressor to the museums of the occupied Crimea since 2014. The museums of the occupied part of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions “did not fall” under these criminal actions, and the aggressor criminally declared their fake “subordination” to the illegal so-called “authority” of the terrorist “republics”. Later, in 2022, the Donetsk aggressor’s puppets began to criminally “transfer to the federal museum system” at the request of the Kremlin the corresponding artifacts, they seized in 2014, but “reluctantly”.
As it can be seen from the facts of the criminal “transfer of works of part” from the aggressor-controlled “Crimean museums” for “temporary exhibition” in the occupied East of Ukraine, after that the activity in the corresponding criminal “cooperation” intensified. At the same time, the aggressor began criminal processes of transferring museum collections from the occupied parts of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions to the occupied Crimea. All this allows us to assume a more complex mechanism than it seemed to us earlier, regarding the criminal “alienation” by the aggressor state of cultural property, belonging to Ukraine, in the Russia-occupied territories.
Let us describe the first option, which is viewed and presented by Russian propaganda for both “domestic” and “foreign consumers”. Actually, this is a mechanism for the criminal seizure by the aggressor state of cultural property from the occupied territories through the so-called “state mechanisms”.
The illegal mechanism is used by the aggressor through the Russia’s Ministry of culture, which criminally “registers” cultural heritage sites, as it happened in the occupied Autonomous Republic of Crimea, or through the aggressor’s Ministry of culture oand at the same time through the Russian Orthodox Church, as it happens in the occupied Sevastopol. The illegal role of that church in Sevastopol is due to the location in this city of one of the largest and most valuable national reserves of Ukraine – ‘Tauric Chersonese’ , because the aggressor criminally uses it as a fake “flagship of historical propaganda” .
“It is from this place,” as the new Russian “historians-propagandists” manipulatively claim, that “modern Russia began,” and allegedly, with the baptism of Prince Vladimir of Kyiv, “the baptism of all Russia began” and “the formation of Russian Orthodoxy started”, which Putin’s “theologians” call almost “the only orthodox trend” in Christianity.
The ignorance of the “Russian society” about the true history allows the aggressor’s propaganda to a certain extent control this human mass. The priests of the Moscow Patriarchate preach their “new doctrine” not only in Russia, but also in other countries through “daughter churches”, such as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Georgian Orthodox Church, and so on. Without a doubt, such a powerful aggressor’s fake propaganda movement “needs its own center”. According to the Russian propagandists’ criminal opinion, this is what the so-called “New Chersonese” should become, a joint illegal “project” of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russia’s Ministry of culture, illegally “implemented” by tool of the Ministry of defense of the aggressor state .
The aggressor’s Ministry of defense acts in this criminal project as a “manager of funds”, actually organizing “construction and other work” to create this “center”. The “project” is illegally financed by the “My history” (“Moya istoriya”) foundation, which operates under the Russia’s “Patriarchal Council for Culture”.
As of today, the direct result of this criminal activity is the destruction, through illegal excavation, of a part of the monument of national importance of the settlement of ‘Tauric Chersonese’, which is part of the world cultural heritage site “Tauric Chersonese and its Chora”.
It is on the territory of the buffer zone of Chersonese, where the remains of an early medieval suburb have already been discovered by preliminary work, that the aggressor criminally “planned the construction of a new museum complex”. For the last year and a half, illegal so-called “archaeological excavations” have been taking place there, but in fact, illegal earthworks have “cleansed” of the archaeological layers and complexes, by destroying them, the entire territory, “allotted for development”.
However, now “suddenly” it turned out that this area is flooded with groundwater so much that it actually turned into a pond. Most likely, it is precisely these circumstances that do not allow the aggressor’s structures to start the illegal “large-scale construction”, planned for last year there.
Illegal construction in Chersonese is not the only fact of violation of both Ukrainian and international legislation by the aggressor country in the occupied territories. The Russia’s Ministry of defense criminally organizes “earthworks” in a number of other areas of occupied Sevastopol in close proximity to protected lands and even in protected areas.
All these aggressor’s illegal works are carried out for the criminal creation and modernization of the occupiers’ military infrastructure in Sevastopol. The same processes and consequences occurred as a result of the illegal construction of the “Tavrida” highway. The number of destroyed, partially damaged and carelessly “excavated” archaeological sites as a result of its illegal construction, including due to the extremely tight deadlines for illegal “archaeological work” and their not only criminal, but also unskilled “executors”, is measured in thousands.
It is interesting that back in 2021, apparently at the stage of preparations for a large-scale criminal invasion of mainland Ukraine, the occupiers’ illegal “department of culture” in Sevastopol received a criminal “instruction” from the Kremlin on “preparing for the evacuation of Sevastopol museums”.
Several of the largest museums in Sevastopol were criminally planned to “evacuate” by the occupiers: “Tauric Chersonese”, “Sevastopol Art Museum named after I. Kroshitsky”, “Museum of the heroic defense and liberation of Sevastopol”, covering the Panorama of the defense of Sevastopol and the Diorama on Sapun Mountain.
Also, the occupiers were “concerned about the fate” of the “Military historical museum of the Black Sea Fleet”, as well as the so-called “Military historical museum of fortifications of the Black Sea Fleet” illegally created during the period of occupation. The occupiers illegally formed this chimeric structure from the museum complexes, seized in the city: the Naval Museum Complex – Submarine Museum in Balaklava and the Mikhailovsky Ravelin, where a collection of items from the Crimean (Eastern) War was exhibited before the occupation.
At first, the “evacuation plan” provided for the “export of museum collections” to the village of Orline village in the area of occupied Sevastopol itself, primarily regarding paintings, and to “separate squares” within the city itself also, but later this “plan” for some reason was “suddenly” abandoned.
As of today, packaging material has already been delivered to these occupiers-controlled structures, the museum funds are “packed and prepared for transfer,” however, no information is known about the place where the exhibits are illegally planned to be taken out. One would have to assume that the occupiers might be planning to illegally “evacuate” the Sevastopol museums by sea, but the Russian invaders have all sorts of problems with such logistics.
A somewhat different situation is observed in the occupied Autonomous Republic of Crimea. There is no similar active preparation for the “evacuation” yet, at least at the level of criminal “orders and instructions” of the Russia’s Ministry of culture, although the Ukrainian media reported about “tacit preparations”.
In addition, cultural heritage objects, stolen from the territories, occupied in 2022 – Melitopol, Mariupol, Kherson, and so on, are illegally brought to occupied Simferopol. The issues of “money laundering” for the “restoration of cultural heritage” are also dealt with by the criminal occupational “authority” of the “local level”, attracting “experts and structures” for these processes at their own discretion and tastes.
It is characteristic that recently there has been a tendency to conduct illegal “expert work” at the archaeological heritage sites in the occupied Sevastopol with the involvement of “specialists and organizations” from Simferopol. The reason for this situation is not yet clearly understood, because earlier these questions were related to the aggressor-controlled “Sevastopol experts”, who had “experience” in Chersonese, where at least pre-occupation documentation on all archaeological research in this region should have been stored.
According to the author of the article, the situation is due to the fact that “external experts” are even more “accommodating” for a fake “positive opinion” on mass illegal construction projects.
So, the first mechanism of criminal theft of cultural heritage by the aggressor occurs through the occupiers’ illegal “authorities”, who since 2014 have illegally “registered”, “re-registered” as allegedly “their own” and criminally “incorporated” Ukrainian museums, reserves, monuments of archeology, architecture, history into the “federal management system”. Since 2021, illegal preparations for the “evacuation” of the largest Sevastopol “museums” have taken place along the same path .
The second mechanism of the criminal plunder of the cultural heritage of Ukraine could be indirectly traced in the first years after the occupation of the Crimea at world online auctions, where a lot of archaeological items that are typical for Crimean archeology appeared. But subsequently, the Crimean things disappeared from e-bay auctions and did not appear publicly in the previous context.
The next manifestation of this criminal mechanism was the “lightning” looting of the Kherson Art Museum by the aggressor in 2022 during the new active phase of the war. Actually, before that it was more difficult to compare the facts of the criminal transfer of precisely paintings from museums to the system, and add to it the painful “interest” of individual collaborators in the prospects for the illegal “evacuation” of the “Sevastopol Art Gallery”, as well as their “activity”, manifested on this occasion immediately after receiving the criminal “order to prepare for evacuation” back in 2021, long before the first 2022 “sudden events” in the occupied Crimea.
Now all these facts, as well as the processes of plundering Ukrainian museums in the newly occupied territories and transporting them to the occupied Crimea, where expositional, attractive things were often taken out in the first place, are not just unsystematic transfer and plunder, but a completely organized criminal process, which is possibly maximally centralized and takes place “outside” the local structures of the criminal occupational “powers”.
After all, no criminal “orders” by the aggressor’s Ministry of culture to “evacuate” the territories occupied in 2022 to the occupied Crimea have been found, at least we don’t know anything about them now. It seems that the disappearance of Crimean things from online auctions is also connected with the creation of a certain organized criminal system, when such things did not go to auctions, but immediately to specific people who illegally “decided” their future fate.
And now the occupiers’ robbery of museums is an evidence of the existence of a certain organized group that received objects of the movable cultural heritage of Ukraine at its “order” outside of Ukrainian and international law, and at the same time “bypassing” the fake “federal legislation”.
In other words, these things will add to the global black market and criminally enrich certain people by millions of dollars, including cash. It should be noted that the supreme power of totalitarian Russia cannot be unaware of such a method of criminal “alienation” of the cultural heritage of Ukraine by its puppets, therefore, this criminal system was created with the direct assistance of the Kremlin and, most likely, is something of a “payment” for the crimes, committed by Russian mercenaries.
The “exception” in the form of the Sevastopol museums only confirms the rule, and Putin’s personal “guardianship” over them explains the mentioned “premature evacuation”. In the same context, let us also recall the fake “attachment” to the “Chersonese Reserve” in the occupied Sevastopol, which was captured by the invaders, the “Kamyana Mohyla” (“Stone Grave”) Reserve in the Zaporizhzhya Region, which is meaningless for a common mind.
Not a single historian, archaeologist or culturologist can give a conscious explanation for such a “combination”. After all, the sights on which the corresponding reserves of Ukraine are based – the ancient and medieval city of Tauric Chersonesos and the “Kamyana Mohyla” area – belong to completely different social groups, have nothing in common either in history, or in archeology, or in architecture.
The latter does not exist at all on the “Kamyana Mohyla”, because it is represented by a natural accumulation of boulders of geological origin. The importance of the “Kamyana Mohyla” for cultural heritage is due to the images made by man on stones in different historical eras, which determines the sacred status of this place in the past.
And it is precisely this single factor of the “sacred place” that the “Kamyana Mohyla” “combines” with Chersonesus in its Putin’s fake meaning, not as a historical landmark, but as supposedly “the cradle of Russian Orthodoxy.”
Let’s imagine how sick are the worldview and “beliefs” of a person must be, uniting in a single ideological canvas all the stages of the religious worldview of mankind – from the time of the Stone Age to Christian movements of early modernity and “sacralization” on May 9th.
But back to things quite rational.
What mechanisms do we have to prevent the sale and circulation of illegally “alienated” artefacts? First of all, this is the same Hague Convention.
According to the mechanism created by international legal acts, museums that have lost their assets must submit a corresponding application to the police, and this is a mandatory and immediate condition for starting a search for the missing item due to the robbery of a museum or other organization that preserves cultural heritage. After that, a mechanism is activated with the provision of information about the missing item (objectID) and the search for things is done by Interpol or other international special agencies.
The voluntary return, according to international law, of cultural property, stolen to the aggressor country from mainland Ukraine and from the occupied Crimea, is actually problematic, at least until the time of systemic changes in the management and political system of Russia and is not predictable under the conditions of its modern criminal regime.
After all, Russia, as an aggressor state, does not adhere to any international agreements and systemic documents, especially if it is “unprofitable” for it.
Therefore, it is important now not even to amend the existing international treaties developed for the post-war world of the mid-twentieth century, but to develop a mechanism for the international search and exchange of information, and possibly the creation of a new international body that would deal specifically with the search for and return of stolen cultural heritage as a consequence of international crimes and activities of transnational organized crime, controlled by the Kremlin.
Such functions can be assumed either by the International Criminal Court or a special international tribunal regarding Russian aggression against Ukraine, if such will be created.
- https://www.bbc.com/ukrainian/science/2013/06/130623_khersones_unesco_ko ; http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1411