‘War Crime:’ Destruction of Ukraine’s Culture on an Industrial Scale

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The exquisite golden tiara, encrusted with precious stones by master craftsmen some 1,500 years ago, was one of the world’s most valuable artifacts from the bloodthirsty reign of Attila the Hun, who rampaged with horse warriors deep into Europe in the 5th century. century.

The female diadem has now disappeared from the museum in Ukraine that housed it – perhaps forever, historians fear. Russian troops carted away the priceless crown and a host of other treasures after capturing the Ukrainian city of Melitopol in February, museum officials said.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, now in its eighth month, is being accompanied by industrial-scale destruction and looting of historic sites and treasures, Ukrainian authorities say.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Ukraine’s culture minister claimed that Russian soldiers helped themselves to artifacts in nearly 40 Ukrainian museums. Looting and destruction of cultural sites have caused losses estimated at hundreds of millions of euros (dollars), added the minister, Oleksandr Tkachenko.

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

Currently, Ukraine’s government and its Western backers who supply weapons are mostly 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 essential so that the survivors of the war can begin the next battle: rebuilding their lives.

“These are museums, historic buildings, churches. Everything that was built and created by generations of Ukrainians,” Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, said in September when she visited a Ukrainian museum in New York. “This is a war against our identity.”

Workers at the Museum of Local History in Melitopol first tried to hide the Hun diadem and hundreds of other treasures when Russian troops stormed the southern city. But after weeks of repeated searches, Russian soldiers finally discovered the building’s secret basement, where staff had discarded the museum’s most valuable items — including the Hun tiara, 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 do not know where Russian troops took the haul, which included tiaras and about 1,700 other artifacts.

The crown was unearthed from a burial chamber in 1948 and is one of the few Hun crowns worldwide. The museum worker said other treasures that disappeared with Russian soldiers include 198 pieces of 2,400-year-old gold from the era of the Scythians, nomads who migrated from Central Asia to southern 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 Archaeological Institute of Ukraine. “If the culture disappears, it is an irreparable disaster.”

Russia’s Ministry of Culture did not respond to questions about the Melitopol collection.

Russian forces also looted museums as they destroyed the Black Sea port of Mariupol, according to Ukrainian officials displaced from the southern city, which has been hit relentlessly by Russian bombardment. It only fell under Moscow’s full control in May, when Ukrainian defenders clinging to the city’s steelworks finally surrendered.

Mariupol’s city council-in-exile said Russian forces stole more than 2,000 objects from the city’s museums. 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.

Also looted were artworks by painters Arkhip Kuindzhi, who was born in Mariupol, and Crimean-born Ivan Aivazovsky, both famous for their seascapes, the exile councilors said. They said Russian troops sent their stolen bounty to the Russian-occupied Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine.

The invasion has also caused extensive damage and destruction to Ukraine’s cultural heritage. The UN’s cultural agency keeps an overview of places that are 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 importance, 37 buildings for cultural activities, 18 monuments, 13 museums and 10 libraries, UNESCO says.

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

As invading forces hunted 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 away from the front lines and battle-torn regions.

In Kiev, the director of Ukraine’s Museum of Historical Treasures 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,” recalled the director, Natalia Panchenko.

Fearing that Russian troops would storm the city, she sought to confuse them by removing the plaque at the museum’s entrance. She also dismantled exhibits and carefully packed artifacts away in boxes for evacuation.

One day, she hopes, they will return to their rightful place. For now, the museum only displays copies.

“These things were fragile, they survived hundreds of years,” she said. “We couldn’t stand the idea that they could be lost.”

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AP reporter John Leicester in Paris contributed. Efrem Lykatsky contributed from Kiev.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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