The widespread theft of ancient artifacts and other Ukrainian museum exhibits by Russian invaders should be considered a war crime, Ukraine’s Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko, has said.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Sunday, Tkachenko said that since the beginning of Moscow’s invasion in February, Russian soldiers have stolen artifacts from around 40 Ukrainian museums.
According to Tkachenko, the looting and destruction of cultural sites and museums has generated losses estimated in the hundreds of millions of euros and includes the famous ‘Hun tiara’. The tiara, or diadem, is a 1,500-year-old golden treasure inlaid with precious stones, from the rule of Attila the Hun.
The priceless artifact is now missing from its home at the museum in Melitopol, after the city was captured in the early days of the invasion and Russian troops stole it and took it to an unknown location. At least 1,700 other artifacts have been stolen from the museum along with the tiara, museum officials who tried to hide the collection in a basement confirmed.
“The attitude of Russians toward Ukrainian cultural heritage is a war crime,” Tkachenko told The Associated Press. “These are ancient finds. These are works of art. They are priceless,” said Oleksandr Symonenko, chief researcher at Ukraine’s Institute of Archaeology. “If culture disappears, it is an irreparable disaster.”
From various museums in Mariupol, a major city in the east of Ukraine that remains under Russian occupation, exiled city council staff said Russian forces looted more than 2,000 items. Included in the stolen haul were pieces of art, a handwritten Torah scroll, and a 200-year-old bible.
Museum staff in Ukraine’s capital have also been forced to undertake emergency measures to protect Ukrainian history and culture. “We are afraid of the Russian occupiers because they destroy everything that can be identified as Ukrainian,” said Director of the Museum of Historical Treasures of Ukraine, Natalia Panchenko.
When Russian troops entered Kyiv before being repelled by Ukrainian forces, Panchenko decided to live inside the museum, frantically removing artifacts from displays, hiding artifacts, and removing the plaque on the museum’s entrance in an effort to confuse potential Russian looters. Now, only copies of exhibits are on display.
In scenes reminiscent of Nazi Germany’s plundering of European history and the destruction of cultural identity, across Ukraine, a long list of cultural and historical sites have been hit by Russia’s brutal attempts to steal or erase Ukrainian culture.
“These are museums, historical buildings, churches – everything built and created by generations of Ukrainians,” Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, said in September during a visit to a Ukrainian museum in New York. “This is a war against our identity.”
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