Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

National Museum of the History of Ukraine

March 24, 2022

Putin’s Piracy, Cultural Heritage Loss In Ukraine

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Though not armed in a literal sense, art historians and archaeologists worldwide find themselves up in arms over the destruction and pillaging of precious artifacts and architecture in Ukraine. As the Russian invasion looks to control both the land and narrative history of Ukraine, the decimation of cultural heritage sites serves as an effective strategy to erase not only the modern features of the city, but its ancestry as well. 

Located 50 miles north of Kyiv, the Ivankiv museum was burned down on Feb. 27 at the hands of Russian forces. The demolition of this museum is recognized as one of the most heinous cultural losses thus far, as it housed mass amounts of Ukrainian folk art and works by the famed Mariia Pryimachenko, who was said to have inspired Picasso himself. With seven world heritage sites across the country, many worry that this destruction will only continue to worsen. One of these sites, the city of L’viv, prepares for the worst by wrapping its statues in fireproof materials to protect them from bombs. Also racing to preserve the stained glass windows of ancient churches, teams from L’viv’s tourist office work to cover them in aluminum and plywood. 

Fedir Androshchuk, the director of the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in Kyiv, warns that Ukraine, and especially Kyiv, is not safe from the plundering of Russian soldiers-turned-pirates. This is because Kyiv — as the physical birthplace of the two nations — is pivotal in the construction of Putin’s narrative surrounding the Russian and Ukrainian brotherhood. Thus, in annihilating and confiscating uniquely Ukrainian artifacts, President Vladmir Putin blurs the line between the Russo-Ukrainian distinction in order to legitimize Russia’s claim to the land. 

Androschuk is also cited to have said that there is past evidence that Crimean archaeological sites have been looted and artifacts brought to the Hermitage of St. Petersburg. Unfortunately, the Hermitage is no stranger to looted art, as it is known to proudly display exhibitions filled with stolen objects from the Soviet era  to “nationalize its trophy art.” Through the destruction and reappropriation of ancestral objects and art, Russia has repeatedly plagiarized the visual culture of neighboring nations so as to rewrite history.

Targeting cultural sites is not a method unique to Putin; throughout the 2010s, ISIS was known to post videos to social media sites of members pridefully drilling into, hammering off, and detonating antiquities. The group reasoned this destruction was in accordance with their Salafi ideology — that evidence of pre-Islamic civilization and polytheism must be erased to establish tawhid (monotheism). Like Putin, ISIS works to efface modern middle eastern countries of their past cultures in order to unite them under an all-encompassing caliphate and destroy individual nationalism. 

From Silk Road oases in Syria to ancient Assyrian capitals in Iraq, ISIS leveled and looted ruins older than their own beliefs to fund the establishment of the modern caliphate through the black market. With the rumored pillaging of Crimean archaeological sites in the past, it is possible that the war with Ukraine could open new doors to the black market sale of eastern European antiquities — mirroring consistent flow of Middle Eastern artifacts provided by opportunistic militant organizations and piggybacking graverobbers. 

While the black market may sound like some ominous, underground exchange center, the antiquities trade is far more accessible than most may imagine. Ranging from Demi Lovato’s Egyptian shabtis to Hobby Lobby’s Mesopotamian tablets, the illegal trade of antiquities rakes in roughly $4.5 and $7 billion annually, behind only narcotics and arms in sales. If Russia or Russian-supported groups were to begin selling looted artifacts, not only would the pieces lose their documented provenance, but their place in their nation’s collective memory and pride. With the heavy sanctions weighing on Russia’s shoulders, they may take further advice from ISIS’s little black (market) book — which would be a devastating assault on the region’s artistic culture, caught in the crosshairs of conflict.  

Ashley Koca is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].