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Russia and Ukraine’s battle over Crimean heritage heats up

While Putin referred to a Black Sea archeological site as “Russia’s Mecca”, Ukraine enlists the help of Interpol to recover “stolen” paintings

by Sophia Kishkovsky  |  25 August 2017
Russia and Ukraine’s battle over Crimean heritage heats up
Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the Tauric Chersonese State Historical Archaeological Museum and Reserve in August 2017 (Photo: Kremlin)
The struggle between Russia and Ukraine over Crimea’s arts and culture heritage has recently ramped up, with Russian President Vladimir Putin this month proposing that Tauric Chersonese, a Unesco World Heritage site in Crimea, be promoted as “Russia’s Mecca”.

The ancient Hellenic site on the Black Sea, on the outskirts of the modern city of Sevastopol, is where Prince Vladimir of Kiev is believed to have been baptised in the tenth century, so it is culturally significant to both Russia and Ukraine.

The ancient city of Tauric Chersonese and its chora, dating from the 5th century BC to 14th century AD (Photo: C. Williams © The Institute of Classical Archaeology — The University of Texas at Austin)
Putin makes a regular pilgrimage to the site. “It should become a Russian Mecca of a kind,” he told a group of officials, scholars and cultural leaders during a visit to Chersonese on 18 August. “The point is not just that Prince Vladimir was baptised here; what is more important is that afterwards the Russian state started to become centralised.”

Tauric Chersonese was listed by Unesco as a World Heritage site in 2013, when Crimea was still part of Ukraine. Since Russia’s annexation of the penninsula is not recognised by most UN member states, it is still listed as a Ukrainian site.

And earlier this month, archaeologists working in Crimea uncovered a trove of jewellery which has been compared in quality to a collection of Scythian gold that both Russia and Ukraine have laid claim to. Those 565 objects were lent by four Crimean museum to the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam just as the annexation took place. After the show closed, a legal battle arose over where the cultural property belonged and a Dutch court ruled that they should be returned to Kiev, not Crimea. The region’s museums have appealed the decision.

  • Moonlit Night by Ivan Aivazovsky is among the 52 works from the State Museum Fund of Ukraine on Interpol's wanted list
  • The Swamp by Isaak Levitan is among the 52 works from the State Museum Fund of Ukraine on Interpol's wanted list

  • Road in the Forest by Ivan Shishkin is among the 52 works from the State Museum Fund of Ukraine on Interpol's wanted list
  • Makarye Village Arkady Rylov is among the 52 works from the State Museum Fund of Ukraine on Interpol's wanted list
  • Autumn Landscape by Vasily Polenov is among the 52 works from the State Museum Fund of Ukraine on Interpol's wanted list
A new legal wrangle also erupted this month over a cache of around 50 18th- and 19th-century paintings by artists including Ivan Aivazovsky, Ivan Shishkin, and Isaak Levitan from the State Museum Fund of Ukraine,  that were “illegally transferred to the Simferopol Art Museum in March 2014”, according to a press statement from the Prosecutor's Office of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. The works were recently put on Interpol’s wanted list of stolen art and are estimated to have a combined value of $1.3m.

The political stalemate, meanwhile, has left the region’s heritage sites in limbo. Alexander Kuznetsov, the Ambassador and Permanent Delegate of Russia to Unesco told local media in July that “Crimea has been totally cut off from the work of Unesco, although those people who had previously, when the peninsula was part of Ukraine, cooperated with this organisation, have remained in place. Right now all contacts with them have been halted since it is thought that continuing communication would be an indirect recognition of Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea. They categorically refuse any contacts.”

At the same time, Ukraine parted with another kind of heritage. At the same time American cities were grappling over what to do with their Confederate monuments, the Ukrainian government announced that all 1,320 Lenin statues across the country had come down along with other Communist relics, in a movement to clear away Soviet symbols that gained speed during the 2014 Euromaidan revolution. Communist symbols remain, however, in Eastern Ukraine, which is controlled by pro-Russian rebels.



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