When art becomes a prize of war: The case of Scythian objects from Ukraine


It is not uncommon for armed conflicts to carry objects of art and culture away in the spiral of violence: the case of the attack on Ukraine by Russia provides a very striking example. From the start of the war, on February 24, 2022, the Russian army took the city of Melitopol, located in the south of the country, near the Sea of ​​Azov, in the strategic corridor which, if conquered, would allow to connect the Crimea annexed in 2014 to Russian territory. But the objective is not only military: by seizing the city, the soldiers rush to loot the local museum where there are artifacts of Scythian art, now untraceable.

“The orcs have taken our Scythian gold”, then declared the mayor of the city, Ivan Fedorov, popularizing an expression which quickly became viral to refer to the Russian invaders. The attack was obviously targeted: the director of the local history museum in Melitopol, Leila Ibrahimova, reported to Radio Free Europe that the soldiers had asked specifically where these precious objects were, hidden during the approach of the enemy troops. She added that they were accompanied by a man in a white jumpsuit capable of handling these objects and removing them without damaging them.

At the latest news, the museum guard who revealed the location of the objects under the threat of arms has not given any sign of life.

In all, in Melitopol, 198 works of art were allegedly stolen, including ancient weapons, rare coins and above all gold artifacts which constituted the most important collection of Scythian art in Ukraine. They too disappeared without a trace and it seems that they did not feed the global black market in stolen works of art.

Why did this theft take place? Because around these works of art is played out a museum, cultural and memorial quarrel which opens a new front line in the bloody Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

The Scythians, from archaeological interest to Russian and Slavic myth

Anyone who pronounces the word “Scythian” conjures up a whole imagination of the primitive and wild steppe, populated by horsemen adorned in gold who are so many formidable adversaries in combat. The fascination for this set of Iron Age cultures, present in Europe and Asia from the XNUMXthe to IIe century BC, is ancient in the West. In his Stories, the Greek Herodotus (around – 480 BC-around – 425 BC) devotes an entire book to this tribe renowned for its ferocity, and one can suspect the authors of the saga Star Wars to be still under the influence of this aura when they invent Sith lords at the origin of the struggles which enamel the galaxy.

But in the Slavic context, the Scythians have the status of dreamed ancestors of the peoples of Eastern Europe. This oral culture, distant and for this double reason having left few traces nevertheless spread in the steppe of the "Kurgans".), or burial mounds where the Scythian elites were buried. From the XVIIIe century, we begin to open the tombs present on the Russian territory of the time and we discover there artefacts testifying to the richness of this civilization: among them, splendid gold objects, often showing scenes of hunting or combat, whose artistic value is obvious.

It's in Ukraine, in the career of Koul-Oba (“the Ash Hill”), located in present-day Crimea, that a tomb was discovered in 1830 where, accompanied by a servant, a man and a woman entirely covered in gold lay: this first discovery of scale, in an expedition originally commissioned by Russian Tsar Alexander Ier, the conqueror of Napoleon, who died in 1825, launched an operation of general mythification of the Scythians. They become glorious ancestors, whose mastery of arms is matched only by that of the arts, and who testify to the early existence of a great extra-European civilization of which the Slavic peoples are the descendants.

This dream genealogy comes up against certain historical obstacles (primarily the exact definition of what is "Scythian": the narrow sense restricts the use to peoples who lived in Ukraine and the Caucasus, a broader sense encompasses the whole steppe Eurasian), but it serves to reduce the cultural complex that Russia has vis-à-vis Europe. By placing itself under the aegis of the Scythians, it is no longer forced to slavishly imitate the great European powers, but can claim its own model, a unique cultural origin and a warrior power that the victory against Napoleon in 1815 has just reactivated.

Romantic Nationalism: Battle between Scythians and Slavs (Viktor Vasnetsov, 1881).

This Scythian myth runs thus throughout the XIXe century and experienced a new moment of glory at the beginning of the XNUMXthe century when, within the framework of Russian modernism, philosophers and poets did not hesitate to declare themselves "Scythians": the "eurasist" movement shifts the center of gravity of Russian identity to the East, while the long poem by Alexandre Blok "The Scythians" (1918) assimilates the threatening wave of nomadic horsemen to the revolutionary storm coming from the East and ready to pour over Europe. The Scythians are thus compatible with the Revolution, they are even its precursors: it is not surprising that the exhibitions on Scythian gold, taken in particular from the collections of the Hermitage museum, punctuate the cultural diplomacy of the USSR, in which they appear as a manifestation of power and, perhaps, a veiled threat.

Catalog of the 1975 Soviet exhibition in Paris.

Whose are the Scythians?

The Russia of Vladimir Putin, who is a fervent defender of the Eurasian doctrine, therefore has every interest in recovering these great ancestors for her, even if it means looting a museum. The bag from the Melitopol museum is indeed settling a museum dispute that has been open since 2014 between Russia and Ukraine. In 2014, the Scythians resurfaced in the news : a museum in Amsterdam had devoted an exhibition to Scythian gold from Ukraine – and more precisely from Crimea. However, during the exhibition, Russia annexed this part of Ukrainian territory. A long legal battle ensued to find out to whom these objects should be returned: to Ukraine, which lent them, or to Russia, which claimed them? In October 2021, a Dutch court ruled in favor of Ukraine and the objects were sent to the Melitopol Museum. For the Ukrainian authorities, it was not only a sign that the law was respected, but also a reminder that Scythian history had largely been played out on the lands of Ukraine.

Sophia Schliemann wearing the jewels of the “Treasure of Priam”.

However, it is largely these same objects that were looted during the occupation of Melitopol. The method is not new, and the Russians have often used art as a prize of war: since 1994, the Pushkin Museum in Moscow has exhibited the "treasure of Priam", namely the collection put together by the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in 1874 from the presumed remains of the city of Troy and exhibited in Berlin until the end of World War II. Disappeared for decades, it finally reappeared in Russia and the country has always refused to return it for the role played by the Red Army in the liberation of Europe.

But in the context of the conflict that has been raging since February 24, 2022, it is also a battle of memory that is being played out around the Scythians. To deprive the Ukrainians of their Scythian art objects, to cut them off from this legendary people with a major cultural and literary aura, is to consolidate the Putin's counter-narrative which consists in denying the historical existence of Ukraine, which would in fact have been created from scratch by Lenin.

The theft of these objects, carried out in a calculated way and with great violence, therefore has a political goal: no works of art, no history; no history, no Nation; no Nation, no war but a “special operation” to maintain order on a territory which would naturally fit into the continuity of Russian territory.

This is not the first time that Russia and Ukraine have clashed over cultural objects which also involve the affirmation of an identity and a history: in 2009, on the occasion of the bicentenary of the birth of the writer Nicolaï Gogol, the literary historians of the two countries were inflamed to know if the great native author of “Little Russia” was Russian or Ukrainian. Nor are they the only objects to suffer the disasters of war: the Mariupol town hall reported 2000 thefts, including an incunabula from 1811, paintings by painters Arkhip Kuinji et Ivan Aivazovsky, rare icons and many old medals. But there is no doubt that in the spoils of war, the gold of the Scythians shines with a special brilliance.

Leafwood Victory, Assistant Professor in Russian Literature, University of Strasbourg

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Wikipedia / Gold pectoral necklace from the Royal Kurgan of Ordzhonikidze (Ukraine). Greco-Scythian art, second half of the XNUMXth century BC. BC, Museum of Historical Treasures of Ukraine, kyiv.

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