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

1, Mar 2024 | Europäische Kultur, European Culture, La culture Européenne

It is not uncommon for armed conflicts to drag art and cultural objects into the spiral of violence: the case of the Russian attack on Ukraine is a very vivid example.

At the very beginning of the war, on 24 February 2022, the Russian army captured the city of Melitopol, located in the south of the country on the Sea of Azov, in a strategic corridor that, if permanently captured, would connect Crimea, annexed in 2014, to Russian territory.

But the goal was not only military: when the soldiers captured the town, they quickly looted the local museum, which contained now untraceable artefacts of Scythian art.

When art becomes the spoils of war: The case of Scythian artefacts from Ukraine

The town’s mayor, Ivan Fedorov, declared, “The ‘orcs’ have grabbed our Scythian gold,” popularising an expression that quickly became a viral term for the Russian invaders.

The attack was obviously targeted: Leila Ibrahimova, the head of the Museum of Local History in Melitopol, told Radio Free Europe that the soldiers had specifically asked for the whereabouts of these valuable items, which they had hidden when the enemy troops approached. She added that they were accompanied by a man in a white suit who was able to handle these objects and conceal them without damaging them. Last heard, the museum guard who had revealed the location of the artefacts under threat of armed force had stopped giving any sign of life.

A total of 198 artifacts are said to have been stolen from Melitopol, including ancient weapons, rare coins and, most importantly, golden artifacts that represented the largest collection of Scythian art in Ukraine. They too disappeared without a trace and do not seem to have fuelled the global black market for stolen artworks. Why was the theft committed? Because a museum, cultural and commemorative dispute is unfolding over these artefacts, opening a new frontline in the bloody Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

The Scythians, from archaeological interest to Russian and Slavic myth Anyone who utters the word “Scythians” conjures up an image of a primitive and wild steppe populated by gold-emblazoned horsemen who are fearsome opponents in battle. The fascination with this group of Iron Age cultures, who lived in Europe and Asia from the 8th to the 2nd century BC, is old in the West. The Greek Herodotus (c. 480 BC-425 BC) devoted an entire book in his Histories to this people known for their cruelty, and one can assume that the authors of the Star Wars saga are still under the influence of this aura when they invent Sith lords who trigger battles in the galaxy.

In the Slavic context, however, the Scythians have the status of dream ancestors of Eastern European peoples. This distant, oral culture, which has left few traces, has nevertheless spread across the steppes of the “kurgans”) or burial mounds where the Scythian elite were buried. In the 16th century, graves began to be opened in what was then Russia and artefacts were found that testified to the wealth of this civilisation: among them, magnificent gold objects, often depicting hunting or battle scenes, whose artistic value is obvious.

In Ukraine, in the quarry of Kul-Oba (“Ash Hill”) in what is now the Crimea, a tomb was discovered in 1830 in which a man and a woman, accompanied by a servant, lay completely covered in gold: this first major discovery in an expedition originally commissioned by the Russian Tsar Alexander I, the victor over Napoleon who died in 1825, initiated a general mythicisation of the Scythians. They became glorious ancestors whose mastery of weapons was surpassed only by art and testified to the early existence of a great non-European civilisation whose descendants were to be the Slavic peoples. This dreamed-up genealogy encounters some historical obstacles (above all, the precise definition of what “Scythians” are: The narrow meaning restricts its use to peoples who lived in Ukraine and the Caucasus, another meaning encompasses the entire Eurasian steppe), but it serves to dismantle Russia’s cultural complex vis-à-vis Europe. By placing itself under the aegis of the Scythians, it was no longer forced to slavishly imitate the great European powers, but could invoke its own model, unique cultural origins and warrior power, which had just been revived by the victory over Napoleon in 1815.

This was the case at the beginning of the twentieth century, when philosophers and poets, within the framework of Russian modernism, did not hesitate to call themselves “Scythians”: The “Eurasian” movement shifted the centre of gravity of Russian identity to the East, while Alexander Blok’s long poem “The Scythians” (1918) equated the threatening stream of horse-riding nomads with 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, interrupt the cultural diplomacy of the USSR, in which they act as a demonstration of power and perhaps also as a veiled threat. Who owns the Scythians? So Russia under Vladimir Putin, who strongly advocates the Eurasian doctrine, has a vested interest in winning over these great ancestors, even if it means looting a museum.

The looting of the museum in Melitopol is the conclusion of a museum dispute between Russia and Ukraine that has been going on since 2014. In 2014, the Scythians appeared in the news again: A museum in Amsterdam dedicated an exhibition to Scythian gold from Ukraine – more precisely from Crimea. During the exhibition, Russia annexed this part of Ukrainian territory. A long legal battle ensued over to whom the objects should be returned: to Ukraine, which had lent them, or to Russia, which reclaimed them.

In October 2021, a Dutch court ruled in favour of Ukraine and the artefacts were sent to the museum in Melitopol. For the Ukrainian authorities, this was not only a sign that the law had been respected, but also a reminder that most of Scythian history had taken place on Ukrainian soil. However, most of these objects were looted during the occupation of Melitopol.

The method is not new, and the Russians have often used art as war booty: since 1994, the Pushkin Museum in Moscow has exhibited the “Treasure of Priam”, i.e. the collection that the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann assembled in 1874 from the alleged remains of the city of Troy and which was on display in Berlin until the end of the Second World War. It disappeared for decades until it finally resurfaced in Russia, and the country has always refused to return it because of the Red Army’s role in the liberation of Europe.

However, against the backdrop of the conflict that has prevailed since 24 February 2022, a battle of memory is also being fought over the Scythians. To deprive Ukrainians of their Scythian artifacts and to cut them off from this legendary people with its significant cultural and literary aura is to consolidate Putin’s counter-narrative, which consists in denying the historical existence of Ukraine, which was in fact created out of nothing by Lenin. The theft of these artefacts, calculated and carried out with great violence, thus has a political objective: no artefacts, no history; no history, no nation; no nation, no war, but a “special operation” to maintain order in an area that would naturally be a continuation of Russian territory.

This is not the first time that Russia and Ukraine have quarrelled over cultural objects that also involve the affirmation of an identity and a history: in 2009, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the birth of the writer Nicolai Gogol, literary historians from both countries quibbled over whether the great author born in “Little Russia” was a Russian or a Ukrainian. The Mariupol city administration reported 2000 stolen objects, including an incunabula Bible from 1811, paintings by the painters Arkhip Kuindji and Ivan Aivazovski, rare icons and numerous old medals. But there is no doubt that in the spoils of war, the gold of the Scythians shines with a special brilliance.

Published: 31 May 2022, 20:58 CEST – Updated on: 31 May 2022, 21:00 CEST Victoire Feuillebois Assistant Professor in Russian Literature, Université de Strasbourg.