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Crimea’s occupied cultural heritage

Crimea’s occupied cultural heritage
Edited by: Alya Shandra

The Russian occupation of Crimea affected all areas of life on the peninsula. The situation with violation of human rights became critical, Russian pressure forced thousands of people to live their homes, private and state property on the peninsula was illegally assigned to Russia. Even the seemingly peaceful area of art and culture was also significantly affected by Russian actions.

At the moment of the occupation, there were 14,000 cultural monuments and more than 300,000 museum pieces in Crimea, which is equal to the total amount of pieces of the Louvre. Also at that moment there were 6 Historical and Cultural Reserves: in Alupka, Bakhchisaray, Kerch, Koktebel, in town Chornomorske and Chersonesus. The last one is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Bakhchisaray Palace. Photo:
Swallow’s Nest. Photo:

There were 12 institutions: theaters, circuses, music institutions.

Moreover, Crimea’s documented history, its archives, is now also under occupation. As of 1 January 2014 there were almost 2 million paper documents and up to 75,000 media documents in Crimea’s archives.

After occupying the peninsula, Russia claimed that Ukraine’s cultural heritage in Crimea is also Russian.

Russian authorities and the so-called “authorities of Crimea” adopted legislation giving Crimean cultural heritage the status of national property of the Russian Federation. In August 2014, the corresponding law was passed in the so-called “parliament of Crimea.”

And in October 2015, more than 220 historical and cultural objects in Crimea were assigned the status of objects of cultural heritage of [Russian] Federal significance.

Ukraine recognized these actions as illegal. The General Prosecutor’s office of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (of General Prosecutor’s office in Ukraine) opened criminal proceedings on the illegal possession of objects of the Crimean cultural heritage by the officials of the Russian Federation.

However, there is no clear Ukrainian position on some issues. In particular, it is unclear how archaeological findings which were discovered after the occupation will be registered. The question becomes relevant as the Russian Federation gives permissions on excavations on the territories of future constructive works and even more, at the territories of Historical and Cultural Reserves.

Controversial cases

There are already a few cases when the Russian occupation of Crimea caused scandalous precedents in the sphere of culture.

Items from the collection of Scythian Gold. Photo:

Scythian gold

The collection of Scythian gold from the Crimean museums arrived at the exhibition in the Allard Pierson Museum at Amsterdam University in February 2014 (just before Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea). It contained about 2,000 artifacts from 5 museums, 4 of which are Crimean. In particular,

  • 132 museum items from the Central Museum of Tavrida;
  • 190 items from the Kerch Historical and Cultural Reserve;
  • 28 items from the Chersonesus Taurica;
  • 215 items from the Bakhchisaray Historical and Cultural Reserve.

The Crimean part of the collection became a matter of dispute. Russia claimed that it has to be returned to native museum despite of their national belonging. Ukraine in its turn said that exhibit is part of the Museum Fund of Ukraine and is national property. The museum distanced itself from the conflict and declared that it will either follow the decisions of a qualified or an arbitrator judge, or wait for agreement between the parties. Until that the museum binds itself to keep the collection safe. 3 months after the end of the exhibition, Russia and Ukraine could not agree on the case. So the Crimean museums decided to file a collective lawsuit to the Amsterdam museum demanding to return the Scythian gold to Crimea. In August 2015, a Dutch court granted Ukraine’s request to be a party in the high-profile Scythian gold lawsuit.

The dispute is still ongoing.

The works of Aivazovsky arrive at the Tretyakov gallery in Moscow. Photo:

The works of Ivan Aivazovsky

The famous artist of the 19th century was born in Feodosia on Crimea’s sea coast. He created more than 6,000 pictures during his life, most of which are marine landscapes, working in Rome, Naples, Venice, Paris, London, Amsterdam, Istanbul. After returning to Crimea, the artist lived in his native Feodosia until his death. He built a house and a studio there, and organized exhibitions, the proceeds from which he donated to charity.

At the end of his life he bequeathed the house, the studio, some paintings and sculptures to the Feodosia National Art Gallery.

On 29 July 2016, 38 works of Aivazovskiy from the museum in Feodosia were taken from the Crimean museum to an exhibition at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

Ukraine claimed that by doing that Russia has gravely violated international legislation. In particular, the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property of 1954. According to it, the occupant country has to strive for the protection and preservation of cultural values in the territory which it occupies.

Also, the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture called on international organizations working in culture to cease cooperation with the Tretyakov Gallery and in the future not to work with other Russian institutions, if they are to exhibit artifacts from Crimea.

The paintings are to return to Feodosiya only after one year, on the 200th anniversary of Ayvazovsky’s birthday. But will they return to Crimea? Tatiana Karpova, deputy director at the Tretyakovka art gallery, in an interview to claims there is nothing to fear. But Ukrainian art historian Oleksiy Rogodchenko suspects that they won’t. “All large museums of the world have this tendency, they try to keep works from small collections at any occasion,” he said. According to Rogodchenko, the paintings were insured for a sum that is shockingly meager – only $2 mn for the 38 pieces.  If any of the works from the Feodosia collection are damaged, the museum will receive a miserable compensation – only 1/38th of that sum.  Meanwhile two paintings of Ayvazovsky from private collections were sold for 2.5 and 3.5 million British pounds at the Sotheby’s auction in 2012 and 2014.

Greek columns at the Chersonesus Reserve. Photo:
Replacing historical tiles in Chersonesus. Photo:

Tiles in Chersonesus

In July 2015, the self-proclaimed “head” of Sevastopol Sergey Menyailo ordered to replace the historical tiles on the territory of the museum-reserve Chersonesus with more modern ones. Chersonesus is part a UNESCO world heritage site, but this massive reconstruction was done without consulting UNESCO – a move that is frowned upon.

Crimea’s “speaker of parliament” Aleksey Chalyi explained that it were the tiles near the Volodymyr cathedral that were replaced, which marked the location of ancient streets, churches, houses below the ground, so that they would be preserved if anybody started construction activities on this territory. “It is these tiles, with strange symbols, that were disfavored, so it was decided that they would be torn down and replaced with new ones,” Chalyi said, reported.

Sevastopol’s local news portal informed that the museum workers tried to prevent the construction, but were unsuccessful.

“As a result of the excavations, the tracing of the medieval church was destroyed, namely, the chapel and the adjacent medieval residential development. The elements of museification of the complex of medieval buildings in the main square of Chersonesus have been violated,” the document endorsed by the former director of the reserve, Andrei Kulagin, said. On 29 July 2015, Chalyi fired Kulagin from his post, and the museum is being visited by numerous inspections – a common tactic to intimidate or pacify disobedient entities in Russia. The new director of the museum is the priest of the St. Vladimir cathedral, under whose patronage the tiles were replaced.

In an interview to, historian Timur Bobrovskyi expressed his fears that this practice will continue and that new scandals will arise. “I am confident that […] the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Foreign affairs should have initiated the transfer of Chersonesus into UNESCO’s list of World Heritage in Danger.”

Edited by: Alya Shandra
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