The exquisite gold tiara, encrusted with precious stones by master craftsmen some 1,500 years ago, was one of the world’s most prized artifacts from the bloody reign of Attila the Hun, who rampaged with mounted warriors deep into Europe in the 5th century.
The Hun diadem has now disappeared from the museum in Ukraine where it was kept – perhaps, historians fear, forever. Russian troops took the priceless crown and a pile of other treasures after they captured the Ukrainian city of Melitopol in February, museum officials said.
The Russian invasion of Ukrainenow in its eighth month, has been accompanied by the destruction and looting of historical sites and treasures on an industrial scale, Ukrainian authorities say.
In an interview with the Associated Press, of Ukraine the Minister of Culture claimed that Russian soldiers helped themselves to artifacts in almost 40 Ukrainian museums. The looting and destruction of cultural sites has caused losses estimated at hundreds of millions of euros (dollars), Minister Alexander Tkachenko added.
“The Russians’ treatment of Ukrainian cultural heritage is a war crime,” he said.
For now, Ukraine’s government and its Western arms-supplying backers are focused primarily on victory Russia on the battlefield. But if and when peace returns, preserving Ukraine’s collections of art, history and culture will also be vital, so that war survivors can begin the next battle: rebuilding their lives.
“These are museums, historical buildings, churches. Everything that was built and created by generations of Ukrainians,” Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska said in September when she visited a Ukrainian museum in New York. “This is a war against our identity.”
Workers at the Local Lore Museum in Melitopol first attempted to hide the Hun diadem and hundreds of other treasures when Russian troops invaded the southern city. But after weeks of repeated searches, Russian soldiers finally discovered the building’s secret basement, where staff had smuggled out the museum’s most valuable items — including the Hun tiara, according to a museum worker.
The worker, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity, fearing Russian punishment for even discussing the events, said Ukrainians do not know where Russian troops took the haul, which includes the tiara and about 1,700 other artifacts.
Excavated from a burial chamber in 1948, the crown is one of the few Hunnic crowns in the world. The museum worker said other treasures that disappeared with the Russian soldiers included 198 pieces of gold dating back 2,400 years to the Scythian era, nomads who migrated from Central Asia to southern Russia and Ukraine and founded an empire in Crimea.
“These are ancient finds. These are works of art. They are priceless,” said Oleksandr Simonenko, chief researcher at the Institute of Archeology of Ukraine. “If culture disappears, it’s an irreparable disaster.”
Russia’s Ministry of Culture did not respond to questions about the Melitopol Collection.
Russian forces are also looting museums as they ravage the Black Sea port of Mariupol, according to Ukrainian officials who were driven out of the southern city, which has been relentlessly pounded by Russian bombing. It only fell under Moscow’s full control in May, when Ukrainian defenders clinging to the city’s steel mills finally surrendered.
President Joe Biden spoke Wednesday about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Mariupol’s exiled city council said Russian forces had stolen more than 2,000 objects from the city’s museums. Among the most valuable items were ancient religious icons, a unique handwritten Torah scroll, a 200-year-old Bible and more than 200 medals, the council said.
Also looted were artworks by Mariupol-born artists Arkhip Kuindzhi and Crimean-born Ivan Aivazovsky, both known for their seascapes, councilors in exile said. They said Russian troops had taken their stolen prize to the Russian-occupied Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine.
The invasion also caused extensive damage and destruction to Ukraine’s cultural heritage. The UN’s cultural agency keeps track of sites hit by rockets, bombs and shelling. With the war now in its eighth month, the agency says it has confirmed damage to 199 sites in 12 regions.
These include 84 churches and other religious sites, 37 buildings of historical importance, 37 buildings for cultural activities, 18 monuments, 13 museums and 10 libraries, UNESCO said.
Figures from the Ukrainian government are even higher, with authorities saying the number of destroyed and damaged religious buildings is at least 270.
As the invading forces searched for treasures to steal, Ukrainian museum workers did what they could to keep them out of Russian hands. Tens of thousands of items have been evacuated away from front lines and war-torn regions.
In Kyiv, the director of the Museum of Historical Treasures of Ukraine lived in the building, guarding the artifacts inside during the first weeks of the invasion, when Russian forces tried, unsuccessfully, to encircle the capital.
“We were afraid of the Russian occupiers because they were destroying everything that could be identified as Ukrainian,” recalls director Natalia Panchenko.
Fearing that Russian troops would invade the city, she tried to confuse them by removing the plaque at the museum’s entrance. She also dismantled exhibits, carefully packing the artifacts into evacuation boxes.
One day, she hopes, they will return to their rightful place. For now, the museum only displays copies.
“These things were fragile, they survived for hundreds of years,” she said. “We couldn’t bear the thought that they could be lost.”