woman showing empty display cases of a museum
Natalia Panchenko, director of the Museum of Historical Treasures of Ukraine © Efrem Lukatsky/AP

When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began almost a year ago, Natalia Panchenko, director of the Museum of Historical Treasures of Ukraine in Kyiv, received a phone call from the ministry of culture. The conversation was brief: as many of the institution’s 60,000 exhibits as possible must be moved to a place of safety immediately.

With piles of boxes and wrapping material still lying around after some pieces had come back from an exhibition, Panchenko was in a position to act quickly. “We have been able to hide about 80 per cent of our artefacts,” she says, with relief, over the phone.

Panchenko and her team transferred the most valuable items to a secret location and are displaying replicas of them in the museum, which remains open for educational activities.

The Museum of Historical Treasures of Ukraine is renowned for its collection of gold and silver artefacts. It houses elaborately adorned helmets, collars and decorative objects produced by the Scythians (also known as the Scyths, Sakas and Sacae), a nomadic people who originated in what is now Iran and began populating Ukraine and southern Russia in the eighth century BC.

The most prestigious of the items taken away is an ornate pectoral necklace from the fourth century BC. However, the museum also showcases items from 1913, when Kyiv was home to 38 jewellery workshops, including the House of Marchak, which is often referred to as the “Cartier of Kyiv”.

golden necklace featuring intricate designs
A fourth-century necklace put in safe storage © Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Since the beginning of the war, multiple pictures and videos have circulated of destroyed churches and cultural institutions. Ukrainian authorities have also accused the Russian army of systematically looting Ukraine’s art treasures — despite international conventions prohibiting cultural appropriation during conflicts.

There are no official figures for the number of missing items. But an investigation by Human Rights Watch focusing on Kherson has so far identified 10,000 pieces that have been stolen out of 13,500 exhibits, along with several gold and silver artefacts, at two of the southern port city’s museums. Ukrainian authorities also claim that Russians have taken away bone fragments of Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin, a statesman and military leader under the reign of Catherine the Great, and a key figure in the annexation of Crimea in 1783.

In a study last year, Alexandra Xanthaki, special rapporteur on cultural rights at the UN, stressed how the destruction of cultural artefacts was worrying for the identity of both Ukrainians and minorities in Ukraine, and could compromise the path to peace.

Yet this cultural ransacking has also spurred Ukrainians’ powers of creativity and led them to revisit symbols of their identity in their work.

“It was a strong wake-up call that led me to immerse myself in our heritage — it felt like the moment of our rebirth,” says jewellery designer Valeriya Guzema by video call from Spain. She has moved there with her son and mother while her husband fights in Ukraine.

Last September, Guzema released a new collection, Spadok, meaning “heritage” in Ukrainian, which features an abstract golden pattern depicting the Ukrainian flower viburnum crossed by red threads — a nod to the country’s rich tradition of embroidery and the pixelated military uniform.

woman wearing a flower pin
Olena Zelenska with flower pin on her Washington visit © Patrick Semansky/AP

On a visit to the White House last July, Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska — who had chosen Guzema earrings for her husband’s inauguration day in 2019 — wore a brooch laden with symbolism that Guzema had created in partnership with ethnic brand site Gunia Project before the war. Part of the Nezalezhna (Ukrainian for “independent”) collection, the pin was designed as a rushnyk, a traditional handmade textile embroidered with flowers, and was meant to send a clear message to Ukraine’s invaders.

When a photo of a ceramic rooster sitting intact on a kitchen cabinet in a bombed-out house in Borodianka near Kyiv went viral last April, it became a symbol of resistance. The Vasylkiv cockerel — named after the town in the Kyiv region where it was produced — was a popular type of pottery in Soviet times. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president, and former UK prime minister Boris Johnson were given ceramic roosters on a walkabout in Kyiv that month, while Maria Gavryliuk and Natasha Kamenska, the duo behind Gunia Project, created a golden brooch in its linking.

A golden Vasylkiv cockerel
A golden Vasylkiv cockerel

Meanwhile, some experts wonder whether the looted artworks will ever be seen again. “Every army in history has looted,” says Count Nikolai Tolstoy, a specialist in Russian history. However, he stresses that there are distinctions to be made. “Napoleon stole state treasures and, of course, that was cultural appropriation, but the treasures were well looked after, and they were exhibited to be admired.”

As he ponders the fate of cultural artefacts stolen from Ukraine, though, Tolstoy admits their future is uncertain. “Perhaps members of the Russian government will keep them privately, or put them in museums.

“But I think an equally, perhaps more, important factor is that these objects are a reward for the Russian army’s soldiers.”

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