Violations against cultural property – such as archaeological treasures, artworks, museums or historical sites – can be no less detrimental to the survival of a nation than the physical persecution of its people. These assaults on heritage ensure the hegemony of some nations and distort the imprint of other nations in world history, sometimes to the point of eradication.
As contemporary armed conflicts in Syria, Ukraine and Yemen demonstrate, cultural property violations are not only a matter of the colonial past; they continue to be perpetrated, often in new, intricate ways.
Understandably, from a moral perspective, it is more often the suffering of persons, rather than any kind of ‘cultural’ destruction, that receives the most attention from humanitarian aid providers, the media or the courts. Indeed, the extent of the damage caused by an assault on cultural property is not always immediately evident, but the result can be a threat to the survival of a people. This is strikingly exemplified by what is currently happening in Crimea.
Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula has been occupied by Russia since February 2014, meaning that, under international law, the two states have been involved in an international armed conflict for the last six years.
While much attention has been paid to the alleged war crimes perpetrated by the occupying power, reports by international organizations and the International Criminal Court (ICC) have been less vocal on the issue of cultural property in Crimea. Where they do raise (opens in new window) it, they tend to confine their findings to the issue of misappropriation.
However, as part of its larger policy (opens in new window) of the annexation and Russification of the peninsula and its history, Russia has gone far beyond misappropriation.
Crimean artefacts have been transferred to Russia – without security justification or Ukrainian authorization as required by the international law of occupation – to be showcased at exhibitions celebrating Russia’s own cultural heritage. In 2016, the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow staged its record-breaking Aivazovsky exhibition, which included 38 artworks from the Aivazovsky Museum in the Crimean town of Feodosia.
There is also the example of Russia’s plan to establish a museum of Christianity in Ukraine’s UNESCO World Heritage site, the Ancient City of Tauric Chersonese. This is an indication of Russia’s policy of asserting itself as a bastion of Orthodox Christianity and culture in the Slavic world, with Crimea as one of the centres.
The harmful effects of Russia’s destructive cultural property policy can be seen in the situation of the Crimean Tatars, Ukraine’s indigenous Muslim people. Already depleted by a Stalin-ordered deportation in 1944 and previously repressed by the Russian Empire, the Crimean Tatars are now facing the destruction of much of the remainder of their heritage.
For example, Muslim burial grounds have been demolished to build the Tavrida Highway, which leads to the newly built Kerch Bridge connecting the peninsula to Russia.
The destructive reconstruction of the 16th-century Bakhchysarai Palace – the only remaining complete architectural ensemble of the indigenous people, included in the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List – is another example of how the very identity of the Crimean Tatars is being threatened. This reconstruction is being conducted by a team with no experience of cultural sites, in a manner that erodes its authenticity and historical value – which is precisely as Russia intends.
There is a solid body of international and domestic law covering Russia’s treatment of Crimea’s cultural property.
Under the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict – ratified by both Ukraine and Russia – the occupying power must facilitate the safeguarding efforts of the national authorities in occupied territories. States parties must prevent any vandalism or misappropriation of cultural property, and, according to the first protocol of the convention, the occupying power is required to prevent any export of artefacts from the occupied territory.
The 1907 Hague Regulations and the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention confirm that the authentic domestic legislation continues to apply in occupied territories. This leaves Russia with no excuse for non-compliance with Ukraine’s cultural property laws and imposing its own rules unless absolutely necessary.
Besides, both Ukrainian and Russian criminal codes penalise pillage in occupied territory, as well as unsanctioned archaeological excavations. As an occupying power, Russia must not just abstain from such wrongdoings in Crimea, but also duly investigate and prosecute the alleged misconduct.
The clarity of the international legal situation demonstrates that no exhibitions in continental Russia and no archaeological excavations which are not sanctioned by Ukraine can be justified. Likewise, any renovation or use of cultural sites, especially those on permanent or tentative UNESCO lists, must only be conducted pursuant to consultancy with and approval of the Ukrainian authorities.
But the resonance of the Crimean case goes beyond law and touches on issues of the very survival of a people. The Soviet deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944 did not only result in the deaths of individuals. Their footprints in Crimea have been gradually erased by baseless treason charges, the long exile of the indigenous community from their native lands and ongoing persecution.
First the Soviet Union and now Russia have targeted the Crimean Tatars’ cultural heritage to undermine their significance in the general historical narrative, making attempts to preserve or celebrate this culture seem futile. Russia is thus imposing its own historical and political hegemony at the expense of the Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian layers of Crimean history.
As exemplified by occupied Crimea, the manipulation and exploitation of cultural heritage can serve an occupying power’s wider policies of appropriating history and asserting its own dominance. Domestic cultural property proceedings are challenging due to the lack of access to the occupied territory, but they should still be pursued.
More effort is needed in the following areas: case prioritization; informing the documenters of alleged violations about the spectrum of cultural property crimes; developing domestic investigative and prosecutorial capacity, including by involving foreign expert consultancy; more proactively seeking bilateral and multilateral cooperation in art crime cases; liaising with auction houses (to track down objects originating from war-affected areas) and museums (to prevent the exhibition of the artefacts from occupied territories).
When possible, cultural property crimes should also be reported to the ICC.
Additionally, more international – public, policy, media and jurisprudential – attention to such violations is needed. Societies, courts and policymakers should have a clearer awareness that assaults against cultural heritage constitute a creeping encroachment on a people’s identity, endangering its very survival.