Spoils of War
Russians Steal Art from Ukraine
The Scythians indeed have in one respect, and that the very most important of all those that fall under man's control, shown themselves wiser than any nation upon the face of the earth. Their customs otherwise are not such as I admire. The one thing of which I speak is the contrivance whereby they make it impossible for the enemy who invades them to escape destruction, while they themselves are entirely out of his reach, unless it please them to engage with him. Having neither cities nor forts, and carrying their dwellings with them wherever they go; accustomed, moreover, one and all of them, to shoot from horseback; and living not by husbandry but on their cattle, their wagons the only houses that they possess, how can they fail of being unconquerable, and unassailable even?
Herodotus, The Histories book IV, 440 bce
The Scythians were a very ancient people who inhabited the areas north of modern Iran, but who wandered all over central Asia and into Europe. They fought with the ancient Persians and Greeks, hence their inclusion in The Histories by Herodotus. After the conquests of Alexander and the establishment of Eastern Greek kingdoms like the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, Scythians migrated into India and established the Indo-Scythian kingdom. (Thomas McEvilley in his book The Shape of Ancient Thought calls these Scythians philhellenic because they were heavily influenced by the Greco-Bactrians.) At this point they mostly settled down and were absorbed into Indian culture.
The Scythians were wildly inventive artists who made beautiful objects out of gold. Their art tended to be small and portable, as suits a nomadic people. The large stone temples and statuary of the ancient Greeks and Persians were not right for these steppe dwellers. The portability of this work has the unintended side effect of making it easier to steal today. Which is what the Russians are doing now in Ukraine.
The Guardian had a terrifying story about it a few days ago.
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, the director of the Museum of Local History in Melitopol in the south-east of the country, Leila Ibrahimova, arranged for a hoard of gold artefacts from ancient Scythia to be hidden. Just a few weeks later, she was kidnapped and interrogated by Russian troops. They demanded to know where the Scythian gold was; she refused to cooperate. Subsequently the museum’s curator Galina Andriivna Kucher was taken at gunpoint to the museum and asked to show a Russian “expert” and agents where the gold was. She also refused to locate the collection. Kucher was later abducted from her home on 30 April and her whereabouts remains unknown.
Charlotte Mullins, The Guardian, May 27, 2020
Although the curators didn’t tell the Russians where the art was, the invaders found it and stole, among other artworks, a 2400-year-old gold breastplate, seen below.
Conquerors have stolen artworks from conquered people probably since the beginning of warfare. Well-known modern examples include Napoleon (how did the Louvre get so many of its masterworks?), Hitler (mostly unsuccessful in the end, but art looted by the Nazis is still being repatriated today), all European colonial powers (our museums are full of stolen objects), and more. Now the Russians are getting in on the game.
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