Gold of the Scythians, ancient mosaics, Cossack jewels [kleynods, symbols of Cossack authorities – ed.] – all this and much more was created or found on the territory of Ukraine. However, we cannot see it now. More precisely, theoretically, we can, but in the Tretyakov Gallery, the Hermitage Museum, or other Russian museums.
Yuriy Boltryk, an experienced archaeologist, scythologist, and senior researcher at the Institute of Archeology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, Leila Ibragimova, director of the Melitopol Museum of Local History, Anton Drobovych, the head of the Institute of National Remembrance, and Oleksandr Lyubyshko, an activist and volunteer from Melitopol, helped to understand the history.
I never thought that in the 21st century I would witness the occupation
Melitopol is a small town near the Sea of Azov, located between Zaporizhzhia, Mariupol, and Kherson. A resident, and well-known volunteer Oleksandr Lyubyshko recalls what Melitopol was like before the Russian invasion.
“Everything is very simple, cute but Melitopol was a very progressive city that developed at the most frantic pace. This is the reconstruction of infrastructure facilities, this is roads, kindergartens, schools, a new ice arena, cozy parks, squares, and the most amazing decorations for the New Year,” Oleksandr Lyubyshko shares his memories.
But the peaceful life of all Ukrainians ended on February 24, 2022. Explosions were heard in many cities of Ukraine, martial law was introduced in the country.
“It all started with a powerful explosion, there were missile “arrivals” on the airfield, there is a very large military airfield in Melitopol,” Oleksandr Liubyshko recalls.
Despite the rapid occupation of the Ukrainian South, no one was waiting for Russians in Melitopol. Most residents refused to cooperate with Russian troops, and pro-Ukrainian rallies began on the streets of the city. Russians did not expect this, and very quickly switched to the usual methods of communication with those who oppose them, that is, to repression. Activists and organizers of pro-Ukrainian rallies were sought out to persuade them to cooperate or simply intimidate them. One of the most prominent patriots in the city was Leila Ibragimova, director of the Melitopol Museum of Local History. A museum with a unique collection of Scythian gold.
“After the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Russia, the city of Melitopol was already occupied on February 25. I never thought that I would witness the occupation in the 21st century,” says Leila Ibragimova.
It was the first Scythian gold found, and excavated in the steppe under Soviet rule
“During the household arrangements, a man was digging a cellar, and fell through. All this was in a private yard, surrounded by houses and fences, so people dug everything by hand. And then they realized that it was a serious matter, and the mound was big, so they appealed to the Academy of Sciences. And the president of the Academy of Sciences, academician Palladin sent Oleksii Ivanovych Terenozhkin to Melitopol,” Yuriy Boltryk says.
During the excavations of the Melitopol mound, almost two kilograms of Scythian gold were found. These were coins, jewelry, headdresses and weapons. However, the main value of this find and Scythian gold, in general, is not the metal itself. It is an opportunity to see and understand how people who inhabited the territory of Ukraine thousands of years ago lived and what they used. And to learn more about the Scythians – a powerful people, about whom the father of history Herodotus wrote a lot.
“This was the first Scythian gold found, excavated in the steppe under Soviet rule. And before that, only the Russian Imperial Archaeological Commission dug, and everything came to the Hermitage. Academician Palladin categorically refused. And since then, all the Scythian gold that was found in Ukraine remained with us,” says Yuriy Boltryk.
Some of the finds from the Melitopol mound ended up in Kyiv, and became the basis of the Museum of Treasures. But 198 Scythian objects remained in the collection of the Melitopol Museum of Local History. These artifacts turned it into a real treasury, which was visited by both Melitopol residents and guests of the city.
“It was a small museum in an ancient manor house. Not very big, but atmospheric and full of exhibits. You touch history, descendants, something that happened a long time ago. And, of course, when people came, they were interested to see what was in the museum,” Oleksandr Lyubyshko recalls.
Despite the resistance of the locals, Melitopol was increasingly plunged into an occupation. Intimidation, abductions and torture, repressions against dissenters became commonplace. Russian soldiers also became interested in the Melitopol Museum of Local History and its Scythian collection. And not only because of the value of gold.
Scythians are of great importance from a civilizational point of view. Because thousands of years ago, they inhabited our South, and acted as mediators between the then Ukraine and Ancient Greece, that is, the cradle of European civilization.
“If so, by and large, Russians have nothing to do with the Black Sea. And it is a zone of Greek civilization. Those countries which have access, had contacts in ancient times, or their territory had contacts with the Greeks, these peoples have the right and are considered Europeans. It was by using the Scythians that the Soviet Union and then Russia conducted a kind of cultural intervention in the West,” says Yuriy Boltryk.
Ultimately, they reached the basement and stole everything they found
“On March 10, I was abducted from my home. At 6 a.m. armed Russian soldiers broke into my house. They were interested in information about my connections with the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, and the museum. Then they asked about Islam, history and why I went to pro-Ukrainian rallies. They emphasized the rallies. They threatened me. I answered that my plans did not include cooperation with them,” Leila Ibragimova recalls.
The abduction of Leila Ibragimova actually took place during the meeting of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Dmytro Kuleba with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. The talks were watched by Ukrainians, and the whole world, hoping for a quick end to the war. While the ministers were leaving for the final press conference, Leila was being taken in an unknown direction with a black bag on her head. Despite the completely abstract and vague response of the Russian minister, the case gained international publicity, and that is what saved Leila.
“I was very lucky that they let me go. And in the evening of the same day, the staff called and said that the museum was searched. Russian troops broke the locks, and entered the fund where the Scythian gold was kept,” Leyla Ibragimova said.
Leila Ibragimova understood that this was only the beginning, and that Russians already had their eyes on the Scythian heritage. Despite the extreme danger, she decided to act alone.
“As the director of the museum, I understood that we had to hide the exhibits. We buried the collection of Scythian gold and other valuable items in the basement, which was not listed in the documents. On April 20, 2022, Russian soldiers appointed a new director, a collaborator – Yevhen Gorlachov. Gorlachov and Russian military thoroughly searched the museum for a week, and interrogated the staff one by one, but no one provided them with information. And in the end, they reached the basement and stole everything they found,” Leila Ibragimova adds.
Russians are trying to appropriate cultural heritage
But why do Russians need these Scythians so much? Why, in the conditions of the war, the front of which is not far away, make such efforts to find some collection of antiquities?
“Russians are robbing our museums. Russians are trying to take away, and appropriate cultural heritage, political heritage, objects, and specific items. Chronicles, engravings, icons, and archaeological artifacts, take them to their museums and write them into their version of history.”
“An unprepared person begins to believe in it. In fact, many of those Russians who do not go to the army under duress believe in this superiority of the Russian nation, in this version of history, because it sounds convincing,” says Anton Drobovych.
Due to the robbery of the museum in Melitopol, the Security Service of Ukraine opened criminal proceedings on the fact of violation of the laws and customs of war.
However, Russians during the large-scale invasion robbed or destroyed not only the Melitopol Museum of Local History. Many other Ukrainian cultural institutions suffered the same fate.
Unfortunately, even knowing about the danger of war, the relevant state bodies did not prepare to protect our heritage. Even after the robbery in Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia officials denied the loss of Scythian gold for some time. At first, they said that Russians had stolen copies, not originals. The fact that it was real gold, the authorities admitted only after some time.
“We were poorly prepared. All thirty years of independence we have been absolutely terrible at preserving cultural heritage.”
“It is important to understand that preserving heritage is not just about putting it in an armored safe. This is a huge job that should be done by professionals who study no less than doctors. Obviously, no government or minister of culture has approached this systematically over all these years. And this is also one of the first things to be changed after the victory in this war,” says Anton Drobovych.
“Currently, I do not know about the whereabouts of the collection. I hope that the cultural heritage of the people will return to Ukraine, namely, to my liberated native Melitopol. Thank you for your attention and glory to Ukraine!” sums up Leila Ibragimova.
Why did they do it? Not only because of the value of the collection itself. But also in order to reinforce their own imperial deceptive greatness with the brilliance of this gold. The greatness that Russians had been building for centuries by such methods – robbery and terror.