Unesco report reveals extent of Russian threat to Crimean heritage

Since the annexation in 2014, Russia has been persecuting the Tatar population and appropriating monuments

Russia has begun excavations at the ancient city of Tauric Cheronese, listed as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2013

Russia has begun excavations at the ancient city of Tauric Cheronese, listed as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2013

A Unesco report released on 10 September on cultural heritage and human rights violations in Crimea asserts that Russia has appropriated thousands of monuments, unlawfully exported and exhibited museum artefacts, conducted unauthorised archeological digs, and subjugated its Muslim population in a campaign to dominate the Black Sea peninsula that it annexed in 2014.

“The Russian occupation of Crimea has changed the perception of Ukraine’s historical and cultural heritage, both by the state and society,” says the report in a section based on information provided by the National Commission of Ukraine for Unesco and the Permanent Delegation of Ukraine on the request of the director-general of Unesco. “Russia has appropriated Ukrainian cultural property on the peninsula, including 4,095 national and local monuments under state protection. Appropriation of monuments is in itself a violation of international law. However, it is equally important that Russia uses such appropriation to implement its comprehensive long-term strategy to strengthen its historical, cultural and religious dominance over the past, present and future of Crimea.”

According to the 38-page document excavations begun in June threaten the ancient city of Tauric Chersonese and its Chora, listed as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2013. Unesco does not recognise Russia’s jurisdiction over the site, which is being developed as one of the latest in a network of patriotic theme parks across Russia called “Russia My History,” promoted by Metropolitan Tikhon Shevkunov, an influential hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church who is close to President Vladimir Putin. The governor of nearby Sevastopol said the site would be used to instil patriotism in children.

Also highlighted is the persecution of Crimean Tatars and violation of their cultural heritage. The report ascribes a goal of erasing traces of their cultural presence on the peninsula and weakening “the fundamental role of the indigenous Muslim people in the history of Crimea” as a mean of “historical justification for its occupation.”

“Distortive restoration of the Bakhchisaray Palace of the Crimean Khans, the only remaining architectural ensemble of the Crimean Tatar indigenous people of this kind,” on the Unesco Tentative List, is of particular concern.

Plans to restore 16 facilities at Bakhchisaray have raised concerns over previous restorations resulting in the “replacement of authentic structural elements and the original medieval tile roof.”

A letter from the International Council on Museums and Sites (Icomos) included as an addendum to the report notes that a World Heritage Centre/Advisory Bodies Reactive Monitoring mission has been ready to visit and assess Tauric Cheronese since 2016, but an invitation has not been forthcoming.

“In light of the above, and considering the complex and sensitive situation, Icomos can only continue to insist on the need for an independent and neutral assessment informed by in-situ missions, under a Unesco mandate, to the sites concerned, both the World Heritage and non-World Heritage sites, covering all heritage categories that may be concerned.”