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Looted art

Art and archaeology falls casualty to the Chechen war

The collections of two museums in Grozny have disappeared and the region’s distinctive stone towers are caught in the crossfire

At the end of May, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said it had recovered Franz Rubeau’s painting “The Capture of Shamil”, which had been stolen in 1995 from the Museum of Art in Grozny, the Chechen capital.

The FSB claims that the painting had been held in a Chechen mountain village. Boris Talitsky, head of the FSB press office, said that Chechen rebel leaders had hoped to sell the painting to finance their insurrection against the Russian federal government. The FSB estimates the work’s value at over $1 million.

Deni Teps, leader of the World Chechen Congress in St Petersburg, denies these charges and, instead, accuses Russian soldiers of having stolen the painting in 1996 and now trumpeting its “recovery” for propaganda purposes.

The work, which was painted in 1886, illustrates the 1859 defeat of the legendary Chechen leader, Shamil, at the hands of the Russian army. The Chechens fought the Russian army for nearly twenty years in the nineteenth century, trying to maintain their independence.

With both the Chechens and the Russians now accusing each other of taking aim at art, it is unclear who is to blame. What is clear is that the collections of two museums in Grozny have largely disappeared.

The Museum of Art was ransacked in 1995-96 during the first war between the Chechens and Russia in a theft described by Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky as, “the worse incident that culture has suffered in this war.”

The Museum of Local History in Grozny with its collection of objects dating from the Bronze Age, which included utensils, garments, musical instruments, and weapons, has also been extensively looted.

The cultural casualties of war do not end there. The most famous monuments in the country are its hundreds of medieval stone towers, most of which are high in the mountains. The towers served as havens in times of war, and most of them date from the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the time of the Mongol invasions.

These distinctive monuments are thirty-five to forty metres high, and are impregnable. According to Mr Teps, small artillery fire cannot damage them, but aerial attack can. Chechen insurgents sometimes use the monuments as observation posts, or for shelter.

Mr Teps explains that before 1944 there were thousands of such towers, but that the Soviet government systematically destroyed most of them, except those in the most remote regions. Stalin accused the Chechens of collaborating with the Nazis and punished them by trying to obliterate any trace of the Chechen nation.

“Some people say that the Russians are once again trying systemically to destroy such important landmarks, but that is not certain”, said Mr Teps, cautiously.

Dr Piotrovsky remarked that there is little reliable information about the fate of such sites, but he is nevertheless grim about the overall situation.

“Many of the republic’s archaeological and architectural sites are being destroyed since they are located at the centre of hostilities”, he said. “War is war, and art and archaeology are caught in the crossfire.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Casualties of the Chechen war'