Antiquities & Archaeology

Moscow dig chief mocked over “fake” site

Protestors claim archaeology project is sham to prevent political protests.


Russian activists opposed to President Putin tossed eggs and mayonnaise at the chief archaeologist of the city of Moscow at the end of July to mark their objections to a huge, and they say, unnecessary dig, that has blocked off the Russian capital’s Triumfalnaya Square for the past year. The square was routinely used to stage demonstrations against Putin and the Russian government, until the dig made them impossible.

The square is part of the central section of the city’s congested ring road and features a monument to Vladimir Mayakovsky, the early Soviet-era poet who has been used as an anti-establishment symbol in recent years.

The incident took place at a news conference at which Leonid Kondrashov, the chief archaeologist, showed journalists some of the finds made by the team working on the site. Nikolai Frolov, the archaeologist in charge of the dig, said that the objects included “the remains of horse harnesses, wooden items, remains of household items, horseshoes and so forth”.

According to Kondrashov, the finds as a whole, rather than any individual item, are of value. “An individual find is partial information,” he said. “Historians have described the main events, but daily life has slipped from their attention. That’s why each fragment of pottery is of huge value to us.”

Kondrashov took the attack in his stride, telling reporters: “There have always been hooligans, but they don’t determine the course of historical processes. Let’s talk about archaeology.”

Monthly protests

The protests on Triumfalnaya Square were started in 2009 by Eduard Limonov, a writer turned radical politician who has served time in jail for his activities as the head of the National Bolshevik Party and is now a leader of the Drugaya Rossiya (The Other Russia) opposition party, which has been denied registration to participate in December’s parliamentary elections.

Known as “Strategy-31”, in reference to article 31 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation which ensures the right to freedom of assembly, the demonstrations, including the one on 31 July, have ended in the violent arrest of activists, almost always including Limonov. Most months activists apply for the right to demonstrate legally near the square (on the 31st), and each time they are denied permission. Since the square was surrounded by a fence at the end of September 2010, demonstrators have gathered near the adjacent Mayakovsky metro station and Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, while riot police mass nearby.

The activists who attacked Kondrashov shouted: “Freedom of assembly always and everywhere!” and threw leaflets denouncing the dig as a farce that said: “Mr Kondrashov is attempting to convince us of the incredible value of the public toilet and other 20th-century artefacts they have discovered at Triumfalnaya Square.”

Aleksandr Averin, a spokesman for The Other Russia, told The Art Newspaper that the party has no doubts that the dig is politically motivated against the protests and said that Kondrashov was not an archeologist but a civil servant.

Politicising archaeology

Archaeology has become particularly politicised in Russia since Putin visited the site of a major dig at Phanagoria, an ancient Greek settlement founded in the sixth century BC. It is now referred to as the “Russian Atlantis”, with remains above and below water at the Taman Peninsula in the Black Sea. Putin was shown emerging from the sea in diving gear carrying two urns that he presented as archaeological finds, an image that was mercilessly mocked by Russian bloggers.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 227 September 2011