Politicians and oligarchs who are collecting archeological treasures in Ukraine are not only encouraging illegal excavations, they are using the objects to promote the myth of an advanced ancient culture that was the birthplace of civilization.
When Kateryna Yushchenko wore a dress adorned with a striking ancient Greek medallion and Scythian gold necklace to her husband’s inauguration as president of Ukraine in January 2005, she unwittingly sent a message to the country’s archeological community.Viktor Yushchenko is interested in his country’s history and is an enthusiastic collector of Ukrainian art. (Objects from his collection were on view earlier this year at New York’s Ukrainian Museum.) Archeologists had hoped that he would be sympathetic to their concerns about the explosion of “black archeology”—the looting of archeological sites—in their country. But the first lady’s ancient jewels, borrowed from a private collection, had been illegally excavated. The message the archeologists received was that the practice would continue to be condoned and even encouraged.Today black archeology is big business in Ukraine. The country is rich in archeological sites, from the encampments of Paleolithic hunters and the neolithic settlements of the Trypillian people to gold-filled Scythian and Sarmatian burials to the spectacular ruins of Greco-Roman cities on the Black Sea. But according to Petro Tolochko, director of the Institute of Archeology of the National Academy of Science, professional archeologists can research only 500 sites a year, at most, while illegal diggers are destroying twice that number. The looters, Tolochko says, use heavy machinery and hire brigades of local people who are happy to have the work.Gleb Ivakin, deputy director of the Institute of Archeology, says that “technical progress has made powerful metal detectors available to the new grave robbers.” These expensive tools can detect iron, copper, silver, and gold buried a few meters underground. “The equipment used today by the black archeologists is more sophisticated than the equipment available in the Institute,” Ivakin says.Gangs of looters have been known to use firearms as well, archeologists say. On at least one occasion, an official expedition was attacked. In 2003 a group from Tavrichesky University in Crimea was excavating a fourth-century Alani grave near the village of Opushki in Crimea. (The Alani were an Iranic nomadic people.) The night after the excavation began, the grave was robbed. The next night archeologists guarded the site. The grave robbers returned, saw the archeologists, and opened fire. Luckily, no one was killed or wounded. After the incident there were calls to create a special archeological police force, but they led nowhere.Tolochko sees the root of the problem in the Ukrainian elite’s new passion for collecting antiquities. “It is well known that Yushchenko has a private collection of artifacts of the Trypillian culture,” he says. “If the president loves something, his subordinates love it, too. Now that our president is a collector, all the grandees in his circle are starting to collect antiquities.” Yushchenko sincerely loves history, Tolochko believes, but “he obviously doesn’t understand that his participation in this illegal business legitimizes it.”The first lady’s gold was borrowed from the Platar collection, established by Ukrainian businessman Serhiy Platonov, who died in 2005. Platonov owned the Kiev-based Petroimpeks company, which produces articles made of semiprecious stones, and also was the president of the Ukrainian Billiards Federation. He collected paintings and icons until 1991, when, according to his son Mykola, he saw an auction catalogue of Ukrainian archeological objects for sale abroad and decided that his mission was to collect antiquities to prevent them from being smuggled out of the country.Platonov persuaded Serhiy Taruta to join in the enterprise. Head of the Industrial Union of Donbass, Taruta commands a fortune estimated by Forbes magazine at $1 billion (other sources peg it closer to $2 billion). Today the Platar collection is owned by Platonov’s family and Taruta. (It is named for both men.) It has grown to encompass more than 8,000 objects, whose location and value are unknown. According to Mykola Platonov, “It is impossible to evaluate the collection. From the historical point of view, it is priceless for Ukraine.” He added, in an interview with the Kiev-based newspaper Invest Gazeta, that the Ukrainian finance ministry had classified objects in the collection as “world monuments.”Oleksandr Polischuk, an aide to Petr Yushchenko (the president’s brother and a member of Parliament) and the owner of a private museum of Trypillian artifacts called Ancient Aratta-Ukraine, is more forthcoming. He estimates his own collection to be worth $7 million.Taruta was a supporter of Viktor Yanukovich, Viktor Yushchenko’s rival, but he shifted his allegiance and is now very close to the president—a friendship that is said to have been facilitated by their mutual love of antiquities. The fashion designer Lilia Pustovit chose a Greek medallion and Scythian jewels from the Platar collection to adorn Kateryna Yushchenko’s dress.“We decided that it was impossible to find anything more symbolic,” Pustovit told the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. “The gold artifacts proved convincingly that the Ukraine led by Mme Kateryna’s husband is not 13 years old”—referring to Ukraine’s secession from the former Soviet Union—“but much older. This fact must arouse the world’s respect.” Pustovit was so inspired by the jewels that she designed a dress collection with “ancient” ornamentation.As soon as the treasures of the Platar collection became known to the wider public, archeologists began to protest that the objects were the result of black archeology. The annoyed Platonov challenged a journalist, “Show me a comparable collection created with ‘white archeology.’”Viktor Klochko, an archeologist at Gdansk University in Poland and deputy director of the Institute of Cultural Research of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Ukraine, says that legitimate research of archeological sites has been almost completely replaced by looting. “Collectors are taking an active part in it,” he says. “At the same time, they say that they are saving the national heritage. They are proud of this and are appointed as advisers to the president. But this isn’t permissible. People in the West look at us as if we had just lost our tails yesterday.”The founders of the Platar collection have stated repeatedly that had it not been for them, the objects discovered by looters would have been smuggled abroad. There are many rich collectors of archeological artifacts right across the border in Russia—among them, the pharmaceuticals czar Vladimir Bryntsalov (whose company has been accused of making counterfeit drugs) and the flamboyant nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky.According to Klochko, the Platar collection sums up the Ukrainian archeological catastrophe. “The Trypillian part of the Platar collection, which was formed during the past four or five years, is twice to three times the size of the state’s collections, and the same is true of the gold artifacts,” he says.The Ukrainian collectors answer that they are rescuing the artifacts from Zhirinovsky. Polischuk, for example, told the newspaper Kievskie vedomostithat the objects in his museum and in the Platar collection had been saved from export: “If Sergei Platonov and I had not collected them, nobody would ever see them again.” He asserted that the private collections of a number of Russian politicians and oligarchs “are made up of objects smuggled from our territory.”Pillaging is not only widespread in Ukraine, it is considered normal; most people think there is nothing wrong with it. The position of state officials can be summed up by a statement by Les Taniuk, head of the Parliamentary Committee on Culture and Spirituality. When Kievskie vedomostiasked him about private archeological collections, he replied, “There is no country where any museum was ever created by the state. They were all created because of the efforts of businessmen and private collectors.”Indeed, exhibitions of Ukraine’s archeological treasures are rarely organized by government institutes; they are increasingly being assembled by private collectors who feel no need to hide their possessions.Private collectors, led by Serhiy Platonov, were behind Yushchenko’s proposal to establish a new museum in Kiev called the Art Arsenal. Very early in his presidency, Yushchenko declared his intention to create a museum in the Ukrainian capital that would not only equal the Hermitage and the Louvre but be part of what would be the greatest cultural complex in Europe, with museums, exhibition halls, cinemas, auditoriums, and art schools. According to Yushchenko, this complex will celebrate Ukrainian national identity (whatever he means by that). The main attraction will be Trypillian culture: the Art Arsenal will display artifacts from the Museum of Archeology in Kiev that are now in storage because of a lack of exhibition space.During the Orange Revolution of 2004 that propelled Yushchenko to power, he alluded at times to the glories of the Ukrainian past. Addressing a political rally in Kiev’s Independence Square, for example, he stated that writing was developed in Ukraine 8,000 years ago—not, as most archeologists believe, in Mesopotamia around 3500 B.C. In his inauguration speech, he declared that Ukraine was also the cradle of agriculture and modern democracy.The creators of civilization, according to the president, were the Trypillians, a late-neolithic people (named after the modern village near where the first site was discovered in 1897), who flourished from the sixth through the third millennium B.C. in the Dniester-Dnieper region of modern-day Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine. The Trypillians (known in Romania as the Cucuteni) were an agricultural people who lived in large settlements and made decorated pottery, but there is no evidence that they had a writing system.In his research into the ancestral roots of modern Ukrainians, the president was guided by a self-proclaimed academician named Yuri Shilov, who calls himself a member of the “Ukrainian academy of original ideas.” He is the author of a series of books that present an alternate vision of prehistory, according to which the territory of present-day Ukraine was the site of the world’s first great state. Called Aratta, it was, according to Shilov, the ancestral home of the Sumerians. Shilov believes that the so-called Stone Grave, or Stone Barrow, an ancient rock formation near the city of Melitopol in south-central Ukraine, confirms his theory about the direct connection between Trypillians and Sumerians.The Stone Grave, discovered in the 1820s, contains caves and grottoes with petroglyphs of animals and other motifs. Shilov is convinced that these glyphs constitute a primitive script; on the basis of this conviction, he declared that the world’s first writing system was developed in the lower Dnieper basin at least two millennia before the Sumerians invented cuneiform.The Russian linguist Anatoly Kifishyn claimed to have deciphered the mysterious script and confirmed Shilov’s discovery. Kifishyn’s findings were published in Ukraine with the financial support of Shilov, Polischuk, and Mykola Senchenko, director of the Book Chamber of Ukraine, a state organization that supports publishing. Senchenko is well known for his numerous nationalistic, anti-Semitic publications.Kifishyn, 63, is a hardy character who lived for a period in a shelter he fashioned from tree branches in a village near Moscow while he spent his days doing research in the Lenin Library. His 850-page volume is his first published book. According to the biographical note, he has always been obsessed with arcane subjects that are ignored by “normal researchers” and as a result has been persecuted by other scholars. Until the 1990s virtually the only venue that would publish his writings was a magazine called Useful Technology.Professional archeologists believe that the Stone Grave glyphs have nothing to do with any script. Kifishyn, however, concluded his book with an even more astonishing statement. He asserted that the linear markings painted with red ochre on mammoth bones, which have been found at several Paleolithic sites in Ukraine, are also primitive texts. Thus he has extended the history of writing back 44,000 years.Historians have dismissed Kifishyn’s theory as nonsense, but a number of nationalistic politicians who are happy to consider themselves descendants of proto-Sumerians have treated his book very seriously. It was formally presented in Parliament. Kiev’s then mayor, Oleksandr Omelchenko, bestowed the city’s highest honors on the author, and a group of Ukrainian writers petitioned the Nobel Committee in Stockholm to nominate Kifishyn for the Nobel Prize. The proto-Sumerian migration from Ukraine to Mesopotamia even made its way into a textbook.Yushchenko also made a contribution. A museum was constructed at Stone Grave with funds provided by a local company. The president himself opened the museum in October 2005, a much-publicized event that was described on Yushchenko’s official Web site as one of his first “steps toward the people.”This high-level attention paid to the subject of the extremely distant past provoked a veritable frenzy of well-publicized archeological discoveries that supported Ukraine’s claim to be the cradle of civilization. Thus there were reports on a burial site of “pure Ukrainians” unearthed in Kiev; on the remains of a Varangian (Norse) warrior found near the city of Chernigov, described as evidence of “Ukraine’s European past”; on the alleged invention of hamburgers by the Scythians; on Polischuk’s museum as proof that Ukraine was the birthplace of the “white race”; on the settlement of Kharkov 6,000 years ago (the city was founded in the 17th century); and many other interesting facts. All of these reports appeared in a single month, reflecting the intensity of the mythmaking.But the most fascinating was the discovery of “pre-Egyptian pyramids” near the city of Lugansk in southeastern Ukraine, hailed as the greatest find in recent history. The truth is that although the site is an important one, there are no pyramids, according to Klochko, who led the excavation. “We don’t have pyramids in Ukraine,” he says.Recently, objects from Ukrainian private collections have appeared in international exhibitions, including Japan’s EXPO 2005. Later that year the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization hosted “Ukraine to the World,” a show dedicated to Trypillian civilization, at its Paris headquarters. The president and his wife, along with Taruta and Mykola Platonov, were present at the opening. Illegally excavated Trypillian objects formed the core of both shows, prompting one archeologist to comment that the Ukrainian state was being represented by antiquities that had been stolen from the state.Klochko, for his part, was even more severe in his judgment of the Trypillian vogue among Ukrainian politicians and billionaires. Speaking of the UNESCO exhibition, he told Kievskie vedomosti that it was absurd to believe that contemporary Ukrainians were the direct successors of the most ancient agrarian culture and that it was disgraceful to exhibit objects of criminal origin.“Any other country would be ashamed that its monuments of antiquity are destroyed and that private collections grow on their ruins, when scholarship is not developing and state museums are not enriched,” Klochko said.Olena Rusina is a senior research associate at the Institute of Ukrainian History of the National Academy of Science of Ukraine.