Recently in the subway and on citylight boxes in Kyiv one can see adverts of a website called Violity. Banners showing Ukrainian coins of the early 1990s, Soviet-time toys etc. urge to join the community of antiquity lovers. On August 23, the Ministry of Culture decided to look into the activities of this web resource. The ministry asked the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) to check “the legality of operations with cultural values and react accordingly in order to prevent illegal circulation of objects constituting archeological heritage” on the website of Violity, an auction for collectors.
This situation could be described as unprecedented. Conservators of historical monuments have been asking the authorities for years to check the activities of the auction openly selling artifacts from plundered archeological sites (The Day wrote about the situation in its article “There are archeologists and there are plunderers,” issue No. 20 of March 23, 2017). Now the Ministry of Culture is doing it publicly, one of the grounds being information about the “Viking sword,” which appeared on Violity. The sword was subsequently smuggled via Belarus into Russia, where the dealers tried to sell it to a European collector. The artifact was retrieved, but this is one of the singular successes. Ukraine has already lost or is about to lose a lot of treasures.
In 2016 the sword in question was rescued largely due to the efforts made by Dmytro TYMCHUK, MP and coordinator of Information Resistance (InfoResist). Tymchuk, a renowned expert in security and defense, often comments related topics, especially to The Day. This time around we interviewed Tymchuk about the context of the story of the Viking sword, about the place of cultural heritage in the information confrontation with Russia, and about how Ukraine can protect this heritage.
“UKRAINE’S SYSTEM OF MONUMENT CONSERVATION IS VIRTUALLY DESTROYED”
Why did you choose to interfere in the situation with the Viking sword? It was not directly involved with your specialization, i.e. defense and security.
“Information is a component which has a huge role in contemporary war. A powerful information aggression is one of the ingredients of hybrid war waged by Russia against Ukraine.
“How does the Kremlin act? It does not pursue matters of secondary importance; instead it attacks core things. For years on end Moscow has been imposing an idea that Ukrainian statehood is but an accident and Ukraine itself is nothing but fiction. Suffice it to remember Putin’s recent attempts to ‘appropriate’ Kyivan Princess Anna Yaroslavna. A leader of a major power tells another world leader about thousand-year-old history. What for? Didn’t the two have any other topics to discuss?
“Russia is trying to deny that Ukraine has its own history and language and that Ukraine can even exist apart from Russia. This is one of the policies which is meant to convince the world that the events in Ukraine are nothing other but purely domestic Russian issues, not worthy general attention.
“Another policy is using every opportunity to emphasize that Ukraine is a failed state, that we are not capable of anything at all, and our fate must be decided without us.
“When early in March 2016 archeologist Maksym Levada told me the story of the sword (which had been detained by Estonian customs officers and which had come from Ukraine), me and my team decided to act. We realized how this story would be used in Russian propagandists’ information warfare.
“You will remember that it was the time when returning to Ukraine of the ‘Scythian gold,’ which was exhibited in the Netherlands when Crimea was annexed, was considered. Meanwhile, the long lasting battle for lifting the visa regime was still going on. If Russians had got the sword, they could have put up an entire circus show, arguing that Ukraine has no control of its borders and cannot be trusted with valuables. Moreover, they could even have offered to return the sword to Ukraine. Can you imagine the shame? And what would the government have to do then? Refuse, or accept and thank Russia for help? The Kremlin would have won a heap of bonuses out of nothing.
“That is why I asked the SBU, Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Culture to take steps to return the sword. Thanks to support from my colleagues from the President’s Administration, the issue received due attention, and Estonian diplomats acted very promptly and professionally.
“Importantly, we were constantly in touch with the Security Service. Their experts not only detained the person who had found and sold the sword, but also uncovered an international smuggling route. As a result, we showed that Ukraine is prepared to defend its own interests.”
The story with the returned Viking sword is rather an exception than the rule. Why do you think the plundering of valuables (and often their subsequent smuggling abroad) by the so-called black archeologists has become so widespread in Ukraine? What should be the first step in countering this marauding?
“This situation is the result of Ukraine’s virtually demolished system of monument preservation. Meanwhile, the idea of getting rich here and now is very popular in society. People just will not think about consequences.
“It is not only the question of diggers, but also officials who allot archeological sites or sanction the demolition of a historical building. As a result it looks as if monument conservation is something ethereal and such crimes will never be penalized.
“After the episode with the sword I wondered how many persons have been made answerable for destruction of monuments in Ukraine. Send a formal inquiry to the law-enforcement agencies, and you will be surprised. In fact, there are no punishments because there is no response from the authorities which in principle should be busy with the conservation of monuments. From a formal point of view, there is no problem with destruction and plundering of monuments in Ukraine, it is just a figment of your imagination!
“The first step should be the restoration of the monument conservation system on the local level. Now, in the course of decentralization, this issue will even aggravate since no one will know who is responsible and for what in that sphere.
“Speaking of concrete steps, it is the highest time to regulate the use of metal detectors. We are the only country with a total chaos in this question. All our neighbors have long solved this issue; that is why anyone who wants may come and plunder sites in Ukraine.”
“WE ARE NOT AFTER ARCHEOLOGISTS. WE ARE AFTER RUSSIAN OCCUPIERS ENTRENCHED IN THE KREMLIN”
This year you caused a lot of publicity with a Facebook post about the intention of the attorney’s office of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, now based in Kyiv, to start criminal proceedings against Russian archeologists who are conducting excavations on the peninsula. Why is this step important? How should this issue be presented internationally?
“We need to do everything to make the price for occupying Crimea unacceptable for Russia. The Kremlin is trying its best to pretend Crimea is purely a domestic issue, and thus undermine the sanctions regime. It is continually setting smoke screens designed to induce the world to accept the occupation and recognize Crimea as Russia’s territory. That is why we have to systematically counter such attempts and ensure inevitable punishment for anyone trying to legitimize the occupation, be it in business or everyday life or any other level.
“It has now become normal that persons who violated the procedure of traveling to Crimea are banned from entering Ukraine elsewhere. Recently there has been a scandal involving Siemens supplying turbines for thermal power stations in Simferopol and Sevastopol. Such control should spread in all directions.
“We have to make it clear that it is not a matter of persecuting archeologists. We are after Russian occupiers entrenched in the Kremlin. It is their fault that Russians suffer.
“Some scholars who now risk international sanctions had worked in Crimea for many years, until 2014 they did it together with their Ukrainian and international colleagues. Yet after the annexation of Crimea their activity became illegal, according to international conventions and Ukrainian law. They may not conduct any research in Crimea, let alone export the found artifacts to Russia.
“The Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Culture must gather this information and discuss it internationally. Everyone in Russia must know that the time to pay for the occupation will come. Maybe not today and not tomorrow, but it will surely come.”
One of the recent examples of Russia feeling at home in Crimea, also mentioned by you, is the exposition at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow of exhibits from the Eastern Crimean History and Culture Preserve Museum in Kerch. What can Ukrainian government do in such cases of blatant crime?
“Record the evidence, start criminal proceedings, and inform its international partners. After my publication, the Ministry of Culture made an official statement concerning that exhibition. Official mechanisms must be activated. They are slow, but they must be inescapable. When Russians are denied entry to civilized countries, when they lose international projects, the number of those willing to help the occupiers will shrink.”
Does the problem of museums in occupied territories receive any attention at the parliament? What kind of strategy should be adopted in this respect?
“First and foremost, it is up to my colleagues from the Verkhovna Rada Committee on Culture and Spiritual Affairs. But in any case it must be part of a general strategy of de-occupation of Crimea. Recently a new head of the President’s Office in the ARC was appointed, and my colleagues from the Ministry of Temporarily Occupied Territories and IDPs, too, have booked certain results. I hope that this work will be galvanized. My group, Information Resistance, is prepared to join in.”
“HISTORICAL ENLIGHTENING MUST BE PROMOTED TO THE RANK OF CONSISTENT GOVERNMENT POLICY”
Russia is trying to appropriate Ukraine’s history, the monument to Prince Volodymyr in Moscow being a vivid example. You can defend something if you understand what exactly you are defending. How do you think the attitude of Ukrainians towards their own history is changing in this context? What should we do to consolidate our defenses in this respect?
“Sociological data and InfoResist’s observations suggest that the attitude is changing, albeit very slowly. We need to systematically engage in historical enlightenment. I would like to give an example.
“InfoResist is holding the next stage of its ‘Book Invasion’ action. Last year we handed over modern books on the Holodomor of the 1932-33 to all raion libraries of Kharkiv and Luhansk oblasts.
“Now we are handing over 500 sets of books on military historical topics (ranging from antiquity to the defense of Airport Donetsk) to the libraries of nine southern and eastern oblasts, from Sumy to Odesa. At the same time, public presentations on history will be organized. This is an unprecedented action. All raion libraries in nine oblasts will receive modern books, tens of thousands of people in the most vulnerable to Russian propaganda regions will be able to read them and change their view on current events.
“When people know their history, no one can ever steal it. It will be no longer possible to fool people with tales of some ‘civil war in Donbas’ and ‘friendly Russia.’ As a result, it will be impossible to create an unstable situation in the regions while speculating on historical issues. The agents of Russian influence will find it harder to operate. This is a direct contribution to defense.
“I know that Den/The Day is doing very much for historical enlightening, and that there are interested civic initiatives. Yet this must be promoted to the rank of consistent government policy.
“We must start with supporting science, museums, archives, and create a relevant base. There is no need to invent a bicycle, we can use the other nations’ expertise. A system of state-funded grants for scholars and journalists who popularize history would help create an information flow and awaken interest in society.
“Even last year I emphasized the urgency of creating a regional network of the National Remembrance Institute. It is not really efficient to solve issues in Kharkiv or Odessa from Kyiv. We have to operate locally and take regional peculiarities into account. Analytical materials of InfoResist’s regional network support this thesis. However, this idea has been blocked by the Finance Ministry and a discussion is still going on.
“I am well aware of the scarcity of resources. Yet if we want to win the war with Russia, we need to win it in the minds of our citizens. Otherwise, our troops will have to pay with their blood.”