Chersonesus: nationalist state annexation and internationalist professional resistance

[I am still on jury service. I wrote this on the weekend.]

Having annexed Crimea territorially on the 18th of March 2014 (a month after which, the Ukraine-licensed archaeologists at Chersonesus were attacked by gunmen), the Russian state redoubled its efforts to annex Crimea culturally. On the 4th of December 2014, President Vladmimir Putin repeated an age-old Russian nationalist historical narrative and insisted that it was ‘in Crimea, in ancient Chersonesus, or Korsun as the Russian chroniclers called it, that Prince Vladimir took baptism, before he baptized all of Rus’‘.

On the 29th of July 2015, former Russian Black Sea Fleet commander and present Sevastopol city governor Sergei Menyailo replaced Chersonesus museum director Andrei Kulagin with the Dean of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Vladimir in Chersonesus, Archpriest Sergei Khalyuta, in order to make the place a site of ‘worship and pilgrimage‘ (as well as a site of cultural heritage), to establish ‘a Russian Athos on Crimean soil‘.

Sevastopol Chersonesus Basilica (c) Alexxx1979, Wikipedia, 7th May 2012

Sevastopol Chersonesus Basilica
(c) Alexxx1979, Wikipedia, 7th May 2012

Governor Menyailo was apparently supported by the Russian Ministry of Culture and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill Gundyaev of Moscow and All Russia. He was certainly opposed by the workers of the National Preserve of Tauric Chersonesos, who refused to work under Archpriest Khalyuta.

But Menyailo was also opposed by, amongst others, the Russian Ministry of Education and Science, Russia’s State Hermitage Museum Director Mikhail Piotrovsky, who condemned the act as a ‘provocation, which may cause serious [professional disruption,] social problems and international tension’, and the Hermitage’s chief conservator Svetlana Adaksina, who feared the appointment might be ‘a real catastrophe for the reserve’.

Menyailo was even opposed by Sevastopol’s secessionist former “mayor”, Russian citizen Aleksei Chaliy, who had himself guaranteed the employment of the former regime‘s disgraced and disbanded Berkut riot police in Sevastopol and co-signed Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol.

Then, Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky declared that Sevastopol governor Menyailo had deceived Chersonesus Museum workers, denying that he had supported the installation of Chersonesus Archpriest Khalyuta; the Secretary of the Patriarchal Council for Culture, Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, denied that the Patriarchate had participated in the appointment process; and Patriarch Kirill Gundyaev said that it was the local authorities’ decision.

Russia blocked Sevastopol city control, listed the site in Russia’s Unified State Register of cultural property, and imposed Russian federal control, through a “development council” of Russian cultural heritage workers, Crimean cultural heritage workers and Sevastopol administrators, including Archpriest Khalyuta.

Journalist Leonid Karpenko, who summarised the (ethno-religious) political struggles over archaeological work on the site, contemplated: ‘Maybe, from the very beginning, it was a special operation to quietly transfer Chersonesus, a Ukrainian heritage site, under the Kremlin’s jurisdiction.’

After all, the Russian Presidential Adviser on Culture, Vladimir Tolstoy, said that the administrative annexation had been ordered last year, simply not implemented. Karpenko anticipated a further act of “lawfare” where, duly provoked, UNESCO would delist the World Heritage site, which is listed as a site in Ukraine, then Russia would be able to assimilate it culturally as well as territorially.

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