antiquities trafficking and espionage in the Cold War and the New Cold War

State financing and assassination in the Cold War

As I noted on my doctoral research blog on Cultural Heritage in Conflict (and as Peter Campbell found elsewhere), there is secure evidence of conflict antiquities trafficking by Communist Bulgaria (the People’s Republic of Bulgaria) during the Cold War. There is also secure evidence of connections between state criminals who trafficked arms from Bulgaria and deep state criminals who trafficked drugs (heroin) from Turkey, at a time when drug traffickers from Turkey also trafficked antiquities.

Indeed, ten years ago, Darik Bogdana Lazarova and Nikolay Hristov wrote a book about the Affair [Afera] – state crime – that was published in Bulgarian by Univerzitetsko Izdatelstvo “Sveti Kliment Ohridski” in Sofia. Coverage of conflict antiquities trafficking was translated into English by Maria Guineva and published in nine instalments over five months by Novinite. That book hinted at the responsibility (and intrigue around responsibility) for the assassination of dissident journalist Georgi Markov.

Investigative journalist Hristo Hristov has published books on the Double Life of Agent Piccadilly, who carried out the order to Kill the Wanderer (Markov) in the United Kingdom. As part of this research, Hristov has shared information on the life of the victim, the development of the murder case and the evidence in the Piccadilly File. His evidence suggests that the assassin was drugs smuggler and antiquities dealer Francesco Gullino, who had been pressganged into service as a spy in 1970, when he was caught smuggling drugs outside the official structures for state crime.

Piecing together evidence that is still emerging, it is possible to document cultural heritage propaganda and conflict antiquities trafficking by (willing or unwilling) agents of Putinist Russia in the Eastern European crisis. Economist journalist Edward Lucas has characterised the broader confrontation as the New Cold War, while others have used Cold War 2.0, Cold War II or the Second Cold War.

Internet propaganda and cultural heritage propaganda in Russia’s wars outside Eastern Europe

It should be noted that this activity is not restricted to the Eastern European crisis. As I discuss (as part of a hypothesis about evidence that is difficult to interpret) in a forthcoming [published] article on online antiquities trafficking, Russia’s government, allied businesses, allied movements and even allied states are deploying a ‘troll army’ to advance pro-Kremlin positions and arguments in the United States and elsewhere around the world. According to open-source intelligence analyst Matt Kodama @mhkodama, pro-Assad regime documentation is produced by Russian state-backed media channels, then spread by Syrian social media accounts.

As I discuss in a forthcoming chapter on religious and political motivations for iconoclasm, when Assad regime forces and Russian armed forces temporarily dislodged the Islamic State from Palmyra, Russia’s Mariinsky Theatre Symphony Orchestra performed a victory concert in the Roman theatre, which the Islamic State had previously used as a stage for mass executions of enemy soldiers.

Russia sought the restitution of “Christian principles” (according to its foreign ministry commissioner for human rights, democracy and the rule of law, Konstantin Dolgov), the ‘revival of Palmyra as cultural heritage of humanity’ and the imprinting of the memory of the ‘rescue of modern civilization’ by the Assad regime and the Russian Federation (according to its president, Vladimir Putin), rather than, for instance, the memory of the Russian Federation-assisted Assad regime’s notorious torture dungeon in the neighbouring modern city, Tadmor prison.

Fake news in Russia’s war on Ukraine

As documented by StopFake, Russia is investing in multilingual fake news, including fake news about illicit transfer of cultural assets by Ukraine. For instance, the Eurasian Youth Movement is a Russia-funded organisation that mobilises youths against post-Soviet countries’ attempts to escape Russia’s self-claimed sphere of influence, which has specifically targeted Ukraine; the Lev Gumilev Centre is a Eurasianist propaganda outlet, which has notably targeted Georgia.

Publicising baseless insinuations under the pretence of journalism, Life News and Sputnik News “reported” that the former leader of the Eurasian Youth Movement, then director of the Lev Gumilev Centre, Pavel Zarifullin, had ‘circulated’ claims on ‘social networks’ that Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk had ‘secretly’ exported twenty billion dollars’ worth of Scythian gold artefacts from Ukraine to the United States, which ‘might’ have been ‘guarantees’ for a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Bot nets in the New Cold War

Russia is using numerous bot networks as well as its notorious troll army to spread fake news. This is part of a complex system of humans and machines, where the actors sometimes perform roles that theoretically undermine the roles of other actors, because Russia benefits, whether its targets believe the propaganda or disbelieve any report.

To give an idea of the scale of this component of the operation(s), social network analyst Lawrence Alexander alone has identified networks of tens of thousands of bots that crowd out dissenting opinion on Twitter and use techniques of search engine optimisation (SEO, exploiting systems for rankings of results) to crowd out contrary sources on the web; thousands of trolls who blog conformist narratives on LiveJournal; and hundreds of bots that increase the apparent popularity of conformist accounts on Twitter.

Those accounts push the narratives of, amongst others, Life News and RIA Novosti, the same agencies that spread cultural heritage propaganda in relation to Ukraine.

Smuggler-spies in the New Cold War

As documented by Holger Roonemaa in an investigation by BuzzFeed News and Re:Baltica, Russia may not have been making ‘any effort… to stop and catch smugglers… for years’, but it has been making an effort to monitor and control smugglers; it has been pressganging smugglers into service as spies.

Specifically, Russia’s FSB is identifying smugglers ‘of anything from people to cigarettes’, then trying to force those smugglers to spy in the territories that it is trying to destabilise.

Based on information from the Estonian Internal Security Service (KAPO), Police and Border Guard Board, and Tax and Customs Board, smugglers are being made offers they can’t refuse: either get put in prison by Russia or get given protection by Russia, plus a subsidy.

One of the smuggler-spies, Pavel Romanov, had been an agent of the FSB for twenty years, from his recruitment by Russia as a car smuggler in Chechnya until his arrest by Estonia as a cigarette smuggler. (As well as the professional intelligence that they gather anyway, in the course of their illicit business…) Such agents are gathering political intelligence on security structures, military deployments, security activities and relevant officials.

Illicit traffickers of cultural objects are being pressganged in the New Cold War

When I read the report on Estonian-Russian smuggler-spies, which only specified cigarette smugglers, vehicle smugglers and people smugglers, I shared it with a query: ‘Smugglers, caught by Russia, spy on Estonia @holger_r. I wonder how many antiquities smugglers have been turned.’

Roonemaa was kind enough to provide more information: ‘I wrote about one a couple of months back [Denis Poljakov] who said he had been approached. He was [im]prisoned in RU [Russia] for smuggling antique books out of country.’ So, like smugglers of other commodities, Russia’s FSB is trying to force smugglers of cultural objects to be spies.

As documented in the original report, the smugglers work on contracts of ‘cooperation with the FSB’. So, the FSB enables and subsidises the smugglers and the smuggling enables and subsidises the spying, in pursuit of destabilisation, invasion, occupation and annexation. This is conflict antiquities trafficking.

Cultural property law enforcement and law enforcement propaganda in Russia’s war on Ukraine

Cultural property law enforcement in Russia’s war on Ukraine

Russia’s intelligence-driven border management for Estonia, then, casts significant light on its intensified border management for Ukraine. Russia is investing in policing/customs activity against the smuggling of antiquities from the occupied territories. It is also investing in propaganda to demonstrate that the ‘FSB [is acting] against “black archaeologists” [ФСБ против “черных археологов”]’.

For example, a cultural heritage institution in the occupied territories exhibited millions of dollars’ worth of looted antiquities from Crimea. They had been ‘seized by the FSB [Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation] from “black archaeologists” in the past three years [изъятых сотрудниками ФСБ у “черных археологов” за последние три года]’ – in other words, since the territory’s invasion, occupation and annexation by the Russian Federation.

Law enforcement propaganda in Russia’s war on Ukraine

First, this evidence was exhibited by the Central Museum of Tavrida, which gave the impression that the propaganda was a Ukrainian academic assessment of Russian policing/customs controls. Then, the content of this museum education programme was spread by RIA Novosti.

This exhibition was presented in relation to another cultural property case, where Ukraine had secured its ownership of cultural objects from Crimea. They were temporarily being displayed abroad, in an exhibition on the Crimea: Gold and Secrets of the Black Sea at the Allard Pierson Museum of the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, when Russia occupied the territory where most of the objects had been (and, hopefully, will again be) permanently curated.

The Dutch museum refrained from action until a court had adjudicated on the rightful recipient. Then, Ukraine received the objects, so that they could be kept under its control temporarily and returned to Crimea upon its liberation, rather than immediately returned to Crimea then potentially expropriated by Russia. (The Russia-occupied Crimean museum’s claim was controversial among cultural heritage professionals in Russia as well as Ukraine.)

Demonstrating that the general public was the target audience of the propaganda, RIA Novosti spread the occupied museum’s narrative that Ukraine had deprived Crimea of its cultural assets and Russia had compensated it. The looted antiquities were ‘so unique’ that ‘”they largely compensate[d] for the museum’s… loss of the exhibits of the collection” of Scythian gold.

Confirmed propagandists in the New Cold War are suspected traffickers of cultural objects

Roonemaa’s work also shows how other suspect activities can interact and how Russia can protect its agents abroad. For example, after nearly twenty years as a transnational bookseller, when he was returning to Estonia after dealing in Russia, Denis Poljakov was singled out for questioning at the border, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned by Russia for the illegal export of 17 historic artefacts. (During this time, the FSB tried to recruit him as a smuggler-spy.) So, Russia does investigate, prosecute and punish cultural property crime, when it is convenient.

By contrast, Aleksandr Kornilov is a member of the Coordinating Council of Russian Compatriots in Estonia; he is classified as a propagandist by KaPo; and his social network appears to include officials in the Russian government, officials in the occupying authorities in Ukraine, nationalist activists, gang members and anti-Ukraine fighters. Kornilov is the publisher of (Baltija as well as) Baltnews, which coordinates with Sputnik News, according to KaPo, and which is ultimately owned by RIA Novosti, according to another investigation by Re:Baltica.

Kornilov was arrested by Estonia for tax evasion. In searches of his home, police found 114 Orthodox Christian icons (114 õigeusu kiriku ikooni/114 православных икон). Experts concluded that most of the icons ‘seemed to be cultural assets [tunduvad olevat kultuuriväärtused]’ or ‘could be considered [to be] cultural assets [можно считать культурными ценностями]’ from Russia.

When the Prosecutor’s Office and Heritage Board of Estonia asked for advice via the Embassy of Russia, the Charge d’Affaires of Russia to Estonia, Stanislav Makarenko, accepted Kornilov’s explanation that he had bought all of the icons in antique shops in Estonia and Latvia; the Interior Ministry of Russia relayed that there were no records that any of the icons had been stolen; and the Andrei Rublyov Museum concluded that the icons were only worth hundreds or thousands of euros each (which would still imply that they were worth at least tens of thousands of euros altogether, which would have passed the threshold for assessment before export).

At the same time, Makarenko also implicitly recognised that the icons were ‘cultural assets [kultuuriväärtustega/культурную ценность]’ because, if they had been exported recently without ‘special permits [eraldi lubasid/отдельные разрешения]’, the act would have been a ‘crime [kuritegu]’, ‘illegal export [незаконный вывоз]’.

Russia’s Federal Law on the Export and Import of Cultural Assets requires licences for the export of historic artefacts and other cultural objects. In relation to the cases under discussion, its laws explicitly require export licences for printed works, manuscripts and the ‘devotional articles of various religions’ that are more than fifty years old.

As far as I know, the icons are still being held by the police in Estonia. However, if Russia does not support the investigation, it will be difficult or impossible for Estonia to make the case. Probably, then, these assets will be returned to Kornilov.

It is important to bear in mind that Aleksandr Kornilov has not been convicted of any crime, let alone antiquities trafficking. Nevertheless, it has been suggested that Kornilov is protected by his ‘ties/connections [sidemeid/связи]’ with the Russian Embassy to Estonia and the Russian parliament. Furthermore, Kornilov is a confirmed propagandist who spreads disinformation via a platform that is owned by RIA Novosti.

If Kornilov were guilty yet protected, he could be protected by everyday corruption. Nevertheless, considering the evidence that Russia is pressganging smugglers into service as spies, this could be an equivalent system for subsidising (allowing the financing of) the production of propaganda. Highlighting the exceptional usefulness of cultural assets as financial assets in criminal activity, by facilitating (or preventing the prosecution of) trafficking by its agents abroad, Russia would be able to prolong their activities and even preserve the assets that subsidise their activities.


To recap, there is evidence of conflict antiquities trafficking to facilitate espionage in the Cold War; cultural heritage propaganda in the New Cold War; conflict antiquities trafficking in the New Cold War, specifically, pressganged smuggler-spies in Estonia for Russia; and intensified policing of antiquities trafficking out of the occupied territories of Ukraine by Russia, which generates source material for nationalist propaganda, but which also creates opportunities to pressgang those smugglers into service as spies.

There is also at least theoretical evidence that Russia could exploit the rule of law in enemy states and withhold (genuine) cooperation, in order to undermine the investigation and prosecution of its own agents, thereby to protect their operations and assets.


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