KYIV, Ukraine – The robbery began when a mysterious man in a white coat showed up at the museum.
A squad of Russian soldiers stood behind him, with rifles, watching expectantly.
Using long tweezers and special gloves, the man in the white coat carefully extracted dozens of special gold artifacts over 2,300 years old from cardboard boxes in the basement of a museum in Melitopol, a city in southern Russian-occupied territory, Ukrainian officials said. The gold objects came from the Scythian Empire and dated back to the 4th century BC.
Then the mysterious expert, the Russian soldiers and the gold disappeared.
“The orcs have taken our Scythian gold,” Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fyodorov said, using a pejorative term many Ukrainians reserve for Russian soldiers. “This is one of the largest and most expensive collections in Ukraine, and today we don’t know where they took it.”
This was not the first attack on Ukrainian culture since the start of the war.
In Mariupol, the city that has been hammered for weeks by Russian forces, officials say Russian agents broke into an art museum and stole masterpieces, a famous sculpture and several highly regarded Christian icons.
Across Ukraine, officials said, dozens of Orthodox churches, national monuments and cultural heritage sites were destroyed. In a town near kyiv, Borodianka, Russian soldiers shot the bust of a famous Ukrainian poet in the head.
On Saturday, Ukrainian officials said more than 250 cultural institutions had been damaged or destroyed.
But perhaps no cultural heist has been as brazen as what unfolded in Melitopol just a few days ago.
According to Leila Ibrahimova, director of the local history museum in Melitopol, the unrest began in late February, when Russian forces bombed the airport and took control of the town. The soldiers went on a rampage, smashing through supermarkets, shops and homes.
Most of the townspeople hid inside their homes. But a few museum workers, including Ms. Ibrahimova, have returned to the museum.
It’s an elegant three-story stone building in the Old Town, home to 50,000 exhibits, from Soviet-era medals to old battle axes. But his precious collection was a set of rare gold ornaments of the Scythians, a nomadic people who founded a rich and powerful empire, centered on the Crimean peninsula, which lasted from around the 8th century BC to the 2nd century BC. century AD
It was the Scythian gold that worried Ms. Ibrahimova the most.
She and other staff members secretly hid it and other historical artifacts in cardboard boxes, storing the boxes in a damp cellar where they didn’t think anyone would find them.
“We knew that at any time someone could walk into the museum with a weapon,” she said. So they worked fast, she says, because “the collection is priceless.”
In mid-March, Ms Ibrahimova said Russian troops burst into her home with assault rifles, threw a black balaclava over her head and kidnapped her. After several hours of intense interrogations, they let her go. Two weeks later, she left Melitopol for an area not under Russian control.
But on Wednesday, she received a call from a museum guard. The guard said Russian soldiers, along with intelligence officers and a Russian-speaking man in a white coat, came to her house in the morning and ordered her at gunpoint to accompany them to the museum.
They ordered him to take them to the gold of the Scythians.
The guard refused, Ms Ibrahimova said. But the man in the white coat found the boxes anyway with the help of a Ukrainian, Evgeny Gorlachev, who was appointed by the Russian military as the museum’s new director, she said. A Russian team filmed part of the flight.
“We hid everything, but somehow they found it,” she said.
What was stolen: at least 198 gold objects, including flower-shaped ornaments; gold plates; rare ancient weapons; 300-year-old silver coins; and special medals. She said that many gold objects were given to the Scythians by the Greeks.
In an interview with Russian television, Mr. Gorlachev said that the gold artifacts “have great cultural value for the whole of the former Soviet Union” and that the museum’s former administrators “spent a lot of effort and energy” to hide them.
“For what purpose, no one knows,” he said. “But thanks to these people and the operational work carried out, the inhabitants of the city of Melitopol – and not only Melitopol – will again be able to observe a large collection of Scythian gold.” He did not say when or where the artifacts would be displayed.
Ms Ibrahimova, who was talking on the phone, looked crestfallen as she spoke of the Russian invaders.
“Maybe culture is their enemy,” she said. “They said that Ukraine has no state, no history. They just want to destroy our country. I hope they won’t succeed.
Scythian gold has enormous symbolic value in Ukraine. Other collections of artifacts had been stored in vaults in the capital, kyiv, before the war broke out. But Ms Ibrahimova said events unfolded too quickly for her museum to animate its collection.
For years, Ukraine has been locked in a complicated dispute with Russia over collections of Scythian gold that several museums in Crimea had lent to a museum in Amsterdam. After Russia seized Crimea in 2014, Ukraine pleaded with the Amsterdam museum not to return the gold. Russia demanded that the museum do just that. A court ruled in favor of Ukraine and the gold remains in Amsterdam.
But historians have said the looting of artifacts from Melitopol is an even more blatant attempt to appropriate, and possibly destroy, Ukraine’s cultural heritage.
“The Russians are waging a war without rules,” said Oleksandr Symonenko, a member of the Institute of Archeology of Ukraine and a specialist in Scythia. “It’s not a war. It destroys our life, our nature, our culture, our industry, everything. It’s a crime.”
The goalkeeper who refused to help the Russians was released on Wednesday after the gold was stolen. But on Friday she was again taken from her home at gunpoint, Ms Ibrahimova said, shortly after the mayor, who is also in exile, announced the theft.
She hasn’t heard from her since.