Updated May 1, 2022 - World

Russian forces looted thousands of artifacts, Ukrainian officials say

 Scythian gold sword and scabbard in Melitupol, Ukraine.
Scythian gold sword and scabbard originating from Bolschaja Beloserka, Zaporizhzhia, at the Museum of Historic Treasures of Ukraine in Kyiv. Photo: History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Ukrainian officials said Saturday that over 250 cultural institutions have been "damaged or destroyed" and thousands of artifacts looted since Russia launched its invasion on Feb. 24, per the New York Times.

The big picture: Among the items Putin's forces are accused of stealing are ancient Scythian gold objects from "one of the largest and most expensive collections in Ukraine," in the Russian-occupied Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia, said the southeastern city's mayor, Ivan Fedorov.

  • The Scythian empire gold dated from the 4 century B.C. and was extracted by a man in a white coat with "long tweezers and special gloves," who raided boxes stored in the cellar of a Melitopol museum, accompanied by a squad of armed Russian soldiers, the NYT reports.

Meanwhile, Mariupol City Council officials announced via Telegram this week that Russian forces had stolen "more than 2,000 unique exhibits" from the besieged port city's museums — including medals, "a unique handwritten Torah scroll" and the "Gospel of 1811 made by the Venetian printing house for the Greeks of Mariupol."

  • "Mariupol City Council is preparing materials for law enforcement agencies to initiate criminal proceedings and appeal to Interpol," per the post.

Why it matters: Scythian gold is of huge symbolic value in Ukraine, and Oleksandr Symonenko, a fellow of Ukraine’s Archaeology Institute, told the NYT that Russian forces were "making a war without rules" and "destroying our life, our nature, our culture, our industry, everything."

  • "This a crime," Symonenko added.

Context: The Scythians were a nomadic group that occupied an area from north of the Black Sea to China, whose culture "flourished on the steppes from about 800 B.C. to about A.D. 300," Stanford University historian Adrienne Mayor told Live Science this year.

Flashback: After the Kremlin tried to obtain a collection of ancient artifacts that were loaned from Crimea to a museum in Amsterdam just before Russian forces seized the region in 2014, an appeals court in the Netherlands ruled last October that Ukraine was the legal owner.

  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted at the time that the ruling marked a "long-awaited victory," adding: "After the 'Scythian gold,' we'll [get back] Crimea," according to a Radio Free Europe translation.

Go deeper: Dashboard: Russian invasion of Ukraine

Editor's note: This article has been updated with further context.

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