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KYIV, Ukraine – The theft began when a mysterious man in a white lab coat appeared at the museum.

A group of Russian soldiers stood behind him, with guns, watching eagerly.

Using long tweezers and special gloves, the man in the white coat carefully removed many exceptional gold artifacts more than 2,300 years old from cardboard boxes in the cellar of a museum in Melitopol, a town to the north. south on Russian-occupied territory, Ukrainian officials said. The gold items date back to the Scythian empire and date back to the fourth century BC.

Then the mysterious specialist, the Russian soldiers and the gold disappeared.

“The Orcs have held our Scythian gold,” announced the mayor of Melitopol, Ivan Fyodorov, used a derogatory term for many Ukrainians for Russian soldiers. “This is one of the largest and most expensive collections in Ukraine, and today we don’t know where they got it.”

This is hardly the first attack on Ukrainian culture since the war began.

In MariupolOfficials say Russian agents broke into an art museum and stole masterpiece paintings, a famous sculpture and several prized Christian icons for weeks.

Across Ukraine, officials say, dozens of Orthodox churches, national monuments and cultural heritage have been destroyed. In a town near Kyiv, Borodianka, Russian soldiers shot a bust of a famous Ukrainian poet in the head.

On Saturday, Ukrainian officials said more than 250 cultural facilities were damaged or destroyed.

But perhaps no culture theft is as brazen as what happened in Melitopol just a few days ago.

According to Leila Ibrahimova, director of the Melitopol Museum of Local History, the trouble started in late February, when Russian forces shelled the airport and captured the city. Soldiers went on a rampage, smashing supermarkets, shops and private homes.

Most of the city’s residents hide inside their homes. But some museum staff, including Ms. Ibrahimova, have returned to the museum.

It’s an elegant three-story, stone building in the quaint part of town that houses 50,000 exhibits, from Soviet-era medals to old battle axes. But its prized collection is a collection of rare gold jewelry from the Scythiansa nomadic people who founded a rich, powerful empire, centered on the Crimean Peninsula, which lasted from about the eighth century BC to the second century AD.

It was Scythian gold that Mrs. Ibrahimova was most worried about.

She and other employees secretly hid it and a number of other historical artifacts in cardboard boxes, stashing the boxes in a sunken cellar where they didn’t think anyone would find it.

“We know that any second someone can enter a museum with a weapon,” she said. So they worked quickly, she said, because “the collection is priceless.”

In mid-March, Ms. Ibrahimova said Russian troops stormed her home with assault rifles, threw a black hood over her head and kidnapped her. After hours of intense interrogation, they let her go. Two weeks later, it left Melitopol for an area not under Russian control.

But on Wednesday, she received a call from a caretaker at the museum. The caregiver said Russian soldiers, along with intelligence officers and a Russian-speaking man in a white lab coat, came to her home in the morning and ordered her to come with them. to the museum.

They ordered her to take them to the Scythian vault of gold.

Ms. Ibrahimova said. But the man in the white coat found the boxes with the help of Ukrainian Evgeny Gorlachev, who was appointed by the Russian military as the museum’s new director, she said. A Russian crew filmed part of the heist.

“We hid everything but somehow they found it,” she said.

What was stolen: at least 198 gold items, including ornaments in the form of flowers; gold disc; rare old weapons; 300 year old silver coin; and special medals. She said many gold artifacts were given to the Scythians by the Greeks.

In an interview on Russian television, Mr. Gorlachev said the gold artifacts “have great cultural value for the whole of the former Soviet Union” and that the museum’s former curators had “cost a lot of money.” effort and energy” to hide them.

“For what purpose, no one knows,” he said. “But thanks to these people and the operational work done, the inhabitants of the city of Melitopol – and not just Melitopol – will be able to observe again a large collection of Scythian gold.” He did not say when or where the artifacts would be displayed.

Ms. Ibrahimova, who spoke on the phone, seemed frustrated when talking about the Russian invaders.

“Perhaps culture is their enemy,” she said. “They say that Ukraine has no state, no history. They just want to destroy our country. I hope they won’t succeed.”

Scythian gold has great symbolic value in Ukraine. Other collections of artifacts were kept in vaults in the capital Kyiv before the war broke out. But Ms. Ibrahimova said events happened so quickly that her museum could not complete their collection.

For many years now, Ukraine has been locked down in a complicated dispute with Russia about the Scythian gold collections that several museums in Crimea had lent to a museum in Amsterdam. After Russia occupied Crimea in 2014, Ukraine begged the Amsterdam museum not to return the gold. Russia asked the museum to do it. A court ruled in favor of Ukraine and the gold remained in Amsterdam.

But historians say the looting of artifacts in Melitopol is an even more serious attempt to appropriate, and possibly destroy, Ukraine’s cultural heritage.

“The Russians are waging war without rules,” said Oleksandr Symonenko, a member of the Ukrainian Institute of Archeology and a Scythian expert. “This is not a war. It is destroying our lives, our nature, our culture, our industry, everything. This is a crime”.

The caretaker who refused to help the Russian was released on Wednesday after the gold was stolen. But on Friday, she was taken from her home again with a gun, Ms. Ibrahimova said, shortly after the mayor, who also lives in exile, announced the burglary.

She hasn’t been heard from since.

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