May 28 — Why fact-checking matters in wartime

On May 27th, The Guardian published an article by Charlotte Mullins with the lede: Ukraine’s heritage is under direct attack’: why Russia is looting the country’s museums. In it, the author decries the destruction of Ukraine’s cultural property and describes well-known cases of the removal of museum collections.

Ms. Mullins compares these Russian crimes to the looting of art by Napoleon and Hitler — omitting, for some reason, the Soviet removal of entire museum collections from occupied German territories in the aftermath of the Second World War.

She writes that “the latest thefts are in keeping with Putin’s attempts to erase Ukraine’s independent history and promote his own expansionist model of a new Russian empire.”

Some details in the article are surprising. For example, the author repeats information published on Ukrainian news sites about the Russian removal of a “handwritten Torah scroll” from the Mariupol museum. While it’s true that the scroll in question was indeed removed, we might expect that, unlike the Ukrainian journalists who reported its disappearance, the author of A Little History of Art would be aware of the fact that all Torah scrolls are written by hand.

In her article, Ms. Mullins presses hard on the idea that the main Russian goal here is to destroy Ukrainian culture. She goes on to implicate Vladimir Putin’s personal involvement in the development of this diabolical plan. For example, the author writes, “When the paintings that were forcibly removed from Mariupol are also considered, a clear pattern emerges. These works have been chosen to undermine Ukraine’s national identity. Paintings by western European artists have not been targeted, for example. Instead, it is the work of Ukrainian-Russian artists that has been stolen.”

However, the “pattern” mentioned here by Ms. Mullins has a much simpler explanation: there were no paintings by western European artists in the museums of Mariupol.

As a matter of fact, the Russian occupiers took a completely mundane approach to the looting. They simply stole everything that wasn’t bolted to the floor.

Ms. Mullins’ conspiracy theory becomes even more elaborate when she addresses the fate of Scythian gold. She writes, “It is clear that Putin sees the Scythian gold as particularly central to Ukraine’s cultural identity and independence.”

It is true that the Russian Federation made public claims on the Scythian archeological objects in the wake of the annexation of Crimea — objects which, before 2014, Ukraine had sent to an exhibition at the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam. Even so, I’m not aware of any statement by Mr. Putin on the “central role” of Scythians in Ukraine’s cultural identity or independence.

Vladimir Putin is undoubtedly an evil genius; however, the nature of his evil is quite banal. The Russian motivation for taking Scythian gold from the museums of Crimea seems fairly straightforward. It wasn’t the symbolism of the ancient Scythians, but rather the modern status of Crimea that disturbed the Russian president. He saw the annexation of Crimea as the crown jewel of his political legacy. In his view, everything Crimean was fundamentally — and eternally — Russian.

At the time of the legal battle for ownership of the Scythian gold exhibited in Amsterdam, no one in the West seemed to want to notice another Crimean museum drama that was unfolding. In 2016, the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow organized an exhibition dedicated to the 200th anniversary of Ivan Ayvazovsky, the famous 19th-century seascape painter. It seems that Ayvazovsky’s canvases had a certain metaphorical resonance. The popular slogan of the day in Russian propaganda was, “Crimea returns to its native harbor.”

To express this metaphor to the public in the form of an art exhibition, the show at the Tretyakov was meant to include every single work by Ayvazovsky from the museums of the occupied peninsula.

Despite fierce letters of protest sent by Ukrainian officials to various international organizations, including the ICOM (International Committee of Museums), the incident didn’t attract much media attention. It certainly didn’t seem to influence the cozy relationship between the director of the Tretyakov Gallery and directors of museums in Europe.

After developing her arguments regarding the Scythian gold, Ms. Mullins concludes the article with a poetic description of a golden pectoral (a kind of breastplate): “Six winged griffins attack three horses, a personification of evil spirits striking with no mercy. Despite being outnumbered, the horses struggle on, trying to stay on their feet.”

She mentions that the pectoral in question is “the star piece in the Scythian gold collection from Melitopol.”

Unfortunately, the pectoral reproduced in the article and so lovingly described by its author has nothing to do with the collection of the Melitopol museum.

And it wasn’t looted by the Russians.

An archeological expedition unearthed it in 1971 during the excavations of the Tovsta Mohyla, a Scythian burial ground near the city of Pokrov in the Dnipro region, which is about 250 kilometers from Melitopol. The pectoral in question was, always has been, and still is in the collection of the Museum of Historical Treasures of Ukraine in Kyiv.

It comes as something of a surprise that The Guardian, which has generally provided well-balanced daily coverage of the Russian war against Ukraine, saw fit to publish an article like this without proper fact-checking. In any other context, this might simply amount to a series of small oversights. However, in this case, in wartime, with the Russian propaganda machine operating at full volume, these seemingly minor errors could easily add fuel to the fire when it comes to claims of “fake news.”

Recently an exemplary investigation into media coverage of the war, conducted jointly by the Russian and Ukrainian services of the BBC, provoked a predictable response from the propaganda TV channel “Rossia24.”

It should come as no surprise that Moscow accused BBC journalists of manufacturing “fake news,” accusations that were obviously unsubstantiated.

The excesses of the Russian propaganda machine are a given. The goal here is to keep these excesses limited to one side: theirs.