During the invasion of Ukraine, many things have been stolen back across the border to Russia: weapons, vehicles, cash, artworks, consumer items … and, now, the bones of the dead.

In late October, as Ukrainian liberators closed in on the captured Black Sea port of Kherson, one particular long-term resident was sadly unable to cheer the entrance of Kiev’s troops into the city: Prince Grigory Potemkin. Prior to retreating eastwards, Russian special forces descended into a crypt beneath Kherson’s St Catherine’s Cathedral, opened the spartan wooden coffin contained there, and retrieved the bones of Potemkin to spirit across the River Dnipro. Russia made no secret of its grave-robbing. “We transported to the left bank the remains of the holy prince,” boasted Volodymyr Saldo, Kherson’s puppet-governor. Eventually, “All relics will return to their place, because our cause is just,” added Saldo – but did these ambiguous words mean Potemkin’s corpse would one day return to Ukraine, or be reburied in Russia forever?

Leaving home after all these years must have been hard indeed for Prince Potemkin, the eighteenth-century military statesman, national hero (for both Russia and Ukraine) and lover of Catherine the Great. Potemkin persuaded Catherine to allow him to annex the entire Crimea region from its previous Ottoman rulers in 1783, greatly expanding Russian territory. Kherson itself had already been co-founded by the prince and Catherine in 1778, becoming a key maritime trading-post and ship-building center for the Black Sea Fleet, another pet project of Potemkin’s imperial genius. Following the revered statesman’s death in 1791, St Catherine’s became a site of pilgrimage for those who saw his bones as those of a secular saint – until, following the 1917 Revolution, the Bolsheviks blasphemously repackaged the building as a Museum of Atheism.

Another who viewed Potemkin as manna from Heaven was President Vladimir Putin, who directly referenced Potemkin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, when he followed in the prince’s footsteps by seizing the region himself. Expanding this scheme out into Ukraine more widely, Putin then fell foul of a great historical irony. Many other large Ukrainian cities like Mykolaiv were also founded under Potemkin’s gaze, and by subsequently bombarding them into dust Putin only ended up destroying much of what his hero had built. And yet, if Putin could not successfully possess Ukraine’s physical territory, might he instead be able to possess something else instead – its very soul?

Dead Men Talking

You could view the theft of Potemkin’s sacred skeleton as part of a wider propaganda exercise to portray Putin’s war as a just and holy one. To prove God was on their side, in 2020 it was announced an alleged fragment of the True Cross upon which Christ was crucified would be kept aboard the modern-day flagship of Potemkin’s beloved Black Sea fleet, the Moskva missile-cruiser; to prove that He was not on their side, God then later allowed Ukraine to sink it.

Now Potemkin’s corpse is safely back in Russian-held territory, perhaps he will shortly grant Pravda an exclusive interview praising Putin’s rule, as other deceased national heroes have done of late. In 2017, busts of both Tsar Nicholas II, now canonized as a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church, and his ultimate murderer Vladimir Lenin, located in the captured Crimean city of Simferopol, reportedly began weeping miraculous tears of joy. In the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, the supposedly haunted icons of the two former antagonists had united at last in paranormal acclamation of Putin’s similar reuniting of Crimea with its true Muscovite Motherland.

In 2015, meanwhile, the immortal soul of celebrated nineteenth-century novelist Mikhail Lermontov spoke exclusively to Russian media praising the Kremlin’s military meddling in Ukraine, whilst that same year pro-Putin newspaper Kultura printed an ‘interview’ with Pyotr Tchaikovsky in which the famously homosexual dead composer seemingly came out as having turned straight in the afterlife, in a politically useful blow against the growing eastwards incursions of Putin’s much-derided LGBTQ-obsessed Western enemies: “There is a certain kind of need for affection and care that only a [Russian?] woman can satisfy.”

Putin has busily been repatriating the bones of other dead countrymen for years. In 2005, the exiled corpses of General Anton Denikin, a Tsarist White Russian commander during the nation’s Civil War, and the anti-Communist philosopher Ivan Ilyin, were brought back to Moscow for public reburial in a lavish shared ceremony attended by politicians and leading clergy – and by Putin himself, who laid flowers at their graves for the cameras. Denikin and Ilyin were long considered anti-Soviet ‘enemies of the people’, so their return to native soil was heralded as the true end of the Civil War, with Putin having finally healed the long-festering wounds of Russia’s violent, schismatic past. Shortly afterwards, a new date appeared in the national calendar, 4 November’s National Unity Day, replacing the discontinued 7 November Revolution Day.

Cult Of The Dead

After the post-1991 dissolution of the USSR, Russia slid into near-total social and economic collapse, becoming a confusing and frightening place where all the old certainties of national and political identity had vanished, perhaps forever. In such a disorientating environment, the signs and symbols of the past can provide valuable anchors to latch onto in a time of seemingly endless flux and change. As such, Putin’s subsequent restoration of the Soviet-era national anthem, together with the Tsarist-era imperial double-headed eagle as the official state seal, acted to imaginatively reconcile two warring wings of the national past whilst also reassuring a despondent populace that, no matter what temporary material disasters befell them, the comforting patriotic embrace of Mother Russia was eternal.

If Russia was failing economically and militarily, perhaps it could flourish spiritually and culturally in compensation? After all, most men are not motivated by money alone, the idea of Homo economicus being a false academic abstraction, believed in only by bloodless Western technocrats in the EU, WTO and IMF. The word ‘culture’ derives from the Latin cultus, for ‘care/honor’ and the French colere, ‘to till the soil’. Just as laboratory bacteria need a culture to live and grow successfully within, so do human beings; deracinated, rootless ones like Homo economicus quickly wither and die. According the great American conservative thinker Russell Kirk:

Our English word culture is derived from the Latin word ‘cultus’, which to the Romans signified both tilling the soil and worshiping the divine. In the beginning, culture arises from the cult: that is, people are joined together in worship, and out of their religious association grows the organized human community. Common cultivation of crops, common defense, common laws, cooperation in much else—there are the rudiments of a people’s culture.

For Kirk, culture grows from a combination of love of the shared native soil, love of shared religion, and love of the shared dead, as embodied within national history. Yet, if in sensibly watering these things domestically, Putin could seek to unite his people, raising them up from post-Soviet despair, he could also seek to do precisely the opposite to Ukrainians. If the ferocity of their defense was spurred by love of heimat and history, then one way to defeat them may be to salt their ancestral fields by destroying their culture and erasing their past – for instance, by looting the bones of Potemkin, thereby to ‘recharge’ Russia’s national soul whilst simultaneously running down Ukraine’s own motivational batteries, a tactic tried by previous Russian conquerors in past centuries, who habitually stole Ukraine’s holiest Christian relics, renamed them, then spuriously passed them off as always having been Russian. 

According to UNESCO, as of 7 November 2022, 213 sites of cultural or historical interest – monuments, libraries, churches – have been deliberately damaged or looted since Russia’s invasion began, including museums hit by missiles in Kiev. Ancient stone statues named ‘babas’ have been hauled away or shelled into oblivion nationwide, with collaborators placed in charge of institutions to empty them of thousands of irreplaceable treasures like Attila the Hun-era jeweled tiaras or Scythian gold. In Borodyanka, soldiers even symbolically shot the bust of Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Shevchenko, in the head (it has now equally symbolically been bandaged up). As President Zelensky’s wife Olena rightly said, “This is a war against our identity.”  

Evocative photographs of museums filled with empty glass exhibit-cases demonstrate in chilling microcosm what Putin wishes to impose upon the nation, thereby making its people more emotionally pliable to conquest. To Leila Ibrahimova, loyal Director of Melitopol’s Museum of Local History, “Maybe culture is the enemy for them. They said that Ukraine has no state, no history. They just want to destroy our country.” Thankfully, the fact the Ukrainians are still fighting – and apparently winning – shows they do still possess a shared culture and collectively agreed-upon national story, looted artifacts or not. When our own statue-toppling Western culture-warriors seek to empty our museums and metaphorically shoot busts of our own national heroes through the skull here at home, they should consider the implications. Revisionist culture-wars may one day prevent nations from defending themselves properly in real shooting-wars.