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Russia’s barbaric destruction of Khan’s Palace and Crimean Tatar heritage reaches new critical stage

Halya Coynash

A UNESCO decision which could send a monitoring mission to Russian-occupied Crimea is belated and piecemeal given the scale of Russia’s destruction of the Khan’s Palace, or Hansaray, in Bakhchysarai, a site of huge Crimean Tatar historical and cultural heritage.  News of the UNESCO decision coincides with the latest shocking images from Crimea where a construction firm with no experience in restoration work has been let loose on a complex dating back to the 16th century.

The complex was placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Tentative List back in 2003, although the follow-up work had not been carried out at the time of Russia’s invasion and annexation in 2014.   The devastation already caused by what Russia is calling ‘restoration’ is already so great that the opportunity for recognition of the Khan’s Palace’s unique status has probably been lost.

A video posted on 11 April by Edem Dudakov, a former head of the Committee for Inter-ethnic Relations and Deported Peoples, shows how the original hand-made tiles, called Tatarka, are being replaced in full by factory-produced ‘old-style’ Spanish titles.  While individual Tatarka tiles needed to be replaced, there was absolutely no justification for removing all of these infinitely richer and authentic tiles.  Dudakov assumes that the boring, factory produced Spanish tiles were chosen because they were easier to lay, because they did not have any specialists working with Tatarka files, and also because they are easier to loot.  It has been reported, for example, that the Tatarka tiles have already been sold.

This replacement of the original tiles alone has quite unnecessarily destroyed the authenticity and undermined the beauty of the Khan’s Palace complex, and there is much more

Century-old wall frescos are being destroyed.  The walls have become damp because of the so-called restoration being carried out by construction workers, with no attempt having been made to protect the wall paintings which are simply disintegrating.   Dudakov reports that these barbarians decided that one calligraphic fresco on the eastern façade “was of no value” and effectively destroyed it. 

All of this, he stresses, is being carried out in the absence of any proper expert assessments. 

The Khan’s Palace complex is a site of enormous importance to Crimean Tatars and for Ukraine, and alarm was raised very soon about this barbaric attack on Crimean Tatar heritage.  Russia’s propaganda machine has responded with carefully edited photos and a narrative claiming that it is only under Russia that the Khan’s Palace is being ‘properly restored’. 

With the free media suppressed, and even individual protest subjected to attack, such media lies may deceive a part of their audience.  However, the evidence of destruction, not restoration, is overwhelming. 

It would be difficult to find another explanation as to why the work was entrusted to a Moscow-based general contractor Atta Group Architectural and Planning Holding with no experience of restoration work.  They are using a Simferopol construction firm called Kiramet which is equally inexperienced.  Lawyer Nikolai Polozov  believes that the aim is to get quick profit from the 200 million roubles (3.5 million USD) in Russian state funding allocated for the work.  The most flagrantly destructive means are being used because they’re quicker and cheaper, and those involved know they can get away with it,  For this reason, original beams have been simply removed and replaced with contemporary composite planks and wooden constructions replaced by concrete. 

Real restoration requires expert consultation and experienced restorers working with great care, and, as much as possible, with original materials.  Instead the plans were kept secret, and attempts made to keep people away from the site altogether, presumably because they knew how much there was worth hiding.

The lie to Russia’s propaganda claims is given by the evident lack of specialists and expert assessments on the work required and necessary methods. This has resulted in wholesale replacement of beams, tiles, etc. when studies carried out before annexation found that only a small number of items required repair or replacement. 

Heavy construction equipment, such as hydraulic drills, has been used for dismantling work, with this causing vibration and the loss of part of the wall’s finish.

Authentic crossbeams are being replaced with concrete beams.  Specialists warn that the work underway will make the building heavier, while the concrete will intensify the erosion of the walls’ limestone masonry.  This is something any expert could have told them, and the apparent lack of any consultation or expert assessments is likely to have catastrophic consequences. 

Any century-old construction needs work carried out on it, but not with entire parts dismantled, nor with fine original materials being replaced by concrete or plywood-like glue composite planks put together using OSB {oriented strand board) technology.

Russian lawyer Nikolai Polozov recently submitted a legal suit on behalf of Elmira Ablyalimova, the former head of the Bakhchysarai Historical, Cultural and Archaeological Museum-Reserve.  This endeavoured to get the work underway stopped and a comprehensive archaeological, historical and cultural analysis carried out.  As anticipated, this suit was rejected by the Zheleznodorozhny District Court in Crimea, and will probably be dismissed by all Russian-controlled ‘courts’, but the moves are a necessary prequel to approaching the European Court of Human Rights or other international courts.

While mentioning the elements of corruption and sloppiness, Ablyalimova also believes that the Russian occupation regime is carrying out such barbarism as part of its general attempts to minimize the Crimean Tatar component of Crimea. 

“We don’t fit into the ideology that they are bringing to Crimea.  This is a people who has virtually entirely refused to recognize occupied, which is continuing to resist and is a magnate for all those for whom the words ‘freedom’ and ‘human rights’ are of great value. A deliberate policy is underway aimed at eliminating the indigenous people, forcing them to fall silent or forcing them to leave Crimea”.




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