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Russia causes irreparable damage to 16th Century Crimean Tatar Khan’s Palace in occupied Crimea

Halya Coynash
Russia’s so-called ’restoration’ of the Khan’s Palace and the potentially irreparable damage it has caused Photo Edem Dudakov

Russia’s so-called ‘restoration’ of the world-renowned Khan's Palace in Bakhchysarai has, as feared, caused potentially irreparable damage to this hugely important monument of Crimean Tatar heritage.  The Svitsky Corpus [Retinue Corps] which survived a strong earthquake on 11 September 1927 may not be able to survive Russia’s barbaric vandalism and corruption. There is now almost certainly no possibility that the Khan’s Palace, or Hansaray, will, as planned, be placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List,  and the destruction is ongoing.

It was learned on 8 February that a large crack has appeared on the wall of Svitsky Corpus, one of the buildings of the Khan’s Palace.  The damage was so evident that even the Russian-controlled Kryminform reported that the wall had been damaged during the restoration.  The website cited Ilya Alymchev, described as the head of the ‘Directorate on centralized service and development of cultural institutions’, as attributing the crack to “a mistake in the design”.  Alymchev claimed that it “was nothing terrible”, with this hardly surprising given that his directorate bears responsibility for the damage.  This ‘directorate’, a so-called ‘state autonomous institution’ [ГАУ] was reportedly created on the instructions of the occupation Crimean ‘government’ in December 2018.  According to one of the civic activists who reported the damage, billions of roubles pass through this ‘autonomous institution’s’ hands.  

Other Russian-controlled media sources were less honest.  Edem Dudakov, the former head of the Crimean Committee on Inter-Ethnic Relations and Deported Peoples, reported that, while he was videoing the damage to the Khan’s Palace, a film crew from the Russian-controlled Krym-24 appeared.  They had presumably been primed how to present the damage, with the narrative being that for 20 years Ukraine had supposedly done nothing, and that this was, purportedly, the result.  

Dudakov is convinced that the problem lies “in the disastrous engineering illiteracy of the fly-by-night firms, starting from the designers and ending with those carrying out the jobs whom the authorities hire on the principle, “you help me, I help you”.   These firms have had a licence, at best, for two or three years, with the Khan’s Palace, in many cases, their first restoration job.”

He has pointed out before and reiterates that most of the men actually working on the Khan’s Palace are migrant workers, with the design and supervision carried out by firms that were unknown prior to 2014.  This latest damage is only the latest result of such barbarism, with the destruction reported here earlier of artefacts and elements of cultural heritage.

Dudakov notes that the work commenced, without proper specialist consultation and preparation, in the winter of 2017 was claimed to have been needed because the roof of the Mosque was about to collapse.  He presents video proof that the Mosque was in fairly good condition, and suggests that this was always about getting access to large amounts of funding.  

There had been no comprehensive expert assessment on the Khan’s Palace in 2020, and he very much doubts that one has been carried out since then.

As for the claims made by Alymchev, for example, that there proved, unexpectedly, to be no foundation, he calls this an evident lie.  The Svitsky Corpus would quite simply have not survived intact for 300 years without a foundation, and the 1927 earthquake is evidence of how strong the wall was.  The real reason, he says, should be sought in a series of engineering mistakes back at the beginning of 2017, many of which he set out in detail at the time.

The Khan’s Palace in Bakhchysarai was placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Tentative List back in 2003, but the necessary work for establishing its international status was unfortunately not completed.  Russia is essentially preventing a UNESCO fact-finding mission by insisting that such a mission travel on documents provided by the country illegally occupying Ukrainian Crimea, something that the UN body can clearly not do. It seems clear, however that even the destruction so far caused this monument of considerable historical and cultural importance for the Crimean Tatar People, and for Ukraine in general, is likely to have destroyed any likelihood of such UNESCO recognition.  The complex, which includes the Palace itself, a hall for receiving visitors, two mosques, a harem and other buildings, was built as the main residence of the monarchs of the Crimean Khanate, and was the political, religious and cultural centre of the Crimean Tatar community until the collapse of the Khanate in 1783.

The first sign that Russia was illegally planning ‘restoration’ work came in December 2016 with Russia’s culture ministry announcing plans to construct a canopy over the Khan’s Palace.  There were warnings from the outset that the ground underneath the planned shell and canopy roof might not withstand the weight of this construction. 

The first clear evidence of the scale of the wanton vandalism underway came at the beginning of January 2018 when the first photos were smuggled out of the site. Instead of employing specialists and making maximum use of the same materials and technology, the Russian occupiers had passed the work to a construction firm called Kiramet, working for the Moscow-based Atta Group Architectural and Planning Holding as General Contractor. Needless to say, none had any relevant experience.

There was massive devastation from the outset, with some of it clearly involving corruption.  In a video posted on 11 April 2018, Dudakov showed how the original hand-made tiles, called Tatarka, were being replaced in full by factory-produced ‘old-style’ Spanish titles.  While individual Tatarka tiles had needed to be replaced, there was absolutely no justification for removing all of these infinitely richer and authentic tiles.  Dudakov assumed that the boring factory-produced Spanish tiles had been chosen because they were easier to lay, because they did not have any specialists working with Tatarka files, and also because they were easier to loot.  The original Tatarka tiles had reportedly already been sold, with this quite likely what happened to the authentic oak beams which were also unnecessarily removed.Even where there was no obvious aim to plunder, the fact that the work was carried out by construction workers without any experience in restoration meant that huge damage was done.  The walls became damp, and no attempt was made to protect the wall paintings which were simply disintegrating.   Dudakov reported that these barbarians had decided that one calligraphic fresco on the eastern façade “was of no value” and had effectively destroyed it. 

Heavy construction equipment, such as hydraulic drills, had been used for dismantling work, with this causing vibration and the loss of part of the wall’s finish. Video footage posted in March 2019 showed how ordinary workers were carrying out ‘excavation’ work around the Big Khan Mosque, the Khan Cemetery and the Stables (see: ‘Closed for Destruction’: Russia is digging up 16th Century Crimean Tatar Khan’s Palace )

In November 2018, it had become clear that another Russian firm, unencumbered by specialist knowledge or experience in restoration, had ‘won a tender’ for the so-called restoration work.  What the St. Petersburg-based Meander Company lacked in appropriate skills for the job, it made up for in corrupt connections, most probably with the then Russian Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky.  Meander was, at the time, winning a suspicious number of high-cost tenders for supposedly ‘restoring’ the places of cultural heritage that Russia has illegally appropriated in annexed Crimea (more details here). 

Meander’s General Director and her former deputy were arrested in the autumn of 2020 on charges of embezzlement, and the Russian occupation regime began looking for new contractors, with two appointed in the middle of February 2021.  Once again, these were Russian, with no obvious experience of restoration work.  

Details and images were released in March 2021, indicating the degree to which Russia had, at that stage, damaged the Khan’s Palace, in clear violation of, among other documents of international law, the Hague Convention of 1954 for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict 1999, and Second Protocol.   

The new photos suggest that there is no end, nor limit, to Russia’s barbaric devastation in occupied Crimea.

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