We mentioned Vladimir Putin’s little aquatic adventure at Phanagora t’other day, and it (the ‘adventure’, not our mention) garnered quite a bit of media attention. Rosemary Joyce has a nice oped on the whole spectacle, which concludes with some interesting views on archaeology in Russia nowadays:
[…] Nationalist politics puts a special spin on the sheer desire for tourist income. The director of Volnoe Delo said its support for Phanagoria reflects “Deripaska’s belief that Russia’s heritage should be better known”. This same sentiment is evident in Putin’s quote: “we have such riches”.
Who’s the “we” here? In what way is an ancient Greek colony on the Black Sea “Russia’s heritage”?
An emphasis on Greek sites as Russian heritage is an old theme. The earliest sites recognized as Russian cultural heritage were identified in 1805, and included Greek archaeological sites on what was then newly conquered Russian territory on the Black Sea. Physical appropriation of the landscape was followed by appropriation of history, figured as heritage that rooted Russia in a Classic past. Irina Tunkina writes that “it became possible for the educated class of Russian society to familiarize itself with ancient sites not only in the Mediterranean but also in Southern Russia”.
During the Soviet period, the same Classical Greek sites were, Gotcha R. Tsetskhladhze has argued, subject to reinterpretation as temporary and without enduring influence on Russian history: “a denial of significant Greek influences” in favor of in situ development of Russian culture.
So what has changed since 1995, when Tsetshladzhe’s study was published, to make post-Soviet Russia, like early 19th century Russia, want to claim a Classical Greek past?
Archaeological sites recognized as World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, or simply included in lists by publications like Archaeology (which included Phanagoria in its top 10 new finds list in 2009) can serve as a kind of mark of distinction in the international arena.
Such sites can be used to give relatively modern nations an aura of long term stability. Their promotion as “heritage” implies the idea of inheritance. Sites to be promoted as heritage are selected to emphasize certain parts of history, and obscure others.
One of the motivations in the 1800s for marking these early Greek trading sites as specifically Russian cultural heritage was clearly the desire to affiliate Russia with Europe, and all that implied at the time in terms of cultural development and progress. Are we seeing a renewal of this strand of Russian nationalism today?
Interesting spin on ‘Heritage Status’, no?