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Russia: Moscow Grapples With Question Of 'Trophy Art' Restitution

  • Victor Yasmann

Ultranationalists in Moscow protesting the return of the Baldin Collection to Germany in 2003 1 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Russian officials and lawmakers have taken tentative steps toward the eventual return of some of the precious cultural artifacts "appropriated" by Soviet soldiers or the Soviet state during or after World War II. The development could signal that Russia is moving toward a more respectful view of property guarantees in general -- one that might help it overcome its reputation as a reluctant defender of such rights.

Anatolii Vilkov, deputy director of the federal agency in charge with monitoring compliance with laws relating to the mass media and the cultural heritage (Roskhrankultura), told a Moscow news conference on 13 June that the Russian government could decide to partially satisfy the claims of eight countries from which the Soviet Union removed cultural artifacts during and after World War II.

Vilkov, whose agency is part of the Culture and Mass Communications Ministry, listed the countries involved as Austria, Belgium, Hungary, Germany, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Ukraine. He added that Roskhrankultura will submit the necessary legislation to the State Duma, as existing legislation requires a separate legal act for each case of restitution.

Two-Way Street

Like similar pronouncements in favor of some form of restitution over the entire post-Soviet period, Vilkov's statement caused a sensation among specialists in Russia and abroad. The government's policy on restitution so far has been simply to hold on to everything, as the current law defines these objects as compensation for the Soviet Union's wartime losses rather than as spoils of victory. However, on 16 June, Duma Culture Committee Chairman Iosef Kobson (Unified Russia) told journalists that his committee had approved a bill on Russia's first act of restitution, involving a collection of 16th-century manuscripts belonging to Hungary's Sarospatak Reformed College. On 28 June, First Deputy Duma Speaker Lyubov Sliska (Unified Russia) announced that the Duma had placed the matter of amendments to the law on such cultural objects belonging to the eight countries Vilkov named on its agenda, newsinfo.ru reported. "We will not only return foreign valuables, but we will recover our own," she said.

She added, however, that the question is far from simple. "The Duma is not a judicial instance and cannot respond to claims," she said. "But it can act on the basis of goodwill." She said the restitution should proceed on the basis of parity and that Russia must seek in return not only artifacts lost during World War II but any lost "during the entire Soviet period."

The status of cultural objects displaced during World War II has remained unclear for decades because the issue was inherited from two totalitarian regimes -- Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. In both cases, control over these treasures was lodged in highly secretive political-police bureaucracies. Germany's Sicherheit Dienst (SD) stole artifacts from throughout Europe and the occupied parts of the Soviet Union, secreting many of them into the private collections of Nazi leaders. After the war, the Soviet security organs gathered up as many of these objects as possible and spirited them off to the Soviet Union as military trophies.

During the Cold War, many of these artifacts were hidden in Soviet archives. In this period, the Soviet government transferred many such objects to East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and other members of the socialist bloc; however, it did so by arbitrary acts of the Soviet government rather than as a matter of law. RIA-Novosti noted on 28 June that the Soviet government's policy in this area was dictated not by a desire to restore historical justice but by the Soviet leadership's wish to embarrass West Germany.

Opposing Camps

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, battle lines have been drawn in Russia between a liberal minority that seeks to return property to its rightful owners and a patriotic majority that feels all such artifacts are the rightful property of Russia.

In 1995, the Duma bowed to this patriotic majority and placed a moratorium on the return of all cultural objects displaced by the war. In 1997, the Duma passed a law on cultural artifacts moved to the Soviet Union as a result of World War II. That law proclaimed all captured foreign cultural objects to be military trophies and, as such, the property of the Russian Federation. However, President Boris Yeltsin vetoed the law and asked the Constitutional Court to rule on its constitutionality. In 1999, the court ruled that the law only partially complied with the constitution and instead introduced the notion that the objects are compensation for Soviet wartime losses, rather than spoils of war.

Vilkov told Radio Mayak on 16 June that the 1997 law, which was amended in 2000 and again in 2004, declares all cultural valuables removed from the territories of Nazi Germany and its allies by the Soviet military or individual soldiers to be the property of the Russian federal government. The law defines Nazi Germany's allies as Bulgaria, Hungary, Finland, Italy, and Romania.

However, many other countries consider Russia's unilateral nationalization of such treasures to be a violation of international law and Russia's own domestic legislation. Vilkov noted that an enormous quantity of such items was brought to the Soviet Union by individual soldiers and remain in private hands. Under a strict interpretation of the law, the Russian state should locate these items and confiscate them as federal property, Vilkov said.

Recent Exceptions

Vilkov said that when the Constitutional Court reviewed the law in 1999 and established the notion that such artifacts are compensation for the losses of cultural treasures by the Soviet Union during the war, it made three important exceptions that were incorporated in amendments to the law in 2004.

First, the law does not consider objects that originally belonged to countries that were themselves victims of Nazism and that were seized by the Soviet Army as Nazi property. Second, the law excludes objects that were the private property of individuals who were persecuted by the Nazis on racial or political grounds. Finally, the law excludes cultural objects that belonged to churches and religious organizations that did not serve the political or military interests of the Nazis.

The Russian law states that any individual, country, or organization falling in these categories can demand the return of their property after proving it is theirs and compensating Russia for the cost of storing the valuables, Vilkov said.

The law also provides the mechanism for creating a database of all displaced cultural objects in Russia. Vilkov said Russia has identified 247,000 objects, 265,000 archive files, and about 1.2 million rare books that fall under the law on displaced art. The Culture and Mass Communications Ministry is beginning the publication of this database on the Internet at http://www.lostart.ru, but the website was not yet functioning as of 1 July. The purpose of the database is to allow people, organizations, and governments to identify lost property and to make appeals for restitution under the law.

As Vilkov noted, Russia is now reviewing claims from the eight aforementioned countries. He said that the Sarospatak library could be returned to Hungary as church property, newsru.com reported on 14 June. The ministry is also reviewing a request from Greece to return to it the archive of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki. Rokhrankultura is also considering the return to Luxembourg of the archives of Masonic lodges and some 649 fragments of papyrus documents in Persian to the Austrian National Library. The agency is also considering the return to Ukraine of four fresco fragments currently at St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum.

Vilkov conceded that the return of objects, even those not considered compensation for wartime losses, to Germany is a particularly touchy issue. He said that the topic of the return to Germany of a Gutenberg Bible has been discussed but can only proceed on the basis of a mutually acceptable exchange. "If they offer us something that is comparable in its historical and cultural value, we will make a trade," Vilkov said.

Behind The Rhetoric

The political debate over displaced cultural artifacts is personified by the clash between former Culture Minister and current director of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema Mikhail Shvydkoi, who has argued that artifacts should be returned to their owners, and current Culture and Mass Communications Minister Aleksandr Sokolov, who has said he will do whatever he can to keep them in Russia. On 26 June, Sokolov appeared on the TV-Tsentr talk show "Postscriptum" and accused Shvydkoi of corruption, mentioning the return of cultural treasures specifically in this context.

On 18 June, "Postscriptum" host Aleksei Pushkov said he believes the Kremlin wants to use the restitution issue to provide political support for German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in the upcoming parliamentary elections in Germany. Pushkov, who is generally viewed as a conservative, pro-Kremlin commentator, urged Putin not to pursue this policy "because in any event it will be viewed as a sign of weakness and, besides, Schroeder has no chance of winning."

Although the outcome of the political infighting over restitution, the final wording of the amendments to the law on displaced artifacts, and the mechanisms for implementing it remain up in the air, the fact that the Duma has taken preliminary steps toward authorizing the return of at least some artifacts would seem to indicate progress.
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