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Date of last revision: 25 March 2002

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Russia’s “Trophy” Archives—Still Prisoners of World War II?1
Patricia Kennedy Grimsted,

Ukrainian Research Institute, Harvard University

International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam

Displaced foreign cultural treasures held in Russia have been one of the dramatic revelations since the collapse of the Soviet Union, while Russia’s failure to return them to the countries of their provenance has become one of the most thorny elements in Russia’s foreign relations. Six years ago, when accepted as a member of the Council of Europe in January 1996, Russia committed itself to the restitution of cultural treasures and specifically archives—among a number of other specific intents—namely “(§ xiv) to settle rapidly all issues related to the return of property claimed by Council of Europe member states, in particular the archives transferred to Moscow in 1945.”2 Restitution matters are hardly moving rapidly in Russia. Here we consider mainly archives, where there have been a few notable recent achievements, despite continuing frustrations. These need to be seen against the backdrop of stalemate in the case of library books. Meanwhile a few recent “gestures of goodwill” provide more symbolic breakthroughs in the world of art, all in the context of important new legal, procedural, and descriptive developments affecting the many displaced cultural treasures remaining in Russia.3

In April 1998 Russia enacted a law that potentially nationalizes all of the cultural property brought to the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War. That law with its May 2000 amendments prohibits restitution of any cultural treasures (with no distinction for archives) to Germany and its wartime allies (including Hungary). Russians use the word “trophies” for all of the foreign cultural property brought back to the USSR after World War II, because those captured cultural treasures are considered “compensation” for the tremendous losses, damage, and destruction they suffered during the war. Those trophies represent symbols of the victory Russians celebrate in what they still call the Great Patriotic War. But many Russians overlook the fact that the “trophy” archives—hidden away for fifty years—are in reality the records of other European countries that also suffered wartime losses and destruction, and in many cases the memory of individuals and institutions who were victims of the Nazi regime.

Russian Spoils of War

Trophy Art. Russia’s trophy archives need to be viewed in the context of—although they should be considered distinct from—the works of art and library books that were brought back to the Soviet Union after World War II. Although those cultural treasures were—and still are—considered “compensation” for wartime loss and destruction, they were hidden from the world for almost half a century. Revelations about the over a million works of art transferred to the USSR in the aftermath of World War II first appeared in ARTnews (New York) in April 1991.4 The headline story was picked up in the Moscow press in many variants. One Moscow journalist quoted the figure of 1,208,000 museum exhibits received by the Committee on Cultural and Educational Institutions, but that was only one of the agencies involved in cultural transfers. Another account that lists most of the major museum shipments quotes the figure of “2.5 million cultural objects,” but the shipments of library books and archives are not included. And those figures also do not include all of the military or private transfers, nor those to other Soviet agencies such as the Main Archival Administration (Glavarkhiv) under the NKVD/MVD. Published documents suggest 450,000 freight-train wagonloads were received in 1945 alone, along with factories, pianos, and wine. There were also a few air cargo planes for some of the most valuable loot, such as the Trojan gold from Berlin and a Gutenberg Bible from the Leipzig Museum of the Book. But quantities are as impossible to establish as it is futile to try. Since their revelation, Russians as well as foreigners flocked to the exhibits of “Hidden Treasures” at the Hermitage and the “Twice-Saved” masterpieces at Moscow’s Pushkin Museum. But abroad, the budding Cold War on cultural restitution issues, particularly between Germany and Russia, was noticeable at the international symposium on “the Spoils of War,” held in New York City in 1995, where specialists from many affected countries discussed the issues, and even viewed Stalin’s secret plans for a museum to rival the one Hitler had planned for Linz.5

Organizers of the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets expressed appreciation that the Russian delegation adhered to the “Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art” and pledged more archival openness. But the wording of those principles unfortunately did not extend to confiscated archives, and significant documentation regarding “trophy” cultural treasures retains a classified status.6 Russia was less well represented in the follow-up “Vilnius International Forum on Holocaust-Era Cultural Assets” in October 2000, but as one potential breakthrough, it was announced that Russia had accepted an offer of half a million dollars from American Jewish philanthropists to aid identification of displaced cultural property of Holocaust victims. Also at the Vilnius Forum Sotheby’s offered funding to help database development for displaced art under the auspices of the Council of Europe. Most controversy in Vilnius developed over the Israeli position that all heirless Jewish cultural property should be consigned to Israel, which was strongly opposed by representatives of Jewish museums and other institutions in various European countries anxious to preserve the memory of their Jewish Communities.7 Following up on the Vilnius proposal, a Russian–American agreement for the “Research Project for Art and Archives,” specifically to describe cultural treasures of Holocaust victims, was signed in Moscow by American project representatives and the Ministry of Culture in early December 2001.8

The Yeltsin years after 1991 saw no restitution of art to Germany, nor was there any since the late 1950s when most of the paintings from the Dresden Gallery and many other “twice-saved” cultural treasures were returned to East Germany. As the first important breakthrough under the presidency of Vladimir Putin and the new Russian law, an “exchange” took place at the end of April 2000: some mosaics and a commode from the Amber Chamber in the Catherine Palace of Tsarskoe Selo (Pushkin) that had been plundered by the Nazis and recently found in Germany were returned to Russia. In “exchange” Russia handed over a collection of 101 drawings and prints from the Bremen Kunsthalle that a Red Army officer (who requested anonymity before his death) personally brought home from their wartime hiding place in the Karnzow Castle north of Berlin. Germany has already been subsidizing the reconstruction of the symbolic Amber Chamber with a $3.5 million grant from Ruhrgas. Germany may be less than satisfied with the “exchange,” because the 101 Bremen drawings had already been transferred to the German Embassy in Moscow in 1993 after a request for their restitution, but remained under export embargo until the spring of 2000.9

The sad fate of the Kunsthalle collections is only one of the most blatant examples of the wide dispersal of cultural treasures brought to Russia but can only be touched on here. Another 362 drawings and 2 paintings from the Bremen Kunsthalle rescued by fellow Field Engineering Brigade officer Viktor Baldin remain in state custody in the Hermitage, where 192 of them in 1992 formed part of the first exhibition of trophy art in Russia. Baldin, an art historian and architect who personally brought them to Russia in a suitcase in 1945, had long pleaded for their restitution with Soviet, and more recently Russian, heads of state. In 1947 he deposited them for safekeeping in the Shchushev Museum of Architecture when he became director, but in 1990, when Boris Yeltsin was on the verge of returning them on his first visit to Germany as president of the Russian Federation, the Soviet Ministry of Culture (then headed by Nikolai Gubenko) ordered their transfer to the Hermitage. Another officer in Baldin’s brigade donated his cache of Bremen drawings to a Samarkand museum, but they were transferred to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, where they remain today alongside another group that had been donated by another officer in the same brigade to a museum in Novosibirsk.10

Still other Bremen drawings were widely dispersed in the former Soviet Union, although the locations of all of them are still not known, and only a few of them have been returned. Twelve recently surfaced in New York (with an estimated value of about $15 million), among them a Rembrandt and two Dürer drawings, having been stolen from a museum in Azerbaijan, along with 150 other works of art. As a “happy ending” to an incredible tale of international intrigue, they were seized by U.S. Customs and returned to Bremen in July 2001 under order of a New York court. An estimated no less than 50 Bremen drawings ended up in private hands in Ukraine, according to unconfirmed reports. In 1995, six years before the recent Russian act of restitution, one of them was returned to Bremen from Kyiv: a self-portrait by the German artist Hans von Marées became “the first official return to Germany of World War II art booty by one of the former Soviet republics since the collapse of the USSR.” In a subsequent presidential visit in February 1998, three additional drawings went back to Bremen from Kyiv.11

A few subsequent “gestures of goodwill” have broken through the earlier “Cold War” standoff on cultural restitution between Russia and Germany. In August 2001 the new Interagency Council on Restitution approved the return of the 14th-century stained glass panels held by the Hermitage from the Lutheran Church of St. Mary (Marienkirche) in Frankfurt-on-Oder. The transfer will not take place for another two years, however, given the long procedure of required documentation and a promised exhibition in the Hermitage before return. In exchange Germany will contribute a million and a half dollars towards the reconstruction of the medieval Russian Orthodox Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God near Novgorod that was destroyed during the war. The return comes under a paragraph in the Russian law that permits restitution of property of religious organizations in Germany.12

The Hermitage was also in the restitution spotlight in February 2001, when the museum returned to Ukraine several frescoes from the 12th-century cathedral of St. Michael of the Golden Domes, looted by the Nazis from Kyiv in 1943, but held in Russia since their return by the United States from Germany after World War II. That was the first significant Russian act of restitution to one of the successor states since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Controversy over this issue continues, however, because still more important mosaics and frescoes from the church that had been destroyed by Stalin in 1936 remain in Russia.13

Boris Yeltsin’s only gift of trophy cultural treasures during presidential visits with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl involved some symbolic archival files. While still legally blocked from restitution of cultural treasures from state collections, Putin has recently promoted a new series of “gestures of goodwill,” involving the return from private Russian collections of trophy art seized after the war in Germany. Most recently (27 September 2001) Putin was accompanied to Dresden by Russian businessman Timur Timerbulatov, director of the large construction company “Konti,” who presented the Dresden Gallery with three paintings acknowledged to have been held there before the war. Curiously, all three (two 17th-century paintings of the Flemish School and one by Max Slevogt painted in 1914) reportedly had been purchased in the flea market in Moscow’s Izmailovo Park in 1992 from a private collector. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, the presentation took place a week after the Ukrainian Council of Ministers approved the restitution of the long-lost Sing-Akademie collection of music scores (including part of the Bach family archive) to Berlin (see below). As a similar “gesture of goodwill” in Putin’s presence in April, at the palace of Tsarskoe Selo near St. Petersburg Timerbulatov presented Germany the 17th-century painting “Heyduke” by Christopher Paudiss, also from the prewar Dresden Gallery and also purchased in the Ismailovo market in 1992.14

It should be stressed that all of these “gestures of goodwill” involve the restitution of art that had been recovered from private collectors, not from state repositories, and hence they were not subject to the new Russian law on cultural treasures. These recent transfers, although only small steps in the light of the hundreds of German cultural treasures remaining in Russian public and private collections, nevertheless give some hope for more positive breakthroughs in the highly contested restitution issues between Russia and Germany, as recently acknowledged by both sides. Yet if restitution is going to move on a piece-by-piece barter basis, or occasional “gestures of goodwill” on presidential encounters, it is going to take centuries to resolve the issue. With this new emphasis on the return of German cultural treasures from private Russian holdings, the Russian government holds out the hope of bringing response from the German private sector. Already in 2000 in addition to the return of mosaics and commode from the Amber Chamber, the Germans presented Putin with a 16th- century icon looted during the war from the Pskov-Pokrovskii Monastery that recently surfaced in Germany.15 But Germans are still concerned about the major “trophy” holdings of their cultural property in large state museums and other repositories. Libraries and archives may retain a lesser spotlight, but restitution in those areas will undoubtedly also need more stimulus from the new Russian policy of “gestures” within the context of the international politics of restitution.
Trophy Library Books. The library world was shocked by the 1990 revelation about the millions of “trophy” German books that had been left to rot under pigeon droppings in an abandoned church in Uzkoe outside of Moscow, including many valuable early imprints from famous collections.16 Since that revelation there have been only two library restitution transfers—both to the Netherlands in 1992—one of Dutch books from the All-Russian State Library of Foreign Literature (VGBIL), and another of European socialist literature from the former library of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism (now the State Socio-Political Library—GPOB). A Russo-German Library Roundtable, sponsored by VGBIL was held in December 1992. A document released there gives the figure of eleven million trophy books brought to the USSR from Germany after the war, but that figure does not include those brought by other agencies or those that came intermixed with archival shipments. Initially at that meeting directors of many Russian libraries were not even prepared to admit that they held any trophy books at all, and only gradually has the truth about trophy collections been surfacing.17

Since the end of 1992, however, the initial optimism about accommodation and possible restitution waned, and there have been no further library transfers from Russia. The growing Russian nationalist reaction led to the Duma prohibition of all cultural restitution in the spring of 1994 until a new Russian law on the matter could be enacted. The Cold War battle lines were drawn as German librarians (as if in reply to the prohibition) published a volume of German translations of secret Soviet Trophy brigade reports and related documents (many of them now classified in Moscow), several of them documenting how many books (or crates) were taken from each of hundreds of German libraries and museums.18

Despite the prohibition on restitution, some libraries have become more open about their “trophy” holdings, and several descriptions have appeared in print. The trophy Gutenberg Bible in the former Lenin Library (now the Russian State Library—RGB) came out of hiding in 1994, with an article by Adrian Rudomino, the man who helped engineer its transfer to Moscow and who was also featured in a Russian television film on the spoils of war.19 Since then, the Leninka (as the library is still known in Moscow) has been publicizing more data about its extensive trophy holdings. A senior RGB librarian addressed broader issues of trophy books in a 2000 article directed to the library world honoring the “55th Anniversary of the Great Victory,” ostensibly rejecting any idea of restitution of their trophies, which (as explained in a headline caption) “indeed like all of our holdings are part of our state heritage.” Another headline insert explained that “in the treaties signed after the end of the Great Patriotic War, there was no provision obliging the victors to return trophies to the vanquished.”20 Many such problems result from the fact that no peace treaty was ever signed between the Soviet Union and Germany, and even postwar border changes came by fiat rather than formalized international treaties.

In contrast, the Foreign Literature Library (VGBIL), now named after Margarita Rudomino, who had led a Soviet trophy library brigade to Germany in 1945/1946, has become one of the leaders of openness in Russia with respect to trophy holdings. VGBIL, led by its director, Evgeniia Genieva, has long stressed the benefits of “gestures of goodwill” in terms of restitution to libraries abroad. In addition to the catalogue of Dutch books returned to the Netherlands, VGBIL has issued several catalogues of its trophy holdings, including two volumes covering sixteenth-century imprints and a database compendium of foreign book markings.21 The VGBIL website, produced by its new Center for the Study of Displaced Cultural Treasures, provides a virtual bulletin board for Russian and related international developments. A catalogue appeared in 1997 of the trophy collection of rare imprints from the Calvinist college of Sárospatak in northwest Hungary, which surfaced in Nizhnii-Novgorod.22 Books from that plundered Hungarian collection were displayed in VGBIL during their April 2001 international seminar on restitution issues—“Legislation and Gestures of Goodwill,” while the collection itself remains one of the many restitution claims that seriously impede Hungarian-Russian cultural relations. Appropriately, the conference bore the title of the new Russian government restitution policy for the arts. However, there were no similar “gestures” to report in the library world, and German participants went home very discouraged about Russian government attitudes.23

An earlier VGBIL conference in April 2000—the first international conference in Russia addressing such issues—heard many relevant reports on “Displaced Cultural Treasures in the New Millennium,” but the treasures themselves remain displaced. Among the surprising revelations, 26 books from the Turgenev Library in Paris have been identified in Voronezh. The director of the State Public Historical Library (GPIB), Mikhail Afanas'ev, thereupon appealed that all books that had been seized by the Nazis from the Turgenev Library and then ended up in Russia should be returned to Paris, in tribute to the unique function of that library as an outpost of Russian culture in the French capital. A specialist from the Ministry of Culture later included Afanas'ev’s suggestion in a published article.24 Subsequently the Ministry of Culture authorized transfer of 118 books with stamps of the Turgenev Library, identified in the GPOB. That collection had been a “gift” from the Polish Communist Party in the early 1980s, so it was exempt from the new Russian law. However, the export papers expired before the transfer could take place. Hence not even a single symbolic volume was delivered to Paris by the Russian delegation attending the Colloquium honoring the 125th Anniversary of the Library in January 2001. Instead, the Mayor of Moscow sent an official gift of 500 recently published Russian books. Significantly at the Colloquium a representative of RGB revealed for the first time that 3,400 books with Turgenev Library stamps had been identified in her library (earlier such holdings were denied), but so far no word about possible restitution has been uttered.25 In November 2001, the 118 books from GPOB were transferred to the Russia Abroad Library Fund (Biblioteka-fond “Russkoe zarubezh'e”) in Moscow, and on 12 February 2002 the Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation formally presented them to the President of the Turgenev Library Association and the Secretary General, who had flown in from Paris for the occasion. The return of the books to Paris will be scheduled following the close of an exhibition.
Captured Archives and Restitution Negotiations. In February 1990 a Russian journalist’s “Five Days in the Special Archive” (TsGOA SSSR—Central State Special Archive of the USSR) first publicly revealed the extensive captured Nazi records there, less than a year after she had reported that the long-suppressed “death books” and other Auschwitz (Oświęcim) concentration camp records had finally been turned over to the Red Cross.26 But it was another year and a half before the world knew that there were also captured state and private archives from countries all over Europe in Moscow, including long-lost French intelligence records. In an October 1991 interview with me a Russian journalist friend first revealed over seven linear kilometers of French records that had been hidden for half a century; a week later the director of the top-secret “Special Archive” confirmed and elaborated on the findings of the “well-known ‘archival’ spy Grimsted.”27 Euphemistically rebaptized the Center for the Preservation of Historico-Documentary Collections—(TsKhIDK) in 1992, in March 1999 it was abolished as a separate repository and, now even symbolically, incorporated into the neighboring Russian State Military Archive (RGVA).28

Soon after the story of captured French records became front-page news in Paris, the director of the Archives Nationales queried his Russian counterpart, “How soon can we send transport to pick up our archives?”29 The answer turned out to take ten years. Nevertheless, restitution in the archival world from Russia—and earlier from the Soviet Union—has fared much better than has been the case with art and library books. A bilateral agreement for archival restitution was signed between France and the Russian Federation in November 1992, but only about two-thirds of the archives of French provenance were returned to France before the Duma embargo on restitution in May 1994. 30 The latest segment of the twice-plundered archives from France were turned over to French authorities in October 2000, but negotiations continue for the remaining French claims.31 The official authorizing resolution of the Duma for the resumption of transfers in 1998 called it an “exchange” rather than restitution: indeed France paid approximately half a million dollars and turned over to Russia some original files of Russian provenance in exchange.32 A few fonds of French provenance remain in the former Special Archive, now part of RGVA, but not all of the archival materials from France in other archives have even been identified, nor have any of the books and museum exhibits.

Liechtenstein (July 1997) and Great Britain (July 1998) are the only two other countries to have received their archives from Moscow since 1991. In both cases, an act of the Russian Duma was also required. Approximately half of the entire archives of the Grand Duchy (predominantly seventeenth- and eighteenth-century records) had been seized in Vienna by Soviet authorities in 1945. First placed in the Library of the Academy of Sciences (BAN) in 1945, but then transferred to TsGOA, the fond with estate records of the Grand Duchy was virtually forgotten until the early 1990s. Restitution to Liechtenstein was approved by the Duma (after initial refusal) only when there was a significant “exchange” of documentation relating to the 1918 assassination of the Russian imperial family, which the Prince of Liechtenstein agreed to purchase from Sotheby’s. A Vaduz newspaper at the time of the transfer appropriately complained that the Grand Duchy had been forced “to repurchase its archival heritage.”33

Many millions of files “saved by the Soviet Army” had been restituted to Eastern-bloc countries before 1991, always positively portrayed as the Soviet role of “helping other countries reunify their national archival heritage.”34 But that internationalist policy was abandoned since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Initial archival restitution agreements signed in 1992 with the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Hungary, and Germany have still not resulted in actual transfers, and so those archives still remain prisoners of war.35 Rosarkhiv Deputy Chairman Vladimir Tarasov has spoken out at several conferences regarding post-1991 Russian archival restitution developments, with examples of the transfers to France and Liechtenstein, although he avoids the term “restitution.”36 His remarks reflect the Rosarkhiv point of view that most important for Russia in the return of other nations’ archives seized by Soviet authorities after World War II is the receipt in “exchange” of important components of archival Rossica, i.e. lost fragments of the Russian archival legacy dispersed abroad.37 He accompanied then Rosarkhiv Deputy Chief Vladimir Kozlov to the 1994 CITRA meeting in Thessalonica, where Russia was one of only three countries to abstain from the concluding resolution declaring that archives should not be used as trophies or objects of exchange.

The New Russian Legal Framework for Restitution

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