Russia's Lost Masterpieces

Up to quarter of a million artefacts are missing from Russian museums, a revelation that has received a negative reaction in the Western press

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According to Lyubov Molchanova, a consultant to the Museums Department at Russia's Ministry of Culture, the number of objects unaccounted for may be as high as 250,000. This was described as "astonishing" by some Russian and international media; yet it is anything but a secret. Two years ago, the minister of culture Alexander Avdeyev reported that "through all the years since the beginning of the Soviet period, less than 1pc of the items have been lost, and those were not the most valuable pieces. . ."

Indeed, the number of missing items represents only 0.33pc of the entire museum inventory of more than 83 million pieces. A mere drop of paint bearing in mind the turbulent nature of the last 93 years of Russian history. What makes less sense is the minister's statement about the losses being "minimal".

Russia's artistic legacy in the 20th century is of a slow and steady bloodletting of its own. The first decrees on the nationalisation, in early 1918, were adopted not only in relation to productive assets, but also towards major art collections and to any significant work of art in private hands. Everything that was not destroyed by the revolutionary masses rampaging the landowners' estates was earmarked for the specially created "state museum fund" - an entirely new form of art ownership and management proved to be most effective in ideological manipulations of the "proletariat state", but disastrous in every other sense. Culture became the priority of bureaucrats, not artists. Exempt from free circulation and subjected to brutal censorship, art and artistic expression became confined to the limits of communist doctrine.

Subsequently, millions of artworks were distributed among newly organised museums or buried to rot in the deep vaults of depositories.

Vladimir Lenin declared Soviet Russia to be the state of new type, pursuing its own "proletarian" identity: masterpieces of the "bourgeois art" from what is now state fund collections were auctioned in Berlin, Paris, London. According to the data in Soviet statistical handbooks, in 1928 a ton of pictures, engravings "and other items" was sent out of Soviet Russia. In 1930, it was already nine tons of "fine art", together with 568 tons of "other art" – furniture, silver, Russian icons.

Raphael's "Saint George" and "Madonna Alba", Titian's "Venus with a Mirror", Jan van Eyck's "Annunciation", Rubens's portrait of his wife, and Velazquez's portrait of Pope Innocent III – star lots from the Hermitage collection were being sold to private collectors in America and to European art dealers throughout 1920s. The true extent of the soviet "cultural policy" will probably be never known.

A new threat in the form of law comes from the Russian government. A recent draft legislation submitted to the lower Chamber of Russian parliament – the Duma – stipulates the ways "cultural property" will be "returned" to the religious organisations – the Russian Orthodox Church and other legally registered religious groups. If enacted, the law opens the way for millions of "religious objects and works of art" to change hands: "Restoration of former religious property to religious organisations", as the Moscow Patriarchy, the main beneficiary of the law, calls the initiative, has nothing to do with justice, nor with legal continuity.

Since the days of Peter the Great, Church assets were incorporated into the Imperial domain and as such nationalised by the Soviet government in 1918. Thus, the property to be "returned" can in no way be traced back to any existing religious organisation, but only to the house of Romanov.

Also, the report prepared by the experts of the so-called Civic Chamber, a state-sponsored institution that analyses draft legislation, criticises the law as unfair. "The cultural objects will become inaccessible by people of religions other than Russian Orthodox Christians," write the members of Chamber's commission on national culture protection and development.

If enacted, the law, they insist, would be "in conflict with a number of constitutional principles and international regulations".

The law may also lead to a massive loss of thousands of ancient works of art deprived of skilled hands of qualified restorers and conservators. The fate of 12th-century icon of "Bogoliubskaya, Mother of God", transferred to the monastic community in Vladimir and severely damaged by an enthusiastic dust-cleaner, is a good example.

Patriarch Kirill has recently hailed the dawn of the new era, where the Church plays the pivotal role in the creation of a "modern" Russia. Vast natural resources and everlasting enthusiasm of its people are the guarantees of this country‘s great future. Yet, ever-growing hunger of those entrusted with the political leadership and spiritual guidance for cash and power makes this future quite distant, if not altogether bleak.

Source: Russia Now
2 November, 2010