Cultural Heritage: The Russian Cultural Property Law in Historical Context 8-9 February 2008

Events and Conferences

Langdell Hall, South Classroom, Harvard Law School, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Friday February 8, 2008

1:00 p.m. - Welcome

5:30 p.m. - Reception

Saturday February 9, 2008

8:30 a.m. - Continental breakfast

5:00 p.m. - Conclusions

- Appropriate breaks with refreshments will be provided -


The conference was co-sponsored by Harvard Law School Arts & Literature Law Society, Commission for Art Recovery, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, Foundation for International Cultural Diplomacy and Harvard Law School European Law Research Center.

World War II resulted in the greatest loss and displacement of cultural treasures, books, and archives in history. As the German army occupied more and more of the European continent, Nazi art brigades swept up millions of items from museums, libraries, archives, and individuals. Allied bombing in Europe destroyed many of these treasures. The Germans began to place the remainder in remote castles, mines, and monasteries for safe-keeping, but the occupation of Axis Europe led to damage and destruction of more cultural valuables. Eventually these German treasure troves came under the control of the victors.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, with no agreement over restitution among the Allied victors, each of the four occupying powers in Germany and Austria— the United States, Great Britain, France, and the USSR— handled displaced cultural property that ended the war in their individual zones as they saw fit. The United States undertook an unprecedented program of cultural restitution in an effort to restore displaced treasures to the countries from which the Nazis had confiscated them, in the expectation that these countries would return these valuables to their pre-war owners. This process continues to this day.

In the East, however, Soviet authorities, seeking reparations for the extensive costs of Nazi aggression, used special "Trophy Brigades" to empty museums, castles, and salt mines in Germany and Eastern Europe, transporting millions of cultural treasures to the USSR. These included German state-owned cultural objects, cultural objects taken from churches and synagogues, as well as a great deal of private property that had been looted by the Germans from individuals. In addition, U.S. authorities in Germany returned more than half a million displaced cultural treasures and more than a quarter of a million books to the USSR that had been looted by the Nazi invaders.

Without doubt, the Soviet Union suffered huge losses in lives and property from Nazi aggression. Soviet desire for reparations was quite understandable. Whether cultural goods should have been part of such reparations is a complex question, as international law regarding cultural property has been evolving since the mid-Nineteenth Century.

The art works taken back to the Soviet Union were held in relative secrecy for years. Not until the final years of glasnost in 1989-1990 did information gradually surface about the secret depositories for "trophy art" (as known in Russia), the millions of trophy books in an abandoned church outside of Moscow, and the kilometers of state and private archives from countries across Europe that had been held for half a century in the top secret "Special Archive."

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the subject of restitution has been one of the most thorny issues in Russia's foreign relations. As European countries started to demand their cultural treasures and archives, Russian legislators prohibited restitution.

In the midst of the four-year struggle over passage of the law, Russia was admitted to the Council of Europe in January 1996. In order to secure acceptance, among the commitments Russia was required to make were two specific "intents" for restitution of archives and other cultural treasures belonging to member states. Since that document was signed, Russia's parliamentary bodies have ignored those intents, a disregard that culminated with the almost unanimous passage of a law that potentially nationalizes all cultural treasures brought to Russia at the end of World War II. President Yeltsin initially refused to sign this law. After a decision of the Constitutional Court obliged him to do so, he signed it but then lodged a request challenging the law's constitutionality. In 1999 the Constitutional Court issued another opinion basically upholding the law.

The Russian law seemingly conflicts with countless international conventions and resolutions adopted by the United Nations, UNESCO, and other bodies, as well as several bilateral agreements, calling for the restitution of plundered cultural treasures to their countries of origin. After President Putin signed the amended law in July 2000, a Government order put the Ministry  of Culture in charge of restitution proceedings. A further Government order in March 2001 established a new Interagency Council charged with publicly describing the displaced cultural treasures.

Many different and complex situations are involved in the various claims for return of these treasures, many of which still remain unidentified. This workshop will explore the legal and ethical issues involved and begin to lay the groundwork for a practical exploration of steps to help overcome the persisting Cold War attitudes surrounding displaced cultural treasures and restitution issues.

Selected Bibliography

  • Russian Law on Cultural Valuables, from the Spoils of War International Newsletter, No. 4,1997 [another version: Federal Law on Cultural Valuables Displaced to the U.S.S.R. as a Result of World War II and Located on the Territory of the Russian Federation (Federal Law N 64-FZ of April 15, 1998) [subsequently amended] from the Documentation Project]
  • Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation
    • Decision No. 11-P of April 6, 1998 In Re the Resolution of the Dispute Between the Federation Council and the President of the Russian Federation, and Between the State Duma and the President of the Russian Federation on the Obligation of the President of the Russian Federation to Sign the Adopted Federal Law "On Cultural Valuables Transported to the USSR as a Result of the Second World War and Located in the Territory of the Russian Federation" [in Russian]
    • Decision No. 12-P of July 20, 1999 In Re the Constitutionality of the Federal Law of April 15, 1998 "On Cultural Valuables Transported to the USSR as a Result of World War II and Located in the Territory of the Russian Federation" [in Russian]

 For further details, please click here

© website copyright Central Registry 2022