The amber facade - part two

The Guardian 22 May 2004
Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark

In September 1959, apparatchiks from practically every Soviet security, party and defence organisation were recruited to help find the Amber Room. But yet again, according to the Kuchumov files, they found nothing. And so the Leningrad curator took the search for the Amber Room higher up the political echelons. By March 1967, he had drawn in leading figures in the KGB and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, who gave him permission to brief the Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers. Kuchumov had become a driving force of Soviet policy on what was now its most valuable missing treasure.

For the next 17 years, Kuchumov had charge of a secretive search team backed by the Kremlin and codenamed "the Choral Society", as its offices were housed in a rehearsal hall above the Church of the Holy Family in Kaliningrad. But it was closed down in 1984. We located its final report. All that the team had found was "40 pieces of artillery, cannon balls, bullets and aerial bombs ... and under the floor of a private house in the centre of [Kaliningrad] were recovered dead bodies, a coffin and a red flag on which was the hammer and sickle".

At this point, Kuchumov now received his greatest honour. At the bottom of a box file we found a small newspaper cutting. The Leningradskaya Pravda reported on April 22 1986: "Mikhail Gorbachev, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and Nikolai Richkov, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR, announce ... recipients of the Lenin Prize." Listed with the handful chosen to receive the Soviet Union's highest civilian honour was "AM Kuchumov (art historian)", awarded in recognition of "outstanding achievements" and "the solution of tasks vital to the state". Why was Kuchumov honoured when he had found nothing?

Among the thousands of documents we uncovered in St Petersburg and Berlin were two letters that raised disturbing questions about the goals of the official investigations into the missing Amber Room. One came from Jelena Storozhenko, the former chairwoman of the "Choral Society". On July 19 1986, she wrote to Kuchumov: "Dear Anatoly Mikhailovich, I am giving you these notes in the hope that they would be printed for the world to see." She went on to fill 20 pages with detailed allegations of how the Soviet military authorities in Kaliningrad had continually hampered her inquiry, resulting in its failure and premature closure. Kuchumov did nothing with her information.

The second letter was equally surprising. It came from Erich Mielke, the East German minister of state security, head of the Stasi and renowned for his reluctance to incriminate himself by putting pen to paper. Yet in August 1988, Mielke wrote to Viktor Chebrikov, the chairman of the KGB in Moscow, voicing his concerns about the progress of the Stasi's Amber Room inquiry. Mielke complained that throughout 26 years of investigation the KGB had declined to share any intelligence with the Stasi.

It became clear that the Soviet Union, while wanting to be seen to search for the Amber Room, was also determined that nothing should be found.

By the end of his life even Kuchumov was exhibiting signs of paranoia. We found among his papers a manuscript for a book on the Amber Room, which he compiled four years before his death. In it, Kuchumov wrote: "The failure of the searches for the Amber Room should not be an embarrassment for the Soviet people, particularly museum workers. The Amber Room did not die. This masterpiece could not have been deliberately destroyed. There are many secret places that we still have not discovered left by the Nazis in the territories of Germany, Austria and other countries. It is only a question of time before it is found." Kuchumov's manuscript was shot through with recriminations. But who had, at this time, alleged that the Amber Room had been deliberately destroyed? We could find no evidence of such a claim - until we opened the last box file.

In it were details of another secret investigation, one that preceded Kuchumov's critical mission to Königsberg of 1946 by nine months. In May 1945, only days after the Germans surrendered, the Soviet leadership ordered an inquiry into the fate of the stolen Amber Room. Two months later, Alexander Ivanovich Brusov, a professor at the historical museum in Moscow, one of the core members of the inquiry team, made his report: "Packed into crates, the Amber Room was placed in the Knights' Hall of Königsberg Castle. In the spring of 1945 it was decided to evacuate the Amber Room to Saxony ..." He was referring to the Nazi plan to safeguard the Amber Room that Kuchumov had also uncovered. However, Brusov had found a witness who claimed that the plan had been aborted at the last minute.

Paul Feyerabend, manager of the Blood Court restaurant, the macabre name for a wine bar that was located in the old torture chamber of the Teutonic castle, beneath the Knights' Hall, told Brusov that the crates had never left the building. Brusov wrote, "Restaurant manager Paul Feyerabend was in the castle up until its capture [by the Red Army] and says the Amber Room was in crates at the moment of surrender and burned there later during a fire that destroyed the northern wing of the edifice." Brusov added that he had inspected the Knights' Hall on June 5 1945 and found "traces of fire, ash heaps and ash covering the entire floor", and also "small pieces of burned wooden strips and parts of cases and some parts of mouldings and copper hinges from the doors, which were taken by Germans from Pushkin and moved to Königsberg along with the Amber Room".

Brusov was emphatic. The Amber Room had been destroyed. Attached to his shocking report we found a sheaf of typed and signed papers from Kuchumov that showed he had read and analysed these findings before his expedition of 1946. One document, "Statements of citizens of Kaliningrad, collected by myself", revealed that Kuchumov had even interrogated the same witness, Feyerabend. On April 2 1946, Feyerabend had told Kuchumov exactly what he had told Brusov: "At the beginning of April 1945, the packed Amber Room stood in the Knights' Hall. Several days later the city's resistance began. I was located in the cloakroom and the Knights' Hall during the [Soviet] attack [of April 7 onwards]. On the afternoon of April 9 ... I hid in the wine cellar with several servants. Later, with their agreement, I hung from the northern wing of the castle a white flag as a sign of surrender.

"At 11.30pm that night [April 9] a Russian colonel came. When I told him everything and gave statements he ordered the evacuation of the castle. At 12.30am [April 10], when I left, my restaurant was occupied by artillery regiments of the Red Army. The cellar and Knights' Hall were not damaged at all. However, after I came back from Elbing, where I had been hospitalised, I heard from the castle director that the Knights' Hall and the restaurant [beneath it] had been burned down."

Kuchumov had learned in 1946 that, in a cataclysmic error of judgment or an orgy of vengeful violence, undisciplined Soviet soldiers had allegedly torched the most valuable missing treasure in the world. And yet, according to his papers, Kuchumov suppressed this evidence when reporting to Moscow. Instead, he told a completely different story that would generate an extraordinary search across the Soviet Union and Germany in pursuit of phantom Nazi thieves and a mythical hiding place for the Amber Room. Why?

For Kuchumov, the die was cast on June 30 1941 when 17 train carriages bearing evacuated treasures pulled out of Leningrad bound for Siberia without the panels of the Amber Room that he chose to conceal in situ. The Nazis saw through the deception easily and stole the room. By the time Kuchumov was sent to Königsberg in March 1946, he had good reason to be worried about his error of judgment. Among the papers he kept until the end of his life were government reports indicting several of his former museum colleagues who were exiled to the gulags after the war, accused of failing properly to organise the evacuations of 1941. By resurrecting the Amber Room, Kuchumov could deflect attention from accusations that the treasure should never have been left behind in the first place.

The Soviet Union also needed to resurrect the Amber Room. In February 1946, when the Soviets presented their case to the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, emotions were running high. Expert witnesses from Moscow and Leningrad justifiably claimed that German looting and the destruction of the USSR's museums and cultural trophies, particularly the fate of the Leningrad palaces, were catastrophic and encompassed all Soviet suffering. But, simultaneously, papers we found reveal that the Allies were gathering intelligence that the Red Army had looted more than 2.6m German-owned treasures. They included the most prized works in German national collections: the Pergamum Altar, the ancient altar of Zeus; the "Trojan Gold", the diadems and necklaces said to have been worn by Helen of Troy; the Bremen Kunsthalle collection that included drawings and paintings by Dürer, Goya, Titian, Rembrandt and Cézanne; a Gutenberg Bible (one of only 40 in existence); and the entire Dresden State Art Collections (including works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Velázquez, as well as Raphael's Sistine Madonna). The last thing Stalin needed was for it to become known that heroic Soviet soldiers had destroyed one of the Motherland's unique treasures. And so, when Brusov submitted his report to this effect to SovNarKom, it had to be suppressed and the professor silenced. In April 1946, when Kuchumov, weighed down with guilt and fear, proposed that the Amber Room was hidden and needed only to be found, the Kremlin embraced his paper-thin theory. It enabled Stalin to point to a "still missing" Amber Room as evidence of how the Motherland continued to suffer as a result of the Nazi invasion. Once Moscow had launched the story of the "lost" Amber Room, the search became a necessity (although the military did its best to rein in subsequent investigations). As speculation about its hiding place gathered momentum, ever more senior figures in the Soviet hierarchy became embroiled in what was now a patriotic mission.

Perhaps, as time went by, the Soviets forgot the real story, believing instead the dogma.

But the flaws in the Russian deception become clear with hindsight. In 2000, a stone mosaic from the original Amber Room resurfaced in a Hamburg attic. The Russian government jumped on the story as evidence that Germans were still clinging on to their treasures, looted in the war. What was not revealed was that the mosaic had been separated from the rest of the Amber Room in 1941, stolen from the Catherine Palace by a trophy-seeking Wehrmacht officer who spirited it away to his home town while the amber panels of the room were transported to Königsberg. The discovery of this fourth mosaic in Hamburg actually undermined Kuchumov's argument that the Amber Room had survived. Kuchumov had advised Moscow that as he could not find the fourth mosaic in the Knights' Hall of Königsberg Castle, wherever it was now to be found, there, too, would be the panels of the Amber Room. And yet this mosaic never made it to Königsberg.

Even today the myth of the missing Amber Room serves the Russian government well. It continues to hold on to 1.6m artworks looted from Germany during the second world war.

Whenever the issue of restitution is raised by Germany, so is the "missing" Amber Room.

The most recent spat came in early 2003. Answering German newspaper claims that it was immoral for Russia to keep German-owned artworks 58 years after the war, Valentina Matviyenko, the governor of St Petersburg, said, "It was immoral to steal the Amber Room, besiege Leningrad, destroy thousands of Soviet cities and kill millions of Russians ... We have every right to make terms on the returns, for it is we who paid the highest price for the Great Patriotic War."

And so when 40 heads of state and other world leaders arrived in St Petersburg for the unveiling of the new Amber Room on May 31 2003, surrounded by displays, a film and a catalogue that detailed German crimes, they were unwittingly assisting a state-sponsored deception. Kuchumov's lie was sealed like an insect trapped in resin. The facsimile Amber Room, restored for £3.5m (of which almost £2m had been donated by Ruhrgas, a German energy provider), now served as a constant memorial to Russia's loss at the hands of the Nazis.

Nothing - especially the truth - was allowed to get in the way of this great day. Even the sun had been made to shine. President Putin ordered Russian air force jets, armed with freezing agents, to "influence the rain clouds", banishing them from the skies above St Petersburg at a cost of £570,000.,3605,1221229,00.html
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