An Exhibit of Goodwill

Russia Profile 30 October 2008
By Dmitry Babich

Experts Agree That Trophy Artworks Should be Accessible to the Public Regardless of Their Location

Fifty years ago, the first batch of German “trophy art” was returned from Russia to East Germany. Now, ever more experts believe that joint shows could be the best solution for the problem of those artworks that remain in the former Soviet Union.

Fifty years ago Nikita Khrushchev’s government returned to East Germany (then called the German Democratic Republic or GDR) a part of the so-called trophy art, i.e. the artworks seized by the Red Army and brought to Russia in the aftermath of the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany. The biggest “return gifts” included paintings from the Dresden gallery and from the Grüne Gewölbe (Green Vaults) museum, as well as the famous Pergamon Altar from the Museuminsel (Museum Island) in Berlin, which had been held in Moscow’s Pushkin Fine Arts Museum between 1945 and 1958. The total amount of the returned artworks was about 1.5 million units. Today, celebrations commemorating this date were held in Dresden and Berlin, the German cities that benefitted most from Khrushchev’s generosity. 

As the saga of the “looted art” (a definition used by the German side) or trophy art (the preferred Russian definition) continues, the 1958 return of artworks to East German museums remains one of the few gestures of goodwill that is recognized and appreciated by both Russians and Germans. Before the Pergamon Altar was returned to Berlin, it was put on show in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts—one of the main cultural events in Moscow in the 1950s. Not only because the altar is one of the most impressive examples of ancient Greek art, but also because it was one of the few cases when the so-called trophy art was actually revealed to the Russian public. Between 1958 and 1991 there were no exhibitions or cultural events involving the artworks brought from Germany, since the Soviet government preferred to keep its booty in secret.

In 1991, Russian art experts Grigory Kozlov and Konstantin Akinsha for the first time unveiled the biggest secret of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts – they wrote in the Art News magazine that the famous Treasure of Troy, a classical collection of archaeological findings by Heinrich Schliemann, was secretly held in the museum. According to Kozlov’s information, even the people from the museum’s archaeological department who kept their collections in the room next door to the one with Schliemann’s had no idea of the treasure actually being held in the museum.

“When we started to reveal the secrets of the trophy art, we did not say that it needs to be returned to Germany immediately,” said Kozlov, who had worked at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts until 1991. “The idea was to persuade the Russian authorities to recognize the problem and to give the public some kind of access to the trophy art. For almost 50 years it had not seen the light of day.”

In 1992, Boris Yeltsin’s administration recognized the problem and even made a vague promise to “work on the problem” of returning the illegally-seized art back to its owners, initially given by the former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev to the German chancellor Helmut Kohl during a brief honeymoon in Russian-German relations in 1990.

However, as the Russian society shed the totalitarian constraints of the Soviet system, which did not allow the citizens to question the president’s decisions, critical voices started to be heard. The public was afraid that the return of the artworks would be decided at some kind of an “informal summit,” in the same way as it was done in 1958. More and more voices claimed that Russia does not owe anything to Germany, whose soldiers destroyed and looted lots of Russian art when a large chunk of European Russia was occupied by German Nazis in 1941 to 1944.

“My fear was that Yeltsin’s administration would suddenly decide to return everything – in secret, in the same way Khrushchev decided to return the East German treasures or Brezhnev’s people decided to hide the trophy art again,” said Alexey Rastorguyev, a professor at the art department at Moscow State University’s History Faculty who was one of the first to start the discussion on trophy art. The public was obviously against such a move.”

And indeed, a protracted wrangling between president Yeltsin and the communist-dominated State Duma followed. Yeltsin wanted to return at least those artworks that had belonged to third parties, not Germany or Russia, and were looted by Nazis from other European countries only to fall into Russian hands afterward. These collections belonged to Dutch, French and even Belgian owners and were indeed slowly returned during the 1990s. However, the Duma and the Council of the Federation, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, adamantly opposed the return of the artworks to German owners. In 1997 the Duma and the Federation Council even overruled the president’s veto by a two thirds majority, pushing through a law that made trophy art a property of the state.

“This is one of the few cases when I actually support the position of Russian communists,” said Erich Goldhagen, a professor emeritus of the Russian Research Center at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The problem is that those German owners, from whom the Soviet soldiers allegedly stole their artworks, actually had often stolen a lot of art from other people, including Russians. Take Hitler’s best friend, Goering. He was one of the largest owners of art in Hitler’s Germany. The only problem was that he had actually stolen this property from others.”

In 2000, with President Vladimir Putin in power, a certain “thaw” on the trophy art front was established. Trying to show goodwill toward Germany as Russia’s best potential partner in the mostly hostile Europe, Putin made several steps which would have been unthinkable under Yeltsin. The key to the problem was Putin’s alliance with most of the parliament’s factions, which developed into outright control after the elections of 2003 and 2007.

In 2002, the famous glassworks from Marienkirche (St. Mary’s church) returned to Frankfurt-on-Oder from St. Petersburg’s Hermitage museum. The famous Baldin collection, which included drawings from the Bremen museum, saved from destruction by the Russian artillery officer Viktor Baldin, was returned from the Moscow Architecture Museum to Bremen – according to Baldin’s wish.  

As the saga drags on, more and more German and Russian museum workers come to the conclusion that location and ownership of artworks has only secondary importance. What is indeed important is to have the art open and accessible to the public. Today, the veterans of German museums remembered how in 1958 the German artworks were returned from Russia in good order and partially restored, but this is just a good beginning of a long road.
© website copyright Central Registry 2021