A restorator gets Marienkirche (Virgin Mary Church) stained-glass ready for exhibition in the Hermitage. The stained-glass was captured in Germany in 1945 and brought to Leningrad as compensation for the cultural artifacts destroyed by the German military in the Soviet Union.
Photo: Alexander Chizhenok
Ministry of Culture Won't Give Back What Doesn't Belong to It
// Germany won't see the Baldin collection
Aleksandr Sokolov, Russia's minister of culture and mass communications, yesterday opposed the return of the so-called Baldin collection to Germany. This collection of drawings and paintings illegally brought back to the USSR at the end of WW2 consists of 364 works by European masters of the 16th – 20th centuries (including Titian, Rembrandt, Durer, Rubens, Delacroix, Boucher, Corot, Manet, Van Gogh, and Toulouse- Lautrec). Their owner, the Museum of Bremen, is not expecting them back soon.
Sokolov's opinion contradicts what his subordinate, Anatoly Vilkov, said two weeks ago at a press conference. Vilkov is the deputy head of the federal service for supervising observance of the law in the area of mass communications and the preservation of the cultural heritage.
Another turning point in the history of the Baldin collection has taken shape. Captain Viktor Baldin, who, even if illegally, nevertheless saved the treasures scattered about in the basement of a captured German castle, repeated tried to persuade the country's leader to return the collection to Germany. Understandably, the appeals of the former frontline soldier, who became the director of the Shchusev State Architectural Museum in 1963, to Leonid Brezhnev, Mikhail Suslov, and Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev produced no results.
However, Baldin was persistent enough to speak of his wish to anyone interested, and even after his death, it was impossible to hide the Bremen collection anymore.
There was an attempt to conceal the Baldin collection in 1991. At that time, the collection was hurriedly transferred to the assets of the Ministry of Culture of the USSR headed by Nikolai Gubenko, who was opposed to the return of the displaced treasures, and sent to the Hermitage. But the Hermitage changed course and became one of the country's most open museums.
In 1993, the Baldin collection was shown at an exhibition, a catalog was printed, and it was opened to German specialists. Within a year, a state commission for the return of cultural assets decided to “consider the possibility of returning the Baldin collection of the Kunsthalle Bremen to the German government.” The possibility was neglected pending a law on restitution, which was passed in 1999; according to the law, there should have been no doubts about whether or not to hand over the illegally removed collection. The Constitutional Court of the RF said the same when it ruled that the question must be settled by the law On the Export and Import of Cultural Assets.
The storm broke when then Minister of Culture Mikhail Shvydkoi announced a date for the return of the objects – March 29, 2003. They were hastily packed and taken from the Hermitage to Moscow and exhibited at the Museum of Architecture. Twenty canvases were designated to remain in Russia as a sign of good will; everyone was expecting the final act of a long-drawn-out play. But then patriots led by Gubenko interfered.
The patriots defended the collection, but no one changed the law. Guided by this same law, but being an experienced bureaucrat, Vilkov has only now returned openly to this subject. His verdict is unambiguous. “The decision to return the collection was made even before the law On Displaced Cultural Assets was passed. And the law only confirms this,” he told the Kommersant correspondent, although he added that he still did not about know the minister's latest pronouncements. “Russia has no right to keep the Baldin collection. We did not receive this right through a gift, since by law the collection did not belong to the donor Baldin. There are no claims on it because it was acquired long ago, since time counts if the collection is public. Sooner or later, the Baldin collection will return to the Kunsthalle Bremen; but of course not all of it. Twenty works will remain in the Hermitage as compensation for preserving them. But public opinion suggests there is no need to return it. Therefore, in the second half of 2005, we will be forming an interdepartmental commission to discuss everything again. That's it.”
In a conversation with the Kommersant correspondent, Konstantin Vasilyev, the Ministry of Culture's press secretary, called the minister's statement that Russia would not return the collection to Germany the political position of Sokolov and the ministry. “There are no legal grounds for handing over the collection to Germany. The Baldin collection does not come under the law On Displaced Cultural Assets. A working group has been formed in the ministry to analyze the situation from all sides. Based on the results of its work, an interdepartmental council on displaced valuables will make a decision on the future of the collection.”
The minister's latest statement can be interpreted in various ways. Either Sokolov has decided to disavow all previous agreements and close the matter until his successor is appointed, who will have to act according to the law, which will be in effect by that time. Or the recently formed group is a conciliatory move in the face of nervous public opinion. Its task is to reduce the degree of nervousness. Then Sokolov's words that Shvydkov's decision was an example of a premature verdict; not simply a nervous reaction but the start of a new round of bargaining.
Even under repeated criticism by both supporters and opponents of restitution, the law must be fulfilled. Despite its value, the Baldin collection is still a minimal loss; even the best drawings are too much of an elitist spectacle, and they are too fragile for permanent exhibition. The legal niceties of the question are in the hands of the ones who lobbied for this law; there are not very many of these “niceties”. According to the law, we are not obliged to return what was officially confiscated [not removed, saved, or stolen by non-officials]. We do not have to return things belonging to war criminals, but the Bremen museum is not Herman Goering. All the conditions for return are present.
However, as time has shown, instead of the law, the Russian side still prefers a freely interpreted act of good will, by which several show “returns” have been accomplished and several more are expected. Sokolov agreed with one of these. A decision has been made to return a silver collection consisting of 18 pieces sent to the Hermitage from the NKVD to the descendants of the posthumously rehabilitated Prince of Anhalt, who suffered under both the Nazis and Bolsheviks alike.
“The Anhalt silver is a unique case. The fact is that Prince Anhalt, its previous owner, is the only foreigner rehabilitated as a victim of repression by the NKVD. The 18 silver place settings have been stored all this time in the State Treasury. At the same time, we have not found a single document that these items were sent to Russia as restitution. The children of the rehabilitated prince saw these items at an exhibition in the Hermitage and requested their return, but the prosecutor refused them again due to the lack of documents. Then the Ministry of Culture decided to return the silver to the descendants as a good will gesture,” Vilkov said.
According to the law, this question could have been settled long ago – the situation has no precedents. But good will is above the law. The problem with the Baldin collection seems to be that good will is simply not enough for it.
Anhalt's children have been declared the victims of political repression. Following our own laws, we are obligated to return this collection to the owner. We need to restore justice before a person who did much for our compatriots. What is more, it was his family that gave Russia Catherine the Great,” Sokolov explained.
All the Article in Russian as of Feb. 22, 2005