Presentation of the official delegation of Russia at the Vilnius Forum
Viktor Petrakov, Deputy Head of the Department of Preservation of Cultural Assets at the Ministry of Culture
3-5 October 2000
Russia sent an official delegation led by Viktor Petrakov to the Vilnius International Forum on Holocaust-Era Looted Assets who gave the presentation set out below.
All countries present at the Forum agreed the Final Declaration.
Ladies and gentlemen,
To begin my speech, I would like to reaffirm our commitment to the ideas and principles of the Washington Conference. As we know, the Russian delegation signed under every point of the Washington declaration with a reservation that the right to the restoration of looted property should be vested with the immediate rightful heirs. In Russia, their range is defined by the rules of the Russian heritage law. What concerns the ownership of legal entities, we think, we should speak about the lawful inheritors of their rights. At the same time, we are guided by the general assumption that we deal only with cultural and other assets that were forcefully seized or taken from the victims of Nazi repression by force or threatening to resort to force.
Here one should also keep in mind that decisions made in the Washington Conference, no matter how important they were for the restoration of historical justice or dignity of the European Jews - victims of the German Nazism, were recommendatory. The states which participated in the conference unanimously supported the necessity to carry out their practical implementation with due respect to the effective national legislation, moreover, they all agreed that the conference itself should not claim to take on the role of an international arbiter in the settlement of complex and sensitive international problems arising in this area. We would not like the recommendations of the Vilnius Forum to trespass this fragile boundary.
Owing to the wartime circumstances, alongside museum-type cultural assets, cultural objects owned by the Holocaust victims were taken out of the occupied German territory as a compensation for Russia's losses. It has to be pointed out immediately that these assets were considered German, and under the conditions of the post-war confusion it was, in fact, impossible to identify them exactly. However, up to now none of the Western states has ever particularly hastened to look for such objects of art.
The cultural property of the Holocaust victims might constitute a minor share of the total trophy stock of the Russian museum. The final stock-taking of the museum trophy collections in Russia is expected to identify other cultural assets of this category. Their final identification is only a question of time and finance.
Objective historical reasons made the issue of returning cultural assets of the Holocaust victims a part of the discussion on the overall issue of the cultural property transferred to the territory of the Soviet Union because of World War II. Presently, the legal status of the cultural assets within this category, both known, and those which probably will be identified in future, is defined in Art. 8(3) of the Federal Law on Cultural Assets Transferred to the Soviet Union because of World War II and Stored in the Territory of the Russian Federation. According to this provision, the application of the law does not cover "(…) cultural assets owned by persons who were deprived of these assets (…), also on the grounds of their race, religion or nationality" (i.e. they may not become the ownership of the Russian Federation) This law is an effective instrument to restore the property rights of the Holocaust victims that were subject to violation. I would also like you to recall that Russia had signed the Washington Declaration before the new Russian law gained full force.
Allow me to separately discuss problems associated with search and identification of cultural assets belonging to the Holocaust victims. I will refer to a typical example of the kind of difficulties that may be encountered by researchers and experts while identifying cultural assets of this category in Russians museums. Russian Ministry of Culture has received an appeal of the heirs of the property owned by Maks Zilberberg who until 1939 resided in Breslau city (presently Wroclaw) and in 1941, perished in Ausschwitz. In March 1935, a work from Zilberberg private collection - the drawing "Naked" by Pol Sezan - was offered for sale in Graupe Auction House in Berlin, and was purchased for 200 Reich marks by the so-called Society of Friends of the National Gallery in Berlin. From that moment on, it was included in the books of the inventory of the National Gallery, and in 1945, it was taken to the Soviet Union together with other artefacts of the German National Museum as a compensation for Russia's cultural losses. Science researchers of the Hermitage who recently informed the public that the drawing by Sezan existed in their catalogue did not know and could not know that the drawing was the ownership of a person who later became a victim of the Holocaust. As far as we know, similar problems are encountered by the museums of France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and numerous other states, the collections of which store thousands of works of art whose origin is neither known or identified.
As far as we know, only a tiny share of the several thousands of works were returned to their previous owners. This stems from the lack of documents certifying ownership rights to these assets as well as absence of living lawful inheritors of the rights of the Holocaust victims. Here, I would like to voice my opinion that every instance of such restoration bears a huge moral and educational significance.
One of the key provisions of the Washington Declaration urges the states to make the archives completely open and accessible. In the latter time, Russia is often rebuked that it insufficiently satisfactorily enforces this recommendation. In our opinion, such claims are absolutely unsupported. First of all, it is necessary to fully understand what type of archival material is needed for such a research. We adhere to the principle that the archival material and evidence needed in the context of the investigated issue has to contain specific reference to the circumstances of the confiscation and further destiny of the cultural assets belonging to the Holocaust victims.
Data concerning cultural assets lost by millions of former citizens of the USSR who suffered from the Nazi repression may be found, though incomplete or only in fractions, in the material of the so-called Special State Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in the Occupied Soviet Territories. The archival stock of this commission with millions of documents and testimonies has always, I underscore, always been open to researchers.
A separate category of archival material is made up of documents pertaining to the activities of special trophy units of the Soviet Army, Soviet military administration in Germany, and Soviet cultural institutions which were turned into storehouses of the looted cultural assets. These archival collections are saved in several institutions within the system of the Russian Federal State Archive (RFSA). We have an impression that some of the international organisations dealing with the research of the Holocaust history expect that the collections of these archives will provide answers to almost every question, and keep trying to convince the global community of that. Such expectations are simply illusory. For several years already, the specialists of our ministry have been researching the resources of these archives. There is no evidence testifying that these archives store some of the assets, earlier considered as Germany possession, and therefore transported to the Soviet Union as a compensation for the losses of the Russian culture, though in fact they belonged to the Holocaust victims and were looted from them. What benefit can be gained by the researchers, even the highest-skilled ones, from the lists and inventory schedules indicating the whereabouts and quantity of boxes, or from the acceptance-transference acts drawn up by Russian museums? None, in fact!
Documents defining the circumstances of the confiscation of the Holocaust victims' cultural assets by Nazis and their further destiny are stored in German archives. As we know, the key role in the process of confiscating cultural property of the Holocaust victims was played by the so-called Reichsleiter Alfred Rozenberg Special Staff. The best and the most valuable part of the confiscated assets later appeared in the hands of the Special Commissioner to found Hitler's museum in Linz, in the private collections of other Nazi leaders, or in German museums. The Russian State Military Archive (RSMA) saves a part of the trophy-type archive of the Rosenberg Special Staff that concerns the actions of this criminal organisation in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union. For ten years already, the documents of this archive have been available to researchers, and recently, the RSMA published them. The major part of the archive of the Rosenberg Special Staff is, as we know, in the West, thus the answers to the issues relevant to researchers should be sought there. The same could be said about the archive of the Special Commissioner to found Hitler's museum in Linz": most of its material is stored in the National Archive in Washington and Federal Archive of the German Federal Republic in Koblenz. Therefore, the 20 thousand cards found in the US archives mentioned yesterday should be considered a treasure to the Holocaust researchers.
Russia is also often criticised for the failure to implement another important recommendation of the Washington Conference regarding creation of an all-inclusive international data bank on cultural assets of the Holocaust victims. We fully support the idea that without such a data bank, the practical search and identification of the Holocaust victims' cultural assets would be rather problematic. However, besides calls to take part in the creation of such a data bank, up to now, our Western partners have not produced any specific proposals for us. For the sake of truth, it has to be said that on the eve of the Vilnius Conference … [translators note: text is illegible]
We are always ready to co-operate if both sides see distinct objectives and tasks of the co-operation. We have some positive examples in this area. In accordance with the Order of the Russian Ministry of Culture, in October 2000, an international group of Russian, American and Dutch expert-researchers will start investigating the collections of well-known European musicians confiscated by the Reichsleiter Alfred Rosenberg Special Staff "Music", as well as Arthur Rubinstein archive in Paris. This research work will be followed up by some Russian museums … [translator's note: text is illegible].
We consider that the most feasible and effective way to find the cultural property of the Holocaust presumably stored in the repositories of Russian museums is as follows. We plan to apply a specially designed methodology to sort out the whole of the transferred cultural property and specify those museum exhibits of unknown and unidentified origin that are supposed to be the ownership of the Holocaust victims. To this end, we have already drawn up a Federal Register of Cultural Assets which will be published and placed on the international data bank, and the data will be made available to relevant international organisations and private persons.
Russia has already begun this work, which will be followed up in accordance with the provisions of the new Russian Law on the Creation and Publication of the General Catalogue of the Transferred Cultural Assets. In March 2000, the Russian Ministry of Culture issued a special instruction addressed to all museums and libraries storing transferred assets of history, art and libraries. It obliges them to make complete inventories of former special stocks presently being in their disposal before the end of the year. In spite of the budgetary problems, we expect to start selecting the museum assets assumed to belong to the Holocaust victims already next year, and we hold this work to be a priority. We would like to relieve the anxiety of those who see a correlation between the time of this work and the term of eighteen months to file claims concerning looted cultural assets, as fixed in the new Russian law. The term shall be calculated as of the moment of the publication of these assets and their opening to all interested individuals and organisations. In fact, I am convinced that a special category like the cultural property of the Holocaust victims will surely be applied certain concessions concerning the term of prescription as well as the procedures and conditions laid down in the law.
Thank you for your attention.
A more extensive text of my speech will be given over to the secretariat of the conference.
Vilnius International Forum on Holocaust-Era Looted Cultural Assets Website, accessed 27 November 2002. The website no longer exists (20 July 2007).