Russia's Endangered Art

March 05, 1992

Art news from Russia is not good these days. Many theater and dance companies are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy now that the props of communism have collapsed. Writers are finding out it was easier to be daring in conditions of repression than it is to be innovative now that the official curbs are gone. The new situation is also presenting challenges to the country's musicians. Life without state salaries can be a struggle.

All this pales in comparison with the misfortunes that have falleon Russia's priceless treasuries of art. Many of them are being plundered by organized criminals who then smuggle the loot out of the country and sell it to covetous Western dealers. Antique shops in Helsinki, Finland, are full of ancient maps stolen from Russian collections. Half a dozen emporiums operated in Berlin by emigres are brimming with rare religious icons and sacramental artifacts smuggled out by conduits such as Russian soldiers and Third World diplomats.

This is not Russia's problem alone. Reports from Czechoslovakia, Poland and Bulgaria suggest they, too, are being cleaned out of valuables. "Most everything of value has already left the country," Nowa Europa, a Polish newspaper complained recently. In Czechoslovakia, clergy are now appealing to Western Europeans not to buy religious art from Bohemia because so much of it is stolen.

The situation in Russia is aggravated because many of that country's major collections were not open to the public when the collapse of communism threw them into institutional uncertainty.

Whole sections of major libraries in Moscow and St. Petersburg had been closed because of fires or unsafe buildings, making them easy targets for thieves. Moscow's famed Tretyakov Gallery has been closed for repairs for six years and its reopening apparently is years away. Many of the gallery's 1,000 workers are threatening to quit because inflation has reduced their pay to a pittance. Meanwhile the gallery's collections of more than 100,000 artworks spanning 1,000 years of Russian history are threatened.

"We cannot really allow such gems as the Tretyakov Gallery to fall apart in front of our eyes," says Vladimir Kryuchkov, a lawmaker in the Russian parliament. But if his "Save the Tretyakov Gallery" campaign is to succeed, the Tretyakov -- just like all other formerly Soviet institutions from factories to scientific think tanks -- has to slim down and wake up to the fact that the endless state subsidies it used to enjoy are history.

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