Last week -- with about as much notice as the German Wehrmacht gave the Soviet Union when itinvaded in June 1941 -- Moscow's Pushkin Museum opened an exhibition of art masterpieces. The 63 works -- including paintings by El Greco, Goya and Renoir -- were brought back as booty from Germany when the Russians won the Great Patriotic War in 1945. Meanwhile, in St. Petersburg, the Hermitage Museum is putting the final touches on ""Hidden Treasures Revealed,'' featuring more than 70 impressionist and postimpressionist works liberated from a defeated Germany, to open March 30. Art lovers everywhere are relieved to know that these long-lost works weren't destroyed and can be seen in public again. But the shows have also prompted a nasty controversy over the issue of cultural repatriation.
Triumphant armies have long carried away the loser's art. The Louvre has Veronese's ""Wedding at Cana'' because Napoleon stole it from Venice. He also tried to remove the Horses of St. Mark, but the Duke of Wellington made him give them back to the Venetians . . . who'd taken them from the Byzantines. But the Nazis were particularly wanton, as Lynn Nicholas documents in her award-winning book, ""The Rape of Europa.'' ""You have to be a little bit sympathetic to the Russian point of view because the Germans destroyed so much,'' she says. Feelings about repatriating art run especially high with the Russians, who kept much of what they held secret up until the early '90s. Then a small window of reconciliation opened, only to close again when the country was gripped by nationalist fervor.
When a German TV crew arrived at the Pushkin opening last week, the museum's director, Irina Antonova, 72, waved them off, saying they should pay for the right to film it; otherwise they'd be ""stealing.'' ""Soviet troops saved these art works while the Fascists wrecked ours,'' she said. ""We deserve some form of compensation.'' The show's inclusion of eight paintings theNazis had appropriated from the private collections of Hungarian Jews is especially offensive to some. ""I think it's a scandal to hang a painting from a German collection next to a painting from a private Jewish collection, especially one acquired by Eichmann just as he sent hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz,'' says Willi Korte, a German historian whose specialty is tracking works removed from postwar Germany. Konstantin Akinsha, a Russian scholar instrumental in uncovering the existence of German art in Russia, is even more scathing: ""I don't see the difference between the nationalist orgy at the Pushkin and what's happening in Chechnya. Russia is drifting in a rightward direction.''
In 1945, the so-called Trophy Commissions were set up in the Soviet Union -- personally overseen by Stalin -- to collect reparations, mostly industrial and military material. But the Red Army discovered another windfall: art collections deposited for safekeeping in special bunkers beneath Berlin's museums and other buildings. Five days before Germany's surrender, the Soviets began sending trainloads of treasures east. In addition to the art the Pushkin and Hermitage are making public, the loot is believed to have included (among 2.5 million items) almost the entire contents of Berlin's East Asian Museum, 3,500 paintings from the Potsdam palaces of the Prussian kings, Titians and Bruegels from the Dresden museums, and Leipzig University's Gutenberg Bible. Antonova herself helped unload some of the special trains arriving in Moscow in 1945.
The case can be made that Germany deserved to lose everything. Besides pillaging the Jews he annihilated all over Europe, Hitler also set out to extinguish Slavic culture. His troops plundered and burned more than 400 museums on their way to Moscow. Russia says it is missing 200,000 art works, including tons of amber carried away from the Catherine Palace outside Leningrad. And what the Soviets saved cost them dearly: every work in the Hermitage survived the siege of Leningrad, but 500,000 people (half the city's population) died in the battle.
Americans cannot sit back smugly and watch the spectacle of art-grabbing between Russia and Germany, for our own occupation record is not spotless. According to one account, in July 1945, the U.S. military payroll in Berlin was about $1 million. The amount of postal money orders purchased by entrepreneurial GIs: $4 million. One enterprising lieutenant smuggled gold-and-jewel-encrusted reliquaries from the cathedral in Quedlinburg back home to Texas. In 1991 Germany quietly paid off his heirs with $2.75 million and got some ofthe works back -- but not before the Dallas Museum of Art exhibited the treasures, Pushkin style.
Taking art as spoils of war has been against international law since the 1907 Hague Convention. During the 1940s and '50s, the U.S.S.R. did send many art works back to East Germany, but returned nothing to the West. In 1990, however, Mikhail Gorbachev signed a treaty stipulating that all misappropriated art would be mutually returned. A 1992 accord set up a Russo-German restitution commission. Today, Germany says it returned everything that could be found. But the Russian political climate has changed. Economic turmoil, social decay and a disintegrating empire have turned the government severely to the right. No more wimpy givebacks. The return of 6,000 volumes (including a 1541Bible) to Germany's Gotha library was blocked at the last minute by customs officials. A former army officer's private attempt to return old-master drawings taken from the Bremen Kunsthalle collection was likewise derailed last year. The Russian Parliament has suspended the return of all art and is now considering a law that would nationalize Russia's spoils of war.
The hard-line position may be a minority viewpoint within Russia. Pragmatists are willing to admit that prewar owners are legal owners. On a recent trip to New York, Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovski indicated he favored returning to Germany the bulk of the booty, but leaving some art behind for the Hermitage and other museums. (One expert has called it the ""let's make a deal'' approach.) The Pushkin plans to show more spoils: in September, an exhibit of a Dutch drawings collection, said to be worth $100 million, by such artists as Rembrandt, Durer and Cezanne, and in January, a show of ancient gold excavated by Heinrich Schliemann at Troy in the 19th century. But the thrill of revelation won't make the issue of repatriation go away.