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The Spoils of War

Review of “Beautiful Loot: The Soviet Plunder of Europe’s Art Treasures,” by Konstantin Akinsha and Grigorii Kozlov with Sylvia Hochfield

Beautiful Loot, by Konstantin Akinsha and Grigorii Kozlov

No regime has ever been less sensitive to art than the Soviet Union. Stalin’s merciless destruction of many of the great monuments of Russia is a tragedy surpassed in its wanton indignity only by his merciless destruction of his own population. What he did not destroy, he sold (much of it to Andrew Mellon, from whom it passed to the National Gallery in Washington), without regard for the history that had placed the works in Russia. Nikita Khrushchev destroyed thousands more of Russia’s great churches and historic buildings, and demonstrated wild ignorance of and contempt for cultural production. Throughout the Soviet period, much that had survived the Russian Revolution was banished from view because it was bourgeois or capitalist or just Western. And once the great avant-garde period of the 1920’s passed, the regime’s efforts to forestall any real creative work quite nearly arrested the development of the Russian imagination.

So it is striking to find that as World War II ended, the Russians gave high priority to ransacking foreign museums, kidnapping a lot of the world’s best art. In Beautiful Loot, Konstantin Akinsha and Grigory Kozlov, two former Soviet museum curators now doing research in Germany, and Sylvia Hochfield, an editor for Art News magazine, tell the fascinating and bizarre story of how some 2.5 million cultural objects were removed to the Soviet Union; the equally bizarre story of how some of them were returned, mostly to East Germany, in the 50’s; and the startling news of what has happened to the others. The book is almost sickeningly fascinating: a catalogue of abuse, propaganda, theft, cheating, secrecy and mystery.

Organized trophy brigades, dispatched from the Soviet Union in 1945, traveled in Germany, Hungary and elsewhere to find cultural valuables that could be taken as compensation for Soviet war losses. The contents of entire museums — the Dresden Gallery, the Leipzig Museum of Fine Arts, the Bremen Kunsthalle and more — poured into a country that did not have the resources to repair its own war damage. If you have ever employed moving men and watched them crush your dearest belongings into inappropriate crates with callous disregard and toss your most fragile valuables through the air, then you will have some sense of what it is like to read this book. There are stories of a panel painting by Andrea del Brescianino being used as a camp table, of nudes by Tiepolo and Rodin being pasted on army trucks for the titillation of soldiers, of trains loaded with Rembrandts that were sent without heating through the freezing weather to Moscow. One officer, anxious not to be seen as criticizing the Red Army but wishing to notify his superiors of what was happening, mentioned in a dispatch that canvases by Leonardo, Velazquez, Lorrain, Murillo and others were “burning very well” in the campfires of unruly soldiers. Pictures were ripped off their stretchers, drenched with water, stuck into basements and abandoned monasteries; furniture and sculpture, in quantities measured in freight cars, were broken and left lying around in museum courtyards. What is really amazing is how durable the stuff was, how much of it survived; by the time you get through this book you are relieved and surprised that there is any art left in the world.

Like everything else in the Soviet Union, the pillaging activities were of monumental scale; at one point, there were even optimistic discussions about removing Rheims Cathedral, stone by stone, to Moscow. But a basic protocol for the cataloguing and transport of art was beyond the scope of the authorities. “One never gets anywhere with them,” complained a German who was trying to save art from being ravaged. “The lowest echelon says it will refer the matter to the proper higher echelon, but one never hears anything further and action is never taken.” Looting was conducted by several different government bodies, frequently forbidden to speak to one another, and the private looting by members of the military was unremitting. Soviet press reports celebrated this activity as “saving” art that would have been destroyed in Germany; information about what had been taken and where it went was secret, however. Almost none of it was ever displayed in Russia. Most was hidden in strange basements and secret depositories — though when Mr. Akinsha and Mr. Kozlov began their research, they found that much of the “classified” information about this art was in fact in public files that were so unorganized that “the filing system was better than outright secrecy”: the art had been lost to both the public and the state.

Many of the dramatic scenes in this book are overwritten, and one is perpetually distracted by insignificant events that are recounted as though earth-shattering: the description of the attack on the authors’ archives, of how they planned to smuggle their material out of the country in the face of K.G.B. interference, becomes slightly ridiculous when you discover that their dacha had in fact just been broken into by a local drunk. But despite all this, the investigative reporting is superb: Mr. Akinsha and Mr. Kozlov are the Woodward and Bernstein of the biggest scandal in art history. Their discoveries, however, point only to questions; the future of the works located largely through their efforts must yet be negotiated.

They strongly favor returning the works to the countries they came from because they had been stolen. It can also be persuasively argued that there is a long tradition of war trophies, the rightful ownership of which would be harder to disentangle than the conflicting historical claims of ethnic groups in Yugoslavia, and that art should just stay where it is. The tragedy here is not so much the theft of the work as the hiding and abuse of it, that it was kept in locked secret depositories and seen by no one. There is a hilariously terrible explanation of Stalin’s closing of the Pushkin Museum to make way for the display of objects created by “people’s industry” from “people’s democracies.” Visitors to the museum building looked at “a belt woven by a Hungarian woman who had lost her hands during the war and created the gift with her feet” while the gold unearthed at Troy by Heinrich Schliemann in the 19th century and taken by the Russians from Berlin was secreted below.

The book sadly fails to note the larger implications of its story. It neither considers in any profound way the role cultural materials play in international relations nor examines what these cultural thefts say about the Soviet Communists’ image of themselves as avenging angels. At a time when the American Government is devaluing cultural institutions, it is worth looking closely at these almost military uses of art. The Soviet authorities thought about art so much, and treated it so badly — it’s a strange, sad juxtaposition with disturbing resonance here, where just now so many in government are destructively obsessed with the arts.