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The Museum of Religion in St Petersburg has admitted to having looted items in its possession and is involved in tangled negotiations with the Church

Former atheist goes to confession

St Petersburg

Officials at the Museum of Religion in St Petersburg have for the first time admitted to possessing World War II trophy art in their collection.

When asked by The Art Newspaper whether or not the museum possessed trophy art, Stanislav Kuchinsky, the museum’s director, admitted that it did, but would not provide much detail. A former museum curator had recently tipped off The Art Newspaper about the trophy art, saying its existence “has long been a closely guarded secret.”

Mr Kuchinsky explained his museum’s behaviour by saying the issue “is complicated” because the art, most of which was found by Soviet troops near the end of the war in the German city of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad), is not only German in origin, but includes Nazi trophy art taken from countries such as Poland. The works in question are religious in nature, but Mr Kuchinsky did not provide details as to what is there and how much.

Mr Kuchinsky’s caution can be explained by the fact that according to Russian law, trophy art which previously belonged to Russia’s World War II allies and victims of the Nazi regime must be returned to the original owners.

“According to the Law on Cultural Valuables, we are obliged to conduct thorough research of trophy art and to make such knowledge public, and we are doing that now,” said Pavel Khoroshilov, Russia’s deputy Culture Minister. “However, it is a huge task, requiring a lot of hard and tedious work. Until we are able to survey everything we have in our possession, it will be hard to say what is from the war’s victims, and what is from the Nazis and their allies.” Mr Khoroshilov, however, added that the vast majority of Russian trophy art was once German property. The Museum of Religion has 180,000 items in its collection and is the only museum in the world dedicated solely to study of all the world’s religions. The museum is now completing a difficult and costly move from the Kazan Cathedral, where it has been since 1932, into its own building in the city centre.

In Soviet times, the museum was known first as the Museum of Religion and Atheism, and then, in the 1960s, the name was changed to just the Museum of Atheism. In the early 1990s, the name was changed to the Museum of Religion.

In December Russian secular and religious leaders signed an agreement finally transferring ownership of the Kazan Cathedral back to the Russian Orthodox Church, after more than eighty years of State control.

Reaching such an agreement, which has taken nearly a decade, was fraught with tension between Church and State, with church officials accusing the museum of dragging its feet, and museum officials claiming they have little money to move into new premises.

Only in 1998 did money from the federal programme, “The Preservation and Development of the Historic Centre of St Petersburg”, began to make the renovation (which will continue to 2001) of the new museum building possible.

Another bone of contention centres on items that have gone missing from the cathedral.

According to Dmitri Polov, the chief conservationist working on the restoration of the Kazan Cathedral, the museum is moving out with both ritual and decorative items that previously belonged to the Cathedral.

“Among the things missing are two bronze bas-reliefs that previously hung on the wall near the main entrance,” said Mr Polov, who said he had already successfully wrangled with the museum to get back other items which he saw in their collection and which he knew, based on old photographs, to have previously belonged to the Cathedral.

Museum officials vehemently deny this, and point out that they have in fact returned up to 216 items to the Kazan cathedral that were looted by the Bolsheviks.

“Many people like to demonise our museum because it was previously called the Museum of Atheism, and many see our collection as made up of items that were pillaged from churches, synagogues, mosques, Buddhist temples, etc.,” said museum director Kuchinsky. “But many forget that if it wasn't for our museum and the efforts of our staff, many of these artifacts would have just been thrown away.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Former atheist goes to confession'