- - Monday, January 27, 2014

Edited by Natalya Semyonova and Nicholas V. Iljine
Abbeville, $75, 364 pages

Thick as a turnip and studded in jewels, “Selling Russia’s Treasures” resembles Russia herself — ungainly, fabled, polyglot, disparate, enigmatic and pierced with beauty: shining images from Faberge eggs to Regency parquetry, Novgorod icons, here a Florentine altarpiece, there a czar’s crown, orb and scepter. The book is the encyclopedic indictment of a crime against history — the Soviet government’s rape of Russia’s culture — and a flawed treasure in itself.

An anthology, its essays by a dozen scholars were published in Russia a decade ago. This updated edition, supported by the Paris-based M.T. Abraham Foundation and distributed by an America art house, boasts archival photos that speak volumes and prolix expositions that confound. (No one ever convinced the Russians, from Count Tolstoy onward, that less can be more.) Deserving thoughtful design and aggressive editing, the volume warrants attention even though one subtopic is old news.

Washington aficionados know that Andrew W. Mellon crowned his art collection with priceless paintings that he bought secretly from the Hermitage, the museum founded two centuries earlier by the mother of art collectors, Catherine the Great. Mellon’s 21 Hermitage pictures — incomparable works by Raphael, Botticelli, Van Eyck, Van Dyck and Rembrandt — became the core of our National Gallery of Art, the gift to the nation that he conceived, built and endowed.

Mellon personified raw capitalism as a banker and laissez-faire economics as a Treasury secretary, but to get his museum chartered by Congress, he teamed up with a political and intellectual nemesis, President Franklin Roosevelt. A decade earlier, he worked with even less likely collaborators than the founder of the New Deal. While serving in Herbert Hoover’s Cabinet and then as ambassador to Great Britain, Mellon struck secret deals with Kremlin apparatchiks in order to buy masterpieces for the eventual National Gallery. Both sides demanded secrecy, the Russians in part to keep prices high and minimize practical problems; Mellon in part because he was paying millions in cash to a government that the United States refused to recognize. (Whether or not this was illegal, it would have raised a righteous scandal.)

The fact that the Hermitage pictures came to grace the National Gallery has often seemed an American success story. This book, written from Russian perspectives, tells very different tales with awkward eloquence. As beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, so do tragedy and criminal hooliganism. The “Stalin sales” — to Mellon and a few other alpha collectors — arose from the orgy of nationalization that the Bolsheviks inflicted on their new nation. In a series of decrees enforced with guns and gulags, the young communist regime confiscated private property, first robbing royals, then in turn the rest of the aristocracy, the merchant classes and anyone else deemed an enemy of the proletariat.

Palaces were seized, their contents confiscated and sold abroad. Similarly, the church was forfeit: lands, icons, vestments, vessels — sometimes melted into bullion, sometimes just trashed by rioting thugs. One essay declares, “None of the earlier nationalizations, requisitions and sales can bear any comparison with that orgy of theft and cruelty the pillaging of the Russian Orthodox Church.”

The revolutionaries had a doctrinal motive and a practical one. To seize these signs of aristocratic wealth, aesthetic beauty and religious orthodoxy was to obliterate bourgeois decadence. Simultaneously, selling the loot on foreign markets brought hard currency to modernize industry and agriculture — to make good on Marx’s promised utopia. One essay states, “The Soviets could only survive among the ruins with the help of the international bourgeoisie, and for that, they required a lot of gold — merely restoring [railways] cost 300 million gold roubles.”

The People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment listed some allegedly inferior goods as follows: “Tsarist regalia and diamonds worth 750 million gold roubles; from the Winter Palace, 3,000 carats of diamonds, 31 poods of gold; from the Holy Trinity Monastery, 500 diamonds, 150 poods of silver; from the Solovetsky Monastery, 384 diamonds, about 10 pounds of gold, 84 poods of silver .” (One pood equals 36 pounds.) Mellon refused a Leonardo da Vinci because he thought it overpriced.

As the authors all assert, this sell-off was a catastrophe for Russia, and all the more appalling because it was visited on the nation by its own government. Collectors, museums and governments are properly the stewards — not absolute owners — of great art legacies. (Detroit: Take note.) Withal, there is an historical irony in the fact that much of Russia’s art was brought to St. Petersburg by Empress Catherine herself to the dismay of several European nations.

“Many a country has lost important pieces of its cultural heritage,” the editors write. “But it was a unique phenomenon that the Soviet Union officially sold off thousands of valuable artworks, icons and jewelry. As far as we know, it is the only state to have cynically discarded such treasures . It is little consolation that some of these masterpieces have found their way back into Western museums and are thus accessible to the public, as is the case, for example in the Washington National Gallery .

“If the millions who died in the years of repression could be returned to life, one might not so grieve the lost canvases. Alas, the dead cannot be brought back. But historical memory can, and that is the task that we set before ourselves in this book.”

Philip Kopper, who writes about American culture, is at work on a new edition of his museum history “America’s National Gallery of Art” (Harry N. Abrams, 1991).

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