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How an art museum in Russia became the target of Kremlin police raids

modes of thought

The Nicholas Roerich Museum in Moscow houses more than $100 million in art and archives dedicated to the peace-loving Russian artist and mystic. But it has become the center of a tug of war between sketchy bankers and the Ministry of Culture.

A Christie's employee adjusts a painting called 'Sanctuaries and Citadels' by Nicholas Roerich at Christie's auction rooms in London in May 2013.
Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP/File
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Caption
  • Nick Holdsworth
    Contributor

It is not hard to find the influence of Nicholas Roerich in this city if you know where to look.

Not that the 20th century mystic and artist is obscure here – among Russia's cultured classes, he is well known for his visionary Tibetan landscapes and spiritually allegorical art. But he is also famed for his lifelong devotion to the cause of global peace, perhaps best through a peace symbol of his devising: three red dots arranged like a small pyramid within a red circle.

The symbol featured in Roerich's art, and can still be found adorning his devotees – including dyed into the cropped hair of a young waiter working at a Moscow bar, just a few minutes walk from the Nicholas Roerich Museum. The museum, housed in buildings of the grand 17th century Lopukhin Estate, is home of the International Center of the Roerichs (ICR), a public foundation that cares for a collection of Roerich art and family archives worth more than $100 million.

But despite Roerich's influence and peace-loving philosophy, the museum has also become the site of a surprisingly aggressive tug of war – highlighted by a riot police raid on its collection in March – as powerful vested interests vie for control over the foundation's wealth.

The museum claims the raid – an unprecedented action in Russia against such a high profile cultural body – is part of a long-running and increasingly aggressive campaign backed by Russia's Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky to seize control of its collection and force it to merge with the State Museum of Oriental Art. The government counters that much of the institution's wealth was dirty, donated by ICR benefactor Boris Bulochnik who had allegedly stolen it from his bank's depositors.

And in the middle are those within the ICR who follow Roerich's philosophy, a Eurasian, Indian-influenced system that falls outside the norms of Russia's official founding religions. Though Roerich's followers see themselves as protectors of his legacy, authorities view them as naive, fringe pawns caught in the middle of the fray to control the treasure of Roerich's fortune.

A bank, a museum, and a raid

The ICR curates a collection of thousands of painting, drawing, artifacts, and archives in the care of the ICR, a nongovernmental public organization that was originally established by Roerich's youngest son, Svetoslav, in 1989, in the twilight days of the Soviet Union.

ICR head Alexander Stetsenko, a former Russian army colonel and veteran of the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan, says that although the museum enjoyed the support of previous culture chiefs, since 2013 it has been under growing pressure from what looks like an orchestrated campaign by senior Kremlin officials to force it into the state fold.

The museum has been subjected to a string of snap inspections by building and fire safety inspectors; its lease revoked for alleged breaches of the tenancy agreement after the estate was transferred from Moscow city government control to that of the federal property agency Rosimushchestvo; dubbed a "sect" by state museum officials; and is now subject of an eviction order handed down by a Moscow city arbitration court on March 22.

The biggest event came March 7, when state investigators from Russia's Ministry of the Interior, backed by 60 masked and armed members of Russia's OMON riot police, raided the museum, seizing 197 works of art, including 45 paintings, by Roerich and Svetoslav. The raid was assisted by officials from the Ministry of Culture, the State Museum of Oriental Art, and a Roerich expert affiliated with New York's privately owned Nicholas Roerich Museum.

Investigators claimed the art works – which included such famous works as Nicholas Roerich's "Easter Night" (1934), a depiction of a torch-lit religious procession on the steps of an Orthodox church under a clear starry night, and a 1925 portrait of a lama – were evidence in a fraud case involving Mr. Bulochnik, the former chairman of Russia's Master Bank.

Bulochnik is a follower of Roerich. Master Bank, which closed in November 2013 after losing its license, was reportedly named for Roerich – whom devotees called "the master" – and had even employed a version of Roerich's peace symbol as a corporate logo.

But the bank – which included a cousin of Russian President Vladimir Putin on its board – was also reputed to be a major conduit for illegal cash flow. Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky referred to it after its closure as "Russia's seediest bank." And its chairman, now subject of a separate criminal case of causing "deliberate bankruptcy," for many years gave money and works of art to the museum as its key benefactor – in retrospect, tainting the ICR itself.

What's going on?

For its part, the ICR claims to be the victim of a power play by envious members of the Ministry of Culture and its allies in Russia's museum "establishment." At stake, they say, are not only millions of dollars' worth of art but the spiritual legacy of Roerich.

"If Russian officials want something, they often accuse people of belonging to sects or posing a danger to the state," Mr. Stetsenko says. "They are fighting not only against the culture and ethics of Nicholas Roerich, but against his philosophical concepts that are supported by UNESCO. To speak of tolerance in Russia today is impossible."

The ICR is appealing the eviction order and is seeking international support to prevent it being forced out and its collection appropriated by the Russian state for incorporation in a proposed state Roerich museum.

The Russian Ministry of Culture, Moscow's State Museum of Oriental Art (MOA) and the privately owned New York Nicholas Roerich Museum, see it differently. Tigran Mkrtychev, deputy general director for scientific work at MOA, casts the dispute as a clash between professionals and amateurs.

"[The Moscow Roerich Museum] is not a typical museum; it looks like a chapel that belongs to the Roerich family and its visitors like participants of a sect," he says.

He adds that that once the eviction process is completed the Ministry of Culture wants him to establish a state Roerich museum at the Lopukhin Estate. "I have a task from the government to organize a state museum, not to destroy a public organization." The new museum would have a "more academic view of the heritage of Roerich", he insists.

Mr. Mkrtychev denies that undue force was used on March 7 and says there was nothing unusual in the Interior Ministry's action – taking armed paramilitaries to support investigation committee officials is normal practice in Russia. But observers agree that the raid fits a Kremlin pattern of punishing perceived troublemakers.

A 'long story'

Alexander Baunov, a senior associate of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said: "It boils down to two factors – ideology and a property struggle. The raid, the intimidation, the pressure is basically something that happens in business during aggressive takeovers. This is combined with a new ideology today that is really about promoting traditional religion in Russia."

Roerich Museum has long been viewed as a thorn in the side of its powerful neighbor, the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, which has ambitious plans to create a museum quarter in the heart of Moscow and has been behind the relocation of tenants from neighboring buildings, Mr. Baunov added.

But Alla Shustova, a researcher from the Institute of Oriental Studies who has closely followed the long-running Roerich saga over the years, says: "This story has been going on for even longer than Bulochnik was involved; it goes back to Soviet times," when the Roerich collection was held under a governmental "Soviet Fund of Roerich." Ms. Shustova says that the Roerich collection was never legally transferred from the Fund to the ICR, meaning the ICR never had rights to the art in its possession.

She also suggests that the museum may be a victim of both an ignorant ministry and its own managers and benefactors. "There are people there of two types: the leadership and simple workers. The simple workers are naive and even fanatical; the management, such as Stetsenko and his colleagues are not naive at all. They have set themselves against the government, the ministry of culture, the Museum of the East and other Roerich supporters. That is their position; they have a lot to lose." Shustova adds that the best solution for posterity may be to put the art in state hands. "Creating a state museum of Roerich is the best option – it will keep Roerich’s heritage out of the hands of oligarchs."

Mkrtychev says that under the criminal investigation the 197 seized works of art will be subject to careful scrutiny and, being stored in at the State Museum of Oriental Art, he guarantees their security.

The degree to which Russia's cultural establishment has closed ranks against the Roerich Museum was underlined when Mikhail Piotrovsky, head of St. Petersburg's world-famous Hermitage Museum told Rossiyskaya Gazeta – the official Russian government newspaper – that the museum would be better off as a state institution – because then it would not have to "suffer for the sins of its patron."

The ICR plans to appeal its eviction notice and is rallying international support for its cause.

That cause became even more acute Friday April 28 when Alexander Sedov, the head of the State Museum of Oriental Art, accompanied by police, arrived at the Roerich Museum, ejected staff and visitors attending a piano concert and had the building sealed. The IRC claims the legal process is not yet exhausted and that Mr. Sedov had no documentation or legal authority to close the museum.

The Russian Ministry of Culture later said the action had been taken "to safeguard the Lopukhin Estate." Ministry official Kirill Rybak added that a special commission would be established to determine legal ownership of the museum's contents, insisting that "what belongs to the IRC is its property – which no one claims."

Despite that statement, the IRC say that on Saturday night, State Museum of Oriental Art officials, investigators, and around 100 police returned, cut chains barring entrance to the Roerich Museum with an angle grinder, entered the premises, and removed property belonging to the museum and IRC members. Mr. Rybak has dubbed the ICR's claim a provocation, but Mikhail Fedotov, the head of Russia's presidential human rights council, has launched a formal investigation into the incidents.

UNESCO, whose Director General Irina Bokova visited the Roerich Museum in 2015, is also investigating and says it is "currently seeking further information in order to be able to assess fully the situation on site."

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