On display in Russia museums: fears of items gone astray
After a curator at the renowned Hermitage made off with hundreds of
pieces, Putin ordered a national audit of museums. The report is due
soon, and officials are seeking to minimize its findings.
By Megan K. Stack
March 25, 2010 | 7:39 p.m.
Reporting from St. Petersburg, Russia – She was an unlikely bandit,
one of hundreds of middle-aged, down-at-the-heel curators who shuffle
through the former czarist palaces of the State Hermitage Museum.
But quietly, steadily, Larisa Zavadskaya was brewing a scandal that
would shake the art world from New York to Paris. She stuffed her
purse with hundreds of pieces of jewelry, icons and silverware, later
farming them out to antiques dealers.
The thefts came to light in 2005 when inspectors arrived to inventory
her department. Zavadskaya dropped dead of a heart attack on the spot.
Meanwhile, doubt swept the country’s cultural elite. If Zavadskaya had
stolen hundreds of pieces without being detected, what else had been
stolen, in the Hermitage or elsewhere?
Nobody denies the confusion lingering in museums across Russia after a
long history of painful political change, bureaucratic bungling and
bad bookkeeping. But nobody can say for sure how much damage has been
Since the Zavadskaya thefts, Russian officials have struggled to take
stock of the country’s cultural heritage. A massive national audit,
the first of its kind undertaken by post-Soviet Russia, was ordered by
an enraged and embarrassed then-President Vladimir Putin.
Thousands of officials from all nooks of Russia’s considerable state
bureaucracy fanned out to check the warehouses, basements and display
cases of more than 1,000 museums across the country.
As it turns out, there is plenty missing. The audit’s findings are due
for release any day, but Russia’s cultural officials have already
acknowledged that at least 87,000 pieces have vanished. Hundreds of
those belonged to the Hermitage.
The Russian government is eager to downplay the findings. Many of the
missing items were of minor interest, officials insist.
But in Russia, where skeptics are used to brushing aside the
assurances of the government, some observers worry that the report
reveals only part of the problem in the country’s museums.
International art experts, meanwhile, are incredulous at the auditing
“As an exercise, it strikes me as fantastic,” said Jon Whiteley, a
Russian art expert at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University. “But
to make it complete, I would have thought, would be nearly
That trail of doubt stretches here, to the city invented by Peter the
Great in his eagerness to open Russia to the West — and to the
hallowed, art-lined halls of the Hermitage.
With its 3 million pieces of art and artifacts stored in the cavernous
palaces of a bygone empire, the Hermitage has been the heart of
Russian art ever since Catherine the Great bought troves of European
paintings and sculpture, creating the core that would swell into
This inherited splendor carries a heavy symbolic weight in today’s
Russia. Unlike many other institutions, the Hermitage has survived the
blood and turmoil of revolution and collapse. Today it is acknowledged
to be as good — possibly better — than any similar institution in
the West. The Louvre is widely considered the world’s only comparable
collection, and few art lovers dare to pick sides.
For decades, the Hermitagestaff operated on the honor system. Only
with the revelation of the Savadskaya thefts did the museum install a
complete web of security cameras and metal detectors. The director is
Mikhail Piotrovsky is Hermitage royalty and a longtime political ally
of St. Petersburg native Putin. His father presided over the
collection for 26 years until his death in 1990; Piotrovsky ascended
to the job in 1992.
Today he calls the museum a “police state.”
“I think it’s very bad,” he said of the security cameras and bag
checks. “It means we don’t trust them. And the museum is a place of
trust; it’s a human place.”
The discovery of the Savadskaya thefts drew angry calls for
Piotrovsky’s resignation, but he shrugged them off and blamed a
shadowy conspiracy. The robberies at the Hermitage were “an inside and
an outside job,” he said, with the true goal not to seize items of
relatively small value but to “make a scandal.”
“Maybe it’s paranoid,” he acknowledged, declining to elaborate.
Many art experts defend Piotrovsky and his management of the
Hermitage. Theft happens everywhere, they argue, and should be viewed
“Art professionals think of the Hermitage as a professional museum
with a sophisticated staff, with an intelligent director,” said John
Bowlt, a historian of Russian art at USC. “I don’t think nuances of
immoral behavior are detected at the Hermitage.”
The security of Russian art, however, has been questioned for decades.
Viktor Petrakov, head of the federal department for the preservation
of cultural property, has labored for years to keep Russia’s
collections intact. He acknowledges disorganization in many museums.
“They violate the rules of accounting,” Petrakov said. “The set of
rules that exist today were adopted in Soviet times, and they’re not
enforced or implemented.”
Piotrovsky bridles at talk of bookkeeping.
“We can’t make the museum a bank,” he said. “We can’t make the museum
a prison. We can’t make the museum a concentration camp.”
In the years after the Bolsheviks overran the Winter Palace during the
revolution that toppled the czar, the collections were ravaged by
looting — and later depleted by Soviet rulers who plucked pieces at
whim and passed them out as gifts.
And as chaotic attempts at democracy in the 1990s gave way to the more
autocratic Russia overseen by Putin, fresh doubts were stirred about
the Hermitage — and quickly squelched.
Yuri Boldyrev, a prominent politician who helped found the opposition
Yabloko party,was deputy head of the government’s national audit
chamber in the late 1990s. He spent years investigating the Hermitage.
A report he completed in 2001 was a scathing condemnation: It alleged
that more than 220,000 pieces had fallen off the books.
Investigators asked to see 50 pieces — the museum could only come up
with three. Insurance paperwork and proofs of authenticity were
missing. Cleaning had been double-billed and charged to a shell
Boldyrev’s controversial conclusion was that the museum was being run
with enough deliberate ambiguity to allow corruption, and even theft,
to take place without leaving a trace.
His report was greeted with fury by the Hermitage. While acknowledging
mistakes in paperwork and accounting, the museum vigorously denied
allegations of missing artwork and corruption.
Today, Russian officials dismiss the report as biased. It has
disappeared from the audit chamber’s website. Boldyrev left government
Two years later, as Putin worked to centralize authority, the audit
chamber became a body responsible to the president.
“We see the same old people in the same old positions,” Boldyrev said.
“Or even higher.”
Meanwhile, the ambiguity he cited years ago continues to surround the