Curating under Communism ‘Politicians Come and Go, But Art Is Eternal’
Irina Antonova has been director of Moscow’s Pushkin Museum since just after Stalin died. In an interview with SPIEGEL, she discusses Vladimir Putin’s attitudes to art, her childhood in Nazi Germany and why Russia shouldn’t have to return cultural treasures taken from Germany after World War II.
Even when former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and former Russian President Boris Yeltsin were sweating peacefully in the sauna together, or later when President Vladimir Putin and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder were sitting in a sled together in St. Petersburg, a historical burden continued to tarnish German-Russian relations — despite the fact that the Soviet Union had collapsed in 1991 and the Cold War was part of the past.
To this day, looted German art — known as “trophy art” in Moscow — lies in the vaults of Russian museums. Promises to reach mutually acceptable solutions to the problem have never been kept.
The different terms that the two countries use for the art treasures in question are revealing. Berlin views the works of art carried off by the Red Army after the end of World War II, on Stalin’s orders, as stolen and is demanding their return. Moscow sees them as moral compensation for the atrocities that Germans committed during the war. Russia’s “Extraordinary State Commission to Examine and Investigate German-Fascist Crimes Committed by the Invaders and their Accomplices on Soviet Territory” had listed 427 Soviet museums and 4,000 libraries that fell victim to the Germans. According to the commission, more than 110 million books and publications were destroyed. In February 1997, the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, which was controlled by a majority of communists and nationalists at the time, declared the disputed artworks from Germany to be the permanent property of Russia.
The return of the art to Germany has also become an increasingly distant prospect because the previously strong relations between Berlin and Moscow have cooled considerably in recent years. The festival launching the “Germany Year” in Russia was opened in mid-June without the heads of state of either country. Owing to his busy schedule, President Putin apparently lacked the time to meet with German President Joachim Gauck.