Who dissipates the Roerichs’ legacy?
A no joking tussle has broken out around a famous museum in Moscow
”Sobesednik” newspaper, No. 3, 2004.
Not very long ago, famous workers of science and culture applied to President of Russia V. V. Putin through the Russian mass media. The appeal reason was the forthcoming 100th anniversary of out outstanding compatriot – artist and thinker Svetoslav Roerich. Despite the mutual agreement of the Governments of Russia and India, our country, unlike India, not only has not started preparation for the jubilee celebration, but has not even set up the state commission for such preparation. The RF Ministry of Culture unwillingness to celebrate S. N. Roerich’s anniversary at a proper level must be due to its many-year struggle against the Roerichs’ child – the Centre-Museum by name of N. K. Roerich, one of the most popular museums in the capital. We are talking about the inner reasons of the conflict which, according to the appeal, “threatens the Roerichs’ legacy with destruction” with General Director of the International Centre-Museum by name of N. K. Roerich , Editor-in-Chief of magazine “Kultura i Vremya” (“Culture and Time”) Ludmila Shaposhnikova.
— Ludmila Vassilyevna, what is the object that the Ministry and the Museum could not divide?
— It is not a problem of dividing. The problem is execution of Svetoslav Roerich’s will. Already in 1989, he wrote a letter in which he suggested creating a museum named after his father – Nicholas Roerich. He suggested transferring his parents’ legacy to this museum, but on one condition – the museum was to be non-state and have a public status.
— Why did he insist on it?
— Perestroika was under way in the country, and he, being a far-seeing man, visionary, understood that it was a great risk to rely on the state. By that time, he had experience of interaction with this state which was not the best. Several public foundations had already been created in the USSR by that time – the Cultural Foundation, Children’s Foundation, Foundation of Peace. Svetoslav Roerich did not want that the museum be subordinated to the Ministry of Culture or the State Museum of Oriental Art. He wrote that such subordination would “narrow fulfillment of the cultural tasks”.
And he suggested to establish a foundation for the future museum maintenance. At the end of 1989, the USSR Council of Ministers issued its resolution. The Government supported the idea of establishing a public Soviet Roerich Foundation and the Centre-Museum by name of N. K. Roerich as the Foundation main base. The Foundation was granted certain privileges: for example, exemption of import and export duties, tax exemption, etc. Those were important economic privileges which we were supposed to use to make the Foundation work. In November, after the resolution was issued, Svetoslav Roerich came to Moscow himself. By that time, he was already not quite healthy, he had undergone two surgeries, and, of course, was happy to hear that the things got rolling. He met President of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev, they spoke about the Roerichs Foundation. Svetoslav Roerich invited me to come to Bangalore to “work with the legacy”, as he put it. I worked in India for three months preparing the legacy for export to the USSR. For this purpose, the USSR President provided a special flight.
The brought legacy of N. K. and H. I. Roerichs comprised paintings, an extensive archive, personal belongings, relics, a library; the Moscow City Executive Committee provided to Svetoslav Roerich for the museum the Lopukhins’ estate in Maly Znaminsky lane in Moscow, near the A. S. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.
— Is it possible that the Minister of Culture be opposed to the museum? What is the conflict reason?
— In 1974, Svetoslav Roerich brought to Moscow his and his father’s paintings for the anniversary of Nicholas Roerich who would have been 100 years old in that year. The jubilee was celebrated at the level of the Government. After the jubilee, Roerich left the paintings (288 canvases) with the Ministry of Culture. They were exhibited in this country. In 1990, when Svetoslav Roerich executed the document for the legacy transfer to the Soviet Roerich Foundation, he included in it the paintings left in the USSR with the Ministry of Culture as well. We applied to the Ministry with the request to hand over to us those paintings. And it is already 15 years that we have been waiting. Ministers change, and the department, under various pretexts, continues to keep the paintings that it does not own.
— What pretexts?
— First, they said that we have no place to store the paintings. At that time, we were really repairing the estate which was in a half-ruined state. But we managed to agree with the Museum of the Ministry of Internal Affairs upon lease of part of its storage. We signed the agreement, brought it to the Ministry of Culture. Minister of Culture Deputy T. H. Nikitina promised to return to us the paintings within a week. But the week passed, another one passed – nothing happened. Only after some time it became clear that the Ministry had set up a commission which was to decide if it was possible to move the Roerichs’ paintings from the Museum of Oriental Art where they were kept in temporary custody to the Museum by name of N. K. Roerich.
The commission decision was not in our favor, as it should have been expected. In 1922, S. N. Roerich wrote to President of Russia B. N. Yeltsin a letter with the request to hand over to the Museum by name of N. K. Roerich the paintings “illegally kept by the Museum of Oriental Art”. Yeltsin gave his instruction to the Ministry of Culture which was never fulfilled by that department. After Svetoslav Roerich’s death in January 1993, the situation aggravated even more. Not even a month had passed, and the Oriental Museum, with the assistance of the Ministry of Culture, included the Roerichs’ collection in the state part of the museum fund. It was done illegally, as neither the Ministry of Culture, nor the Oriental Museum had any relevant documents.
Finally, in 2001, we filed an action with the Moscow City Arbitration Court with the claim to return the paintings. The Ministry of Culture as the defendant had no documents confirming its rights to the paintings.
— Did the Arbitration Court defend you?
— On the contrary. Arbitration Courts of all levels delivered the same judgment – our Centre is not the organization entitled to hold these paintings.
— And on what grounds?
— Just because before we were the Soviet Roerich Foundation. And after the USSR collapse in 1991, we were renamed into the International Centre of the Roerichs (ICR). The argument was that Svetoslav Roerich transferred the legacy to the Soviet Foundation, not to the International Centre. But nothing changed in our organization except the name, we are the legal successors, what was confirmed once again by S. N. Roerich not long before his death.
But the Arbitration Court judges did not pay any attention to these documents signed by Roerich. Instead, they quite skillfully played the card of the “lack of legal succession”.
From the very beginning, we asked in the Arbitration Court to perform independent examination of the paintings kept in the Oriental Museum. As we only saw them at the exhibition, like ordinary visitors. And what was their state, how they were stored – we did not know. The Arbitration Court dismissed our claim three times. We applied to the Chamber of Accounts with the same request.
— Why was it necessary to insist on examination?
— The thing is that we compared the list in our deed of gift with the list of paintings kept in the Museum of Oriental Art. Big discrepancies were revealed. 11 Nicholas Roerich’s paintings and 34 Svetoslav Roerich’s paintings were absent on the list of the Oriental Museum. Where are they? If they are not there, where did they get lost? On which road? And into whose hands did they fall? Understanding that the Ministry of Culture with the help of Arbitration Courts of Moscow succeeded in preventing us from looking into the real state of things, we applied with this question to the RF Chamber of Accounts. The Chamber of Accounts promised to carry out investigation. But after the letter of the Ministry of Culture forwarded to the Chamber, the situation suddenly changed for the worse. The auditors put aside our documents, first of all, Svetoslav Roerich’s testamentary disposition. They did not try to answer the questions of the discrepancy in the number of paintings, did not pay attention to the illegality of inclusion of N. K. and S. N. Roerichs’ paintings collection, which did not belong to the state, in the state part of the museum fund, etc. Moreover, the Accounts Chamber forwarded a letter to the Government with the request to go back to Government resolution No. 1121 dated 1993 on establishment of the State Museum by name of N. K. Roerich and dispossession of the International Centre of the Roerichs of the Lopukhons’ estate for this purpose. This resolution had a number of peculiarities. Firstly, it most unseemly violated the will of the deceased donator who suggested creation of a public museum, not a state museum, named after N. K. Roerich. Secondly, the basis for that resolution was a falsified letter of Devika Rani, S. N. Roerich’s widow, in which she allegedly demanded to establish the state museum by name of N. K. Roerich. Knowing Devika Rani quite well, I was sure that she would not be able to see any difference between a state museum and a public one. Her range of interests did not include this kind of notions. The fake letter was drawn by the Roerichs’ former secretary Mary Poonacha who is now subject to criminal proceedings in the Roerichs robbery case. It got wide and detailed coverage in the Indian press. The falsified letter was put in “scientific use” by unconscientious officers from culture. This is how that resolution appeared.
Prime Minister V. S. Chernomyrdin, without going into the problem essence, signed the resolution prepared by the Ministry of Culture.
And that Government Resolution, at the suggestion of the Ministry of Culture, was suddenly recollected by the Accounts Chamber. And it delivered a fatal blow to Svetoslav Roerich’s testament. After that, the only thing to do was, as the saying goes, to pack up and take a run.
— Did you take a run?
— No, of course not. By that time, we already had behind vast experience in defending the donator’s will and the legacy that he had transferred to us. After the resolution was issued, having not managed to set up a meeting with V. S. Chernomyrdin and having received no answer to our letters from him, we filed an action against him with the High Arbitration Court. We won the action. In March 1995, the court delivered judgment ordering deletion of the clauses related to the Lopukhins’ estate transfer to the Oriental Museum from the Government Resolution. Besides, the judgment also held valid our right of succession from the Soviet Foundation of the Rosrichs. After the decision of the High Arbitration Court tribunal, Mayor of Moscow Y. M. Luzhkov signed a resolution on entering a lease agreement in respect of the estate with the International Centre of the Roerichs for the period of 49 years.
— Did the Minister of Culture get quiet?
— Of course not. In half a year after that, it filed a complaint with the High Court supervisory instance which complaint… was sustained, and the judgments of all the three High Court instances were reversed.
— How did they manage to do it?
— It is clear how. If the main factor now is administrative resources, at that time, telephone law operated. We know that, in our case, this telephone law was used by V. S. Chernomyrdin and A. B. Chubais. That is all. Inspired by the unfair victory, Minister of Culture E. Y. Sidorov demanded that the Mayor of Moscow immediately terminate the Lopukhins’ estate lease agreement with the ICR. But Yuri Luzhkov refused to do it. “The judgment of the High Arbitration Court supervisory instance, he asserted, says nothing of the Moscow Government, so I am legally entitled to continue lease relations with the ICR”. This is how the fate of the N. K. Roerich unique museum was decided at that stage.
During that time, the Lopukhins’ estate was repaired and restored and acquired its historical look. No single kopeck of budget money was spent on it. We did all for donations which came to us from all parts of Russia after our appeal. In 1997, we opened the Museum by name of N. K. Roerich exhibiting N. K. and H. I. Roerichs’ legacy transferred to the ICR by their younger son Svetoslav Roerich. During these years, the museum has turned into a popular cultural Centre making publications on the basis of the Roerichs’ materials, organizing lectures and international conferences, concerts, and other events. Magazine “Kultura i Vremya” is published on a quarterly basis. For its extensive international activities, the ICR became the UN associated member as a non-government organization. And now the Chamber of Accounts and the Ministry of Culture are again trying to reanimate the government resolution of ten years ago.
— So what is happening now? The threat of the museum nationalization is still there?
— Unfortunately, yes. Though I do not understand how it can be possible to fulfill the illegal decision of the Government? The Museum works to the full extent of its power and would work even better if the cultural department did not interfere. The Khamovniki Court for special proceedings confirmed the fact of the Roerichs inheritance property acceptance by virtue of S. N. Roerich’s last will and testament. In other words, it confirmed our legal title to the legacy. And then, the Ministry of Culture cut loose in earnest. Well, now it was facing the danger that the information on the lost paintings that had been concealed with so much difficulty would become known to the wide public when the paintings would have to be handed over to S. N. Roerich’s legal heir – the ICR. Will the Ministry of Culture agree with such decision of the Khamovniki Court? We know about many attempts to challenge this decision. They all failed. But the administrative resource did work as usual and the Ministry of Culture complaint was set for hearing by the Moscow City Court supervisory instance. And here, a really indecent story started. The judicial investigation date was carefully being kept secret from us.
— Obviously, they wanted to consider the case in our absence. We still learnt the hearing date and came to court. We were invited to the hearing when judge G. A. Tikhenko was already saying that, on the basis of the Ministry of Culture complaint, it was necessary to reverse the Khamovniki Court judgment which had confirmed the fact of the ICR’s acceptance of the inheritance property. What is interesting, the Ministry of Culture again, without having any documents that would confirm its rights to the Roerichs’ inheritance property, succeeded not only to have its complaint examined, but to have it satisfied. Sure of its victory, the Ministry of Culture did not even send anyone to defend its claims. What for? That is how, by efforts of the Ministry of Culture and the Moscow City Court, the state turned from the guarantor of the right to inherit (the RF Constitution, art. 35 part 4) into something quite opposite. The judges did not even listen to the end our arguments and objections. The will of the donator, S. N. Roerich, did not make any impression on the judges either. They did not even show any wish to see the original documents signed by Svetoslav Roerich. We hardly left the room as the telephone rang – the secretary already informed: “The Ministry of Culture complained has been sustained”.
— How do you explain such persistence of a government body in taking hold of the Roerichs’ legacy?
— This is a question rather to the Ministry of Culture, not to me. I can only make suppositions. This persistence, to my mind, is caused by the infringement of the law by this “government body”. All maneuvers performed by it are aimed at hiding such acts. This is, first of all, due to the Ministry of Culture violation (visible and concealed) of the will of deceased donator Svetoslav Roerich, shameless and unscrupulous violation. The loss of quite a big number of paintings from the N. K. and S. N. Roerichs’ collection transferred by the latter to the ICR’s ownership also looks to me quite an important reason of the Ministry of Culture claim for the legacy held by the ICR. If the legacy falls into the hands of the Ministry, it will be easier to conceal what had disappeared from the collection. For nothing more or less that 45 paintings from the N. K. and S. N. Roerichs’ collection are lost. Where are they, in whose hands? Who has “privatized” them? Maybe, some of the persons who participated in this action do not want this question to be raised. The illegal placement by the Oriental Museum (a body subject to the Ministry of Culture) of the Roerichs’ canvases into the state part of the museum fund can also lose its legal topicality. And finally, the claimed in resolution No. 1121 transfer to the Oriental Museum of the Lopukhins’ estate which had been repaired and restored not by the Ministry of Culture entices with the desired prey easiness. There is another circumstance having relation to all the above problems that arouses surprise. This is the arrogant and disregarding attitude of high officials to people of art like to second-rate people what, in this case, showed itself in relation to one of the great workers of the world culture Svetoslav Roerich. Having trampled on his rights as the donator, having crossed his will and trying to ruin the Museum by name of N. K. Roerich the founder of which he is, the officers decided to “celebrate” this way our compatriot’s hundredth anniversary.
At the same time, in India, for the culture of which he also did a lot, the attitude towards his memory is full of love and care. Prime Minister of India Atal Bihary Vajpayee is the Honorary Trustee of the International Roerich Memorial Trust in the Himalayan valley of Kullu where the Roerichs’ estate is situated. Exhibitions of S. N. Roerich’s paintings are held, books about him are published, the Indian press is full of information on the jubilee celebrations taking place in the country. It is planned to create a museum named after Svetoslav Roerich in his estate “Tataguni” near Bangalore. Establishment of the long-awaited House-Museum in Naggar (Kullu) is to be completed, stamps in honor of the anniversary hero are to be issued. The jubilee celebrations will last for a whole year in India in accordance with the Government program. And here, in the Motherland of the hero of the anniversary who selflessly transferred to this Motherland the amazingly rich and precious creative heritage of his parents, state officers, having forgotten conscience and ethical norms, continue fighting with the museum. This year, this war will be 14 years old. And when you get aware of all this, you feel shame for your state and its servants. While we, employees of the International Centre of the Roerichs and the Museum by name of N. K. Roerich, are motivated with only one wish – to present to the full extent the heritage of the Roerichs, our great compatriots, to the citizens of Russia. This was the will of the last man from the outstanding family – Svetoslav Roerich. And we shall fight, upholding the honor of this country, for execution of this will no matter what it may cost us.