Inetrnational Centre of the Roerichs

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Russian legal institutes cover up the officials’ abuse of power, a famous diplomat and public figure believes

Vasily Golovin
“Nezavisimaya Gazeta”, April 6, 2004.

The reason for the interview with the famous diplomat was not any acute problems of foreign policy. It has already been a few years that Yuly Mikhailovich Vorontsov has been the head of the International Centre of the Roerichs – a non-government organization under the UN. The ICR basis is made by the unique public Museum by name of N. K. Roerich established by Svetoslav Roerich and located in Maly Znamensky lane in the Centre of Moscow. Lately, persistent rumors have been going around that the Museum of Culture has set its sights on the unique museum and intends to nationalize this cultural pearl of Moscow. Mass media write about squandering and disappearance of a great number of paintings from the Roerichs’ legacy. So we asked ICR President Yuly Mikhailovich Vorontsov to disperse or to confirm these rumors.

— Yuly Mikhailovich, the conflict between your museum and the Minister of Culture has been already lasting for many years.

— To be precise — 14 years. From 1990, when Svetoslav Roerich transferred the owned by him part of the family legacy to the Soviet Roerich Foundation.

— It is hard to remember such a protracted legal dispute in the legal practice.

— This conflict has nothing to do with a classical legal dispute in which two parties produce arguments to defend their positions.

— If it has nothing to do with a legal dispute, then what is it?

— All these years, we have been dealing with bureaucratic abuse of power, cynical treading under foot of the will of a great man.

— What was all this fuss over?

— It can be said I witnessed this drama from the very beginning. When I worked as the USSR Ambassador in India, I knew Svetoslav Roerich very well. He often came to see us at the Embassy from his estate in Bangalore. We had long philosophical and political conversations. He more than once mentioned to me his wish to leave the owned by him artistic heritage in the Soviet Union. He also mentioned the 288 paintings which he had delivered to the Ministry of Culture in 1974 to organize mobile exhibitions all over the country. The agreed paintings return date was approaching. I told Svetoslav Roerich that it was time to execute documents for return. He slightly narrowed his lids and asked: “And how many cities has the exhibition been to?” I don’t remember the exact figure I told him. He said: “Only that? Are there no more cities in Russia?”. I said “There are some more”. At that time, we executed extension for some years more. Then this period came to its end too. But at that time, the known events called perestroika started. Svetoslav Roerich formed a final decision to leave the paintings in Russia. He believed that he would make his cultural contribution into the country renovation this way.

— There was no conflict yet at that time?

— No. The tension only arose after Svetoslav Roerich suggested establishing the Centre-Museum by name of N. K. Roerich in Moscow so that it host not only the paintings – his own ones and his father’s, but also the other the legacy of his parents – Nicholas and Helena Roerichs. Including those 288 paintings that he had delivered to the Ministry of Culture to take care of. Then, in 1990, they were already kept in temporary custody by the State Museum of Oriental Art. Before, it was called the State Museum of the Peoples of the East. Svetoslav Roerich spoke particularly of a public museum. Not a state one. And he was supported by the Soviet leaders in this respect. He met USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev. The USSR Government passed a special resolution “On the Soviet Foundation of the Roercihs and the Centre-Museum by name of N. K. Roerich ”. The public Centre-Museum was being created as the main SRF base. On the basis of this resolution, the Government of Moscow allotted buildings in the Centre of Moscow – the Lopukhins’ estate – for the Foundation and the Museum. This cultural event was widely covered in press at that time. It was the year of 1989. And in 1990, Svetoslav Roerich transferred the legacy to the SFR. Establishment of the Soviet Foundation of the Roercihs and the Centre-Museum name of N. K. Roerich was perceived as an obvious manifestation of positive changes in the country’s cultural life.

— And then?

— And then cheerless events took place. The USSR fell apart and the new Russian officials believed that the legacy must belong to the state. Not to any public museum.

— Who are those state officials?

— The heads of the then Ministers of Culture and Justice, the State Museum of Oriental Art, the officers in the RF President’s Administration, in the RF Government. Svetoslav Roerich’s death in 1993 became a call to action for them, like the horn sound for hunting dogs. In a packed team, they fell upon the legacy that Svetoslav Roerich had transferred to the SFR.

— How did they do it?

— Most shamefully. First, they demanded to recognize that the International Centre of the Roerichs was not the legal successor of the Soviet Foundation of the Roercihs. I must clarify here. In 1991, due to the USSR collapse, Svetoslav Roerich suggested renaming the Soviet Roerich Foundation into the International Centre of the Roerichs. It was done at the SFR conference in September 1991. While Svetoslav Roerich was alive, the officers did not dare of deny the ICR right of succession to the SFR. But literally on the next day after the information of Roerich’s departure, Deputy Minister of Justice Cheremnykh issued an order demanding to rescind the clause of our Charter mentioning this succession right.

— What was the Deputy Minister unsatisfied with?

— When the task is set, it is not difficult for a bureaucrat to find a reason. For this purpose, an executor was found which, in its appeal to the Ministry of Justice, challenged the ICR’s rights to the legacy. The appeal served to the Ministry of Justice as the pretext for launching the action of “the lack of legal succession”. The Ministry of Culture did not waste time and, having no document confirming the ownership title, transferred the paintings kept in the State Museum of Oriental Art from temporary custody to permanent – in doing so, it referred to that same Cheremnykh’s order. It is clear that the order of the Deputy Minister was issued for this particular purpose. But it cannot be the grounds for this kind of illegal acts. So, the state, being not the collection owner, misappropriated the paintings. But the honorable Ministry of Justice did not stop there – in 2001, other Deputy Minister Sidorenko signed a warning which demanded that we delete from the ICR Charter mentioning of Museum by name of N. K. Roerich as the basis of our organization. I have no doubt as to the purposeful striving of the two Ministries to put an end to our museum. I do not see any other motives to prepare this kind of documents.

But the thing is that, while still alive, understanding where it was all going, Svetoslav Roerich confirmed the rights of the International Centre of the Roerichs, the Honorary Chairman of which he was, to the legacy transferred to the SFR. And this order was certified with the Notary in October 1992. And even earlier, in April of the same year, he sent a letter to President of Russia Boris Yeltsin asking to help to return the paintings from the State Museum of Oriental Art where they were kept at that time to the International Centre of the Roerichs. That was the reason for the officers’ sophisticated tricks to avoid Roerich’s will execution.

— Did the President react?

— The President did not react to many things happening in the country at that time due to the known reasons. But the bureaucrats felt a new surge of energy after Svetoslav Roerich’s death and reacted accordingly. Director of the State Museum of Oriental Art Nabatchikov wrote a letter to the Government suggesting to transfer to its museum for permanent and uncompensated use not only the Lopukhins’ estate building hosting the public museum, but the Roerichs’ whole legacy as well. When doing so, he asked to make decision on concentrating all the Roerichs’ materials and creations in the same hands.

— And the Government did not react either?

— On the contrary. The cultural department did not fail to prepare a draft resolution. And Government Chairman Victor Chernomyrdin, without thinking, signed it. Though the RF High Arbitration Court and its tribunal vacated this resolution later. It was too obviously illegal. But, on the Ministry of Culture complaint, the High Arbitration Court Presidium reversed the fair decisions of its judges without provision of any additional evidence for such judgment. Thus, disregard of the law was restored. And the reason for the Government Resolution was a sent by fax from India appeal to Boris Yeltsin, allegedly from Svetoslav Roerich’s widow Devika Rani, in which she asked to establish a state museum by name of N.K. Roerich on the basis the State Museum of Oriental Art. The letter was falsified by Roerichs’ former secretary Mary Poonacha who, together with her accomplices, started to rob Svetoslav Roerich’s widow Devika Rani after his death by falsifying her last will and testament. In the result, the Indian police initiated a criminal case, and now Mary Poonahca is already nailed on charge. And our officers took a falsified fax document as guidance to action.

— But, to conduct such a persistent and sophisticated struggle with the will of a great man, the officers must have strong motivation. Do you see it?

— Of course. I have two versions of the aggressive unwillingness to execute the bequeather’s will. The first one is related to the Soviet mentality recidivations. For more than 70 years, we have been taught that everything in the state belongs and must belong to the state. Factories, apartments, forests, paintings, mineral resources. This “Shvonder” psychology is vividly described in “The Heart of a Dog” by Mikhail Bulgakov. At that time, Shvonders were actively used in the work involving confiscation of artistic values from rich people. Many modern officials carry the same psychology in themselves. Mr. Nabatchikov, for example, Director of the State Museum of Oriental Art – is convinced that only a state museum can secure the paintings complete preservation.

— He may be right...

— He might have been right if we did not see quite the opposite on the Roerichs’ collection example – the legacy squandering.

— What do you mean?

— We know that the titles of more than 40 of those 288 paintings that Svetoslav Roerich brought to the USSR in 1974 and left with the Minister of Culture do not correspond to the lists which the paintings owner personally drew and handed over to us. This discrepancy shows that those paintings do not exist any more. Nobody can and nobody wants to answer us where they are. And I attribute their persistent refusal to give back the paintings to this unwillingness to answer. As they will have to bear responsibility to the law for the paintings loss. That is why they claw hold of the collection.

We have many times suggested that the Ministry of Culture form an independent commission – check the paintings preservation, make sure that no replicas have been substituted for the originals, that the canvases have not decayed. We have applied to the Chamber of Accounts and then to the General Prosecutor’s Office with a request to check not only the paintings preservation, but also the lawfulness of them being kept in the State Museum of Oriental Art. Accounts Chamber auditor Voronin, instead of acting as we requested, on the basis of the audit results, suddenly recommended to go back to execution of the long forgotten state resolution on establishment of the Museum by name of N.K. Roerich as an affiliate of the State Museum of Oriental Art. That is, suggested distorting Svetoslav Roerich’s will again.

Some days ago, I received another answer from the General Prosecutor’s Office. This time, from Deputy Head of the Department for Supervision Over Compliance With the Federal Law Zyabkina. She refuses to recognize that Svetoslav Roerich brought 288 paintings to the USSR in 1974 and speaks about 282 paintings which were allegedly brought only in 1978.

The letter again only states the fact of placing the paintings on permanent state record in the State Museum of Oriental Art, but says no of word of such placing on record being illegal. And the General Prosecutor’s Office refers another time to the findings of the Accounts Chamber which allegedly checked the paintings correspondence to the initial documents of title. But this is exactly the thing that has not been done! For the only audit basis can be the documents of the paintings owner – Svetoslav Roerich. And he handed those documents over to us together with his testament. But such documents are just ignored by the Chamber of accounts and the General Prosecutor’s Office. Then by what lists did they check the paintings availability? The State Museum of Oriental Art says itself that such lists have been lost, and the lists of Svetoslav Roerich himself are absolutely disregarded by the officers. That is, unlawful acts are recognized to be legal. Nice audit!

The impression is that the whole Russian bureaucratic array set out against the great man’s last will. One of the officers, as we were told, put it exactly in such words: “As long as I am alive, I will not give away the paintings”. Not long ago, former Minister of Culture Shvydkoi benevolently offered to deliver to us a few paintings for an exhibition, with them to be later returned to the Oriental Museum. This benevolence reminds me of the behavior of “pickpockets” who first steal your purse with documents and money and then nobly call you saying that your documents are found and you can get them for a compensation.

— What can be done? Is there any way out of this vicious circle?

— I asked the same question to the Russian President assistants. I will not mention their names. They understand that we are right. But they say: “We are now reforming the judicial system. The reform will change the judges’ mentality. Then it will be easier for you to get a fair decision”.

— Very encouraging.

— Unfortunately, they said the truth. Our judges carry the same mentality: the rights of the state are everything, the rights of an individual – nothing.

At the court hearing, I applied to the judge: we have a letter of the legacy owner, Svetoslav Roerich, addressed to the state leader with a request to help to return the paintings. There is a notarized last will and testament. And he answered: “These documents are not relevant”. But if these documents are not relevant, what is relevant at all? The Minister’s telephone call?

I will give you the last example. It is already absolutely blatant. At the end of the last year, on the complaint of Minister of Culture Shvydkoi, the Moscow City Court Presidium reversed the judgment of the Khamovniki District Court which had recognized the fact of the ICR taking ownership in respect of the inheritance property pursuant to Svetoslav Roerich’s testament. I want to especially emphasize: the Minister’s supervisory complaint did not contain any legal grounds for the state’s assertion of its rights for the Roerich’s legacy. And, at the same time, the Minister clearly formulated: the state is the owner of the paintings. For what reason? However, the Moscow City Court Presidium, despite the complaint being unjustified, caused its execution and satisfied by its judgment the request of the Minister of Culture and reversed the Khamovniki Court decision. After that, I ask myself: does law in Russia exist in the form of specific laws of concepts?

Not very long ago, together with famous workers of science and culture, I applied with a letter to President of Russia Vladimir Putin. We asked the head of the state to react to the situation – alas, every year it becomes more and more difficult for us alone to break through this blank stone wall. After some time, when no answer has been received, Chairman of the ICR Board of Trustees, UN Ambassador, famous in this country and all over the world public figure, Multiple Champion in chess Anatoly Karpov personally applied to Vladimir Putin. Unfortunately, there was no answer either. I believe it possible that the letter has never reached the Russian President. There is nothing we can do but apply to the world public. We have recently held a press-conference for foreign journalists dedicated to this subject in an independent press-Centre. We called it: “Russia: society of law or concepts? Does Svetoslav Roerich’s testament have legal effect in Russia?”

— Do you believe that, in the long run, you will get justice in your own country?

— If we surrender to the bureaucratic abuse, it means we shall open the way to the officials’ dictatorship. Not long ago, I dropped into the Oriental Museum. There are a couple of dozens paintings hanging in two rooms. I asked: why they keep locked the other 240 paintings. They answered: “We have no space”. But Svetoslav Roerich longed that the whole collection be exhibited to the admirers of art in Russia. And it is concealed from visitors in the Oriental Museum due to the Ministry of Culture. The state behaves like a dog in the manger. I cannot understand or accept this.

About state museums advantages that we mentioned before. In the USA, for example, there are both public and state museums. And they normally interact, collaborate. Probably, because there is no Ministry of Culture there. But the state duly monitors compliance with the law, including the right to inherit. While here, judging by the abuse of law around the Roerichs’ legacy, everything is the other way around. The state, represented by the officers of the Ministries of Culture and Justice, General Prosecutor’s Office, Chamber of Account, courts, openly deceives the citizens, acts as the main instrument of disregard of the law. That is why Svetoslav Roerich’s testament has not been executed in Russia until today. As a citizen wishing good to my Motherland, as a man who was close to Svetoslav Roerich, knew his will, I cannot help being concerned with such attitude towards human rights in my own country. We have not given up the Soviet habits until now. If it is possible to tread into pieces so impudently and easily the will of a great man, what can be said about a common man.

I remember the bright words of our President uttered by him at the meeting in the General Prosecutor’s Office in February: “The law is above any authorities and administrative resources of any officer, I stress it, any”. I want to believe that these words will become not just words in Russia. I also hope very much that the new Prime Minister and the Minister of Culture will investigate this complicated situation and make decisions aimed at execution of the last will of our great compatriot.

From the “NG” files

Yuly Mikhailovich Vorontsov was born in Leningrad on October 7, 1929. Presently, he is a special representative of the UN General Secretary, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the RF. In 1991-1992, he was the RF permanent representative in the UN, in 1998-2000 – the RF President adviser for foreign policy issues. In different years, he worked as the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the USSR and RF in India, France, the USA. He was awarded the orders of Lenin, October Revolution, the Red Banner of Labor, “Badge of Honor”, the RF order “For Services to the Motherland” and the RF order of Honor.