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Igor Korolkov. Roerich Under Schellenberg’s Surveillance

Roerich Under Schellenberg’s Surveillance

A significant part of the legacy that belonged to the great artist Nicholas Roerich is under the threat of vanishing, at least from the country. One of the reasons for this is one strange will, intricate games of soviet special services and inexplicable timidity of the federal authorities.

Igor Korolkov

There is a plain flat in Moscow situated on the fourth stock in a house on the crossing of Leninsky Lane and Dmitri Ulyanov Street that contains treasures that were once gathered in the Himalayas and China, India and Mongolia. These treasures are closely watched by a person introducing himself as Viktor Ulyanovich Vasilchik who told me on the phone that he’s cooperating with Oscar Wilde, Vasily Surikov and Walter Schellenberg.

‘We are preparing an expedition to Tibet, since the one who possesses Tibet possesses the whole world,’ he said.

The owner of this flat, together with his oracle assistant, had to test my voice, only to come to the conclusion that I am unworthy of seeing the treasures. However, there was a consolation – that the flat on Leninsky was barred not only for me. No one, apart from persons standing close to Vasilchik, can manage to get in there.

Have half a million?

The treasures on Leninsky Lane is a part of the legacy left by the artist, writer and public figure Nicholas Roerich. The paintings made in the Himalayas, archaeological items gathered during the Asian expeditions, manuscripts of the articles not issued yet at that time – all this, exposed at the auction together or separately, can bring a lot of money. However the real value of this legacy lies not in this.

Nicholas Roerich wanted his works to be available to the public. But that part of his legacy that ended up in the flat on Leninsky lane is currently unavailable – either to the art scholars or to the wide public.

An expert at the All-Russian artistic centre for studies on restoration named after the academician I.E. Grabar Olga Glebova told me that last year some Mr. Kamensky brought her 15 paintings by Nicholas Roerich for expertise. He explained that these paintings stem from the flat on Leninsky Lane and asked for a certificate that would confirm their originality. This is how things are usually done when paintings are being prepared for sale. According to Glebova, the estimated cost of each painting amounts to 20-30 thousand dollars.

Some sources say that the Roerich’s heritage has been deprived of 30 paintings for a total sum of half a million dollars. Eight of them are assumed to decorate the cabinet of the president of “Rosneftegazstroy” company Ivan Mazur, doctor of technical sciences and an art connoisseur.

Head of the Department for the preservation of cultural values at Rosohrankultura (Federal service for law enforcement surveillance in the field of mass communications and protection of cultural heritage) Viktor Petrakov noted that the service keeps receiving information on some very strange people that play a ‘dubious’ game around the collection. After the service appealed to the Prosecutor General’s Office last spring, legal proceedings on a criminal case in regard to ‘stealing articles of special value’ were instituted, and the customs officers were warned on the possible tries to smuggle the paintings by the eminent Russian artist abroad.

‘That’s all we can do for now,’ Petrakov explained. ‘The rest surpasses our remit.’

Via servants

The Ministry of Culture that I contacted for further explanations informed me that the collection on the Leninsky Lane is private and its owner is free to use it as he pleases. But ultimately Vasilchik has nothing to do with the Roerich’s legacy.

The scheme that led Vasilchik to the Eastern treasures is very simple. Nicholas Roerich left all his belongings to his wife who, in her turn, left it to George and Svetoslav. Svetoslav transferred his share of the heritage to the International Centre-Museum by name of Nicholas Roerich which he founded in Moscow. As for George, he didn’t have enough time to dispose of his share. In 1957 he moved from India to the Soviet Union, receiving citizenship and a flat on the Leninsky Lane. He brought two women with him, Lyudmila Mikhailovna and Iraida Mikhailovna Bogdanov. Back in the 1920s, as the girls were quiet small, the Roerich family took them to their home as maids. In 1960 George died, then followed the death of Lyudmila, the elder sister. As for Iraida Mikhailovna, she became acquainted with Vasilchik, a man twice younger than her, and married him. She died last January.

While Svetoslav Roerich was alive, he tried to protect the legacy of his father and brother (besides the collection once owned by Nicholas Roerich the flat hosts other rarities that once belonged to his son, specialist in Eastern studies George Roerich: manuscripts, unique books, ancient Eastern painting and sculpture).

‘Strangers who are totally incompetent in the matter gained access <…> to the property,’ Svetoslav wrote. In his letter to the USSR authorities he suggested that ‘the artistic and archival materials be set on record.’ ‘The responsibility for the safety of the property can be handed over to the USSR Academy of arts or the Academy of sciences, so that the property would <…> in no way be sold out or misused,’ Roerich wrote.

This letter, just as many addresses from Svetoslav Roerich, was left unanswered.

Under the OGPU surveillance

The state’s attitude to Nicholas Roerich’s legacy is one of the many mysteries accompanying the artists’ life, some of them being connected to the secret services.

There’s a version that the artist, while travelling through Central Asia, gathered information for OGPU that was of certain interest to the Soviet authorities. Moreover, it is stated that Roerich delivered weapons to Tibet and even had a task from OGPU to kill Dalai Lama. But all this seems to be pure fabrication. The truth must be quiet different: that the Soviet secret service (as well as the British one) closely watched both Nicholas Roerich himself and his public activities and expeditions.

There are no proofs of the fact that the artist did cooperate with any secret services whatsoever. Vice versa, the documents rather prove the contrary. And the story of the attempted murder of George Roerich during the Mongolian expedition lets us suspect the Soviet spy service in attempts either to wreck the expedition or to frighten Nicholas Roerich. It is not ascertained who shot at his son, the person responsible for the safety of the expedition, but what is certain is that Yakov Blyumkin was at the Mongolian residentura at that time. And Blyumkin, who worked for OGPU, got a hand in some dirty issues, for example the murder of the German ambassador Mirbach.

The interest from the side of secret services followed Nicholas Roerich even after he passed away. It was this interest that seems to have played a rather bad part in the fate of the artist’s legacy.

After George’s death the USSR authorities assured Svetoslav that, in the absence of other heirs, it was him who was going to inherit his brother’s property. But somehow he wasn’t allowed to do so. All Roerich’s addresses were left unanswered.

Why would secret services need the Museum?

Director of the International centre-museum by name of Nicholas Roerich Lyudmila Shaposhnikova told a curious story. In 1989 she unwillingly witnessed a KGB officer Vladimir Sch. and an official with the General Prosecutor’s Office trying to talk Svetoslav Roerich into signing a document which would, as they said, ‘draw the line under the legacy controversy.’ As Roerich himself told Shaposhnikova, Iraida Bogdanova was also mentioned in the document. Roerich refused to sign it.

By that time Bogdanova had already registered her marriage with Vasilchik. Thus, if both KGB and the General Prosecutor’s Office took up the legacy case in favor of Iraida Bogdanova, in fact they did it for the sake of Vasilchik. This could only happen in one case: if Vasilchik either himself worked in KGB or was used by Lubyanka (KGB headquarters in Moscow).

There is a fact testifying that the Soviet secret services always had a special interest for the Roerich’s heritage. When Svetoslav Roerich started founding a public centre-museum named after his father in the Soviet Union, KGB tried to survey and control this process. An ex-KGB officer Vladimir Ryashentsev was given the task to prepare the museum’s concept – that Ryashentsev who, helped by the ANT concern headed by him tried to export a tank echelon as ‘scrap metal’ in 1990.

But why did the secret services need the Roerich museum? Nicholas Roerich’s philosophical and cultural oeuvre, spread across the whole world, gave a wonderful opportunity to contact foreign scientists and politicians. However, the plan of the museum that would have a double task crashed, since it was very much confronted by Svetoslav Roerich. Further on, KGB must have taken some efforts to make Viktor Vasilchik gain the right of succession.

The editorial office disposes of an interesting document, a will by Iraida Bogdanova, properly formalized back in 1988. Bogdanova transferred 117 paintings, manuscripts and the library to the Soviet Culture Foundation (SFK). Apparently the notary who formalized this will couldn’t have done this if he didn’t have any confirmation of Bogdanova’s rights to dispose of the Roerich’s heritage. What kind of document (or documents) was it? The diligent search for the papers led to nothing.

It’s curious that the will has never been given to SFK. It was found by the investigators at the Gagarinskaya interregional prosecutor’s office who are leading the abovementioned criminal case. It was them who gave the will to the SFK’s legal successor, Russian Culture Foundation (RFK). The Foundation tried to gain the right of succession, but the notary’s office that the Foundation gave a proper appeal to couldn’t find ‘the documents that would confirm I.M. Bogdanova’s right to dispose of the bequeathed legacy.’

On the way abroad

What does this all mean? It could probably mean that the document provided to the notary in 1988 as the basis for formalizing Bogdanova’s will, was prepared by the KGB officials. Since the illegitimate status of such a document could be easily proved, the will must have been destroyed after the formalizing. The SFK didn’t receive this will because no-one was actually going to give away George Roerich’s property. The will must have testified that the valuables ‘legally’ belong to Bodganova and thus to Vasilchik.

I think people who patronize the flat on Leninsky lane can easily smuggle little paintings by Roerich abroad if they please. The warning given to the customs officials by Rosohrankultura can hardly be a serious obstacle for those who want to move the Roerich’s legacy abroad. The situation needs another approach.

Since the present owner of the collection doesn’t have any proofs that he owns it on a legal basis, some partial organization could appeal a case to the court, demanding that the collection be transferred to it. Such an organization could be the International Centre-museum by name of Nicholas Roerich. This would be fair, considering the will of the last man in the Roerich family, Svetoslav Nikolaevich.

The Ministry of culture could also appeal to the court. It is this department that managed to save Galina Ulanova’s legacy from plunder in the similar situation. But, according to the lawyers, the most preferable variant would be that the appeal comes from the Russian Culture Foundation, a legal successor of SFK. It has the most profound ground to appeal to the court - Iraida Bogdanova’s will. A document of dubious origin as it is, it still provides a formal ground to initiate the transfer of the legacy to the place where it would be preserved and ‘properly used.’

Alas! The foundation that, according to its statutes, is supposed to preserve the national heritage, doesn’t want to come into a conflict with the man who is in contact with Wilde, Surikov and Schellenberg. The RFK Director General Otan Asylkozhaev flatly refused to discuss this matter.

I suppose we will have to make one more call after this article is published.

WORD FOR WORD

‘There are some publications that recently appeared in the Soviet press that name I.M. Bogdanova a foster daughter of my parents. …Bogdanova never dealed with our family’s activities and never took any part in it.

...There was even a publication of my article that was presented as ‘a publication by I. Bogdanova-Roerich,’ which is unprecedented and is against any norms. The publishing house <…> referred to ‘a literary pen-name.’ I find it hard to assume that any of the now-living artists, writers or composers would let someone add ‘Repin’, ‘Pushkin’ or ‘Tchaikovsky’ etc. to his surname as some ‘pen-name.’

Paintings with the label ‘from the collection of I. Bogdanova’ started to appear at the exhibitions, and catalogues were published with similar references.However I. Bogdanova never gathered any collection. All this is created and collected <…> by the members of the Roerich family. The present situation with our family collections makes me greatly concerned about the integrity and proper use of the property left in the flat of my late brother.’

(From a letter by Svetoslav N. Roerich to the USSE minister for culture P.N. Demichev, April 24, 1976).