Inetrnational Centre of the Roerichs

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Novaya Gazeta No.15 of 03/03/2008

Would Russia be able to preserve the Roerich’s heritage?

By Andrey Nikitin

The answer to this question depends on whether the state honors its promises to S.N. Roerich

International Roerich Memorial Trust (Regd.)
India Bangalore

President: Dr. Svetoslav Roerich


Attention of Mr. Yuri Luzhkov, Mayor of Moscow


Dear Mr. Luzhkov,

Kindly accept my cordial congratulations and best wishes on the occasion of your election. I strongly hope that your activity in this office will benefit Russia and further promote the prosperity of our capital.

I would like to bring to your notice that in 1990 I handed over my parents’ legacy to the International Centre of the Roerichs/ex Soviet Roerich Foundation, of which I am the honorary President.

I was promised support by the ex USSR President M.S. Gorbachev in granting me the restored estate of the Lopukhins for the purpose of storing and exhibiting my parents’ heritage collection. The latter is supported by resolutions from the USSR Council of Ministers and Moscow government (Mossovet) executive committee.

Unfortunately, these promises were never fulfilled; the restoration works are progressing slowly, not because of the International Roerich Centre's failures (ICR), and are not likely to be completed in the nearest future. This is for me cause of great discomfort..

Here in India we are aware of your active involvement in the cultural life of Moscow and the revival of Russia’s spirituality. Therefore I would like to ask for your personal assistance in transferring the Lopukhin estate (Marx-Engels Street, 3/5) to the books of ICR or leasing it long-term with a sub-let option…>

This year, Moscow witnesses the undertaking of the three legal proceedings regarding the confiscation of historical property. The scandalous details can merely outline the expensive property “management” that has been in the interests of federal cultural officials. Starving sculptors have made attempts at preserving the downtown mansion, which they restored with their own hands as the House of the Sculptor. At the same time plans are being made to transfer the Circus at Vernadskiy prospect into “the right hands.” An attempt has been made to dispossess the International Roerich Centre of the Lopukhins’ estate. Тhis is occurring even though the ICR restored this estate through private donations from the public, and even though the head of the ICR, Ludmila Shaposhnikova, received a national “Cultural Heritage” award. All three of these cases on valuable historical property acquisitions are directly connected with Mikhail Shvydkoy, a prominent cultural figure. The published story testifies to the fact that, if bureaucrats deliberately complicate the case, their goal is ultimately money and property – and never culture.

As opposed to philosophy, journalism is a very down-to-earth sphere. And since the story is about the Roerich legacy it is particularly important for us to examine the facts. Sophisticated flights of the mind and rather disputable accounts may hardly be avoidable, so let’s start with the key points. If one is to walk along former Karl Marx street (now Maly Znamensky pereulok), at the bend of this street (facing the rear of the Fine Arts Museum named after Alexander Pushkin) is situated the Lopukhins’ estate, an architectural masterpiece of XVII-XIX centuries. Up to the second half of 1990es there were only ruins on this site, and only an expert eye was able to recognize it as a historical landmark.

But the estate was restored (to its original splendor) possibly like no other monument in Moscow, right before our eyes. Тhis is an undeniable fact.

Right now we are coming up to only one facet of the complex argument around Roerich heritage: the trial regarding the ownership rights over the estate.

Historical reference

Prior to returning to Russia the heritage of his parents, N.K. Roerich and E.I. Roerich, the youngest son, Svyatoslav Roerich, laid down two conditions: the museum should not be state-run and it should be located in the Lopukhin mansion. The USSR leaders accepted these conditions (Council of Ministers’ resolution No.950 of 04/11/1989 and Mosgorispolcom decision of 28/11/1989). After making sure of that, S.N. Roerich handed over gratis his legacy to Russia, so that the museum of N.K. Roerich was created.

A few months after Svyatoslav Roerich passed away, the Government adopted resolution No. 1121 of 04/11/1993: “On establishing the State museum of N.K. Roerich.” The museum, as a branch of the State Museum of Oriental Art, was delegated with operative administrative powers over the ruins that constituted the Lopukhin estate at the time. During that period, none of the earlier governmental acts on setting up a non state-run museum, as per the will of Svyatoslav Roerich, were annulled. The International Roerich Centre, which at the time was planning a very complex restoration plan, was denied any legal rights to the mansion – rights that had previously been secured by a preservation lease-contract. Appeals by the academic Likhachev, by the cosmonaut Sevastyanov, by the World-champion chess player Karpov and by many other prominent figures to the authorities in support of ICR were made in vain.

Historical reference

In 1994—1995 the Superior Arbitration Court of the Russian Federation, basing itself on a petition by ICR, tried a case for the abrogation of clauses 2 and 3 of the Russian government resolution No.1121 “On establishing the State museum of N.K. Roerich”. These clauses were annulled. Based on the resolution of the Superior Arbitration court panel the decision was to take immediate effect, without the right of appeal. However, it was appealed by the Chairman of the Superior Arbitration Court of the Russian Federation. Without adding anything new to the argument, the Chairman demanded the panel to reinstate the abolished clauses in the government resolution. This was done, thus once again breaching state commitment to Svyatoslav N. Roerich.

After the resolution of the Superior Arbitration Court there were no attempts made to bring this resolution into effect. Now, after 12 years (14 years, if you take into the account the date of the government resolution No. 1121), the Federal agency managing federal property has made a claim to the Moscow Arbitration Court against the International Roerich Centre, in order to evict it from the Lopukhin estate. The claim is based on the assumption that the government resolution No.1121 has never been implemented, and it therefore retains that it is now time to set it right by returning the property to the state. During these years the ICR has never left the estate and has been investing hundreds of millions of rubles in its restoration. Not a penny has come from state funds, only from private donations on behalf of the public. Hence the question: who owns it now?

In a broader perspective, the question “Who are we?” was a central issue for Nicholas Roerich as a philosopher and artist. Some consider him а genius, others naive,. Nevertheless, regardless of the general attitude towards the Roerichs, there can be no doubt that the mere phenomenon of this outstanding family with its extraordinary history is part of Russian and world culture. When discussing the Roerich heritage, we have to consider the material “legacy”: on the one hand, they bestowed paintings and other rarities from their collections, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and, on the other, there is the intangible part of a heritage that cannot be materially valued. Using the language of Russian philosophy, this is something from the “noosphere”.

Before we turn our attention to matters hardly definable as sublime (someone is merely coveting the estate that has been beautifully restored by Roerichs’ admirers and is trying to seize it), we must shed light on the ideological stance purported. In fact, these people - who are only interested in the property - are also trying to justify the seizure by the use of ideological arguments, such as the fact that the Roerichs are quite alien to the “Russian way”. In idolizing the Roerichs, which certain of their followers indeed sometimes do, it turns out that the Russian Orthodox Church is right: this is no Christian approach. However if we leave aside all idolizing and ideology, there is nothing in the formulations of the Roerichs that contradicts in principle Christian Ethics. Nicholas Roerich believed that the salvation of humanity lied in kindness and beauty. Would you disagree?

Do we need the Roerichs’ heritage in Moscow, and more specifically in Moscow’s Volkhonka? That Gumilev and Babel were executed here is part of Russian history, Berdyaev and Brodskiy exiled– this part of Russian history as well. Similarly the Roerichs, as fate would have it, found themselves outside their motherland in Indiа, where they ended up being intensely creative - they are no doubt part of Russian culture. If this is not the case, it is more logical to send their heritage back to India, the more so because as a result of legal battles over property that would be de iure more appropriate. Would Russia be able to preserve the Roerich’s heritage?

Out of all the Roerichs’ statements let’s focus on one that comes to mind when we examinе the dispute over an estate from a legal perspective. Notably: "the culture should rise above state barriers." Nicholas Roerich in his famous “Roerich Pact” reflected this statement. The same consideration was voiced by the last of the Roerichs, Svyatoslav, when he insisted on transferring the Roerich heritage to Russia, but by no means to the state. In his letter titled “Linger no more!”(it was published in “Sovietskaya kultura” newspaper in July 1989 and was considered a sort of manifest and no doubt an integral part of his will in the broad sense), Svyatoslav Roerich wrote, “The essence of the Centre-museum concept is that its most optimal functioning can be in public organization status. <…> While placing it under the authority of the Ministry of Culture and even more so of the State Museum of Oriental Art could lead to unjustified, in my opinion, deliberate limitation of its missions and potential.”

These seemingly purely juridical issues regarding this specific property cannot be correctly resolved either without understanding the last of the Roerichs’ perspective, or without defining his actual will. Now we once more enter the legal domain and the foundations of civil law that are the same everywhere since the times of the Roman Empire. They cover the notions concerning civil law transactions and rules of adjudication. If the terms of transaction are vaguely and inconsistently formulated the dispute should be resolved (in court) on the grounds of actual will of the parties, which has to be determined. Further developments around the Roerichs’ heritage are more likely due to some ideological motive and certain high-ranking officials’ “love” of Roerichs’ works. However, Svyatoslav Roerich formulated the actual terms of his will quite explicitly: after his demise, the heritage was to stay in Russia and owned by a specific public organization with a mission to setup non state-run museum of N.K. Roerich at this particular venue – the Lopukhin estate – where it all had to be accommodated.

Maybe in a broader sense it is more correct to discuss the will of the whole Roerich family, taking into the account the way their testament was evolving since the late 1940s. There is a lot of evidence that Nicholas Roerich wished his heritage to be legalized in Russia. Since he was a patriot, the elder Roerich longed for placing the physical Centre of his “heritage” (implying the ideas as well) specifically in Russia. In his lifetime such a project did not sound realistic, but his will makes this intention clear.

Svyatoslav Roerich wished to hand over the heritage to the public organization he set up. Until that moment, he exhibited his collection in Russia on numerous occasions.

The exhibitions of paintings were a great success. The collection of works of the Roerichs that belonged to Svyatoslav was turned into a travelling exhibition. In 1978, it was showcased in Bulgaria; from there it was eventually brought to the USSR. The Soviet Ministry of Culture was in charge of the paintings, but Svyatoslav Roerich never granted them to anyone in the USSR. At the same time some experts point out that the complete S.N.Roerich’s collection catalogue that was for the last time properly compiled before exporting the collection to Bulgaria, does not correspond to the lists compiled later at the State Museum of Oriental Art. There are some discrepancies regarding a number of the exhibits and certain “mis-representations” in some of the declarations. Since then, the complete collection has never been showcased; a large part of it is still in storage.

By an order of the Ministry of Culture of the USSR dated 30/05/1989, the whole collection of Svyatoslav Roerich was handed over to the State Museum of Oriental Art for “temporary storage” without the owner’s consent. Possibly, the aforementioned letter in “Sovietskaya kultura” newspaper was Svyatoslav Roerich’s reaction to this, with a suggestion to create the non state-run Centre-Museum of Nicholas Roerich and specifically with the aim to emphasise that it should be public and under no circumstances subordinate to the Ministry of Culture and the Museum of Oriental Art (probably there were certain grounds for distrust). From the legal point of view this absolutely clearly manifested that Roerich did not confirm the transfer of assets to the Museum of Oriental Art; he was against the idea.

In the November of 1989, with the participation of Mrs. Raisa Gorbacheva as the Chairman of the Soviet Peace Fund, the Soviet Roerichs Foundation was established along with the Centre-Museum of N.K.Roerich as the major base for the Foundation. It was for exactly this purpose that Svyatoslav Roerich selected the Lopukhin’s estate. The Soviet Roerich Foundation was duly registered at this address in 1989. Svyatoslav Roerich considered this to be secure enough and transferred to the then "Soviet Roerichs Foundation" in March 1990 his share of his parents’ heritage: his father’s and his own paintings, the family archive, library, relics and rarities. Along with the paintings brought over from India in 1990 this also included the collection of S.N. Roerich, imported to the USSR in 1978 and “provisionally stored” in the Museum of Oriental Art. All the items were listed in a 40-page document notarized in India in 1990. This document, titled “Archive and heritage of the Roerichs for the Soviet Roerichs Foundation in Moscow”, was executed by Roerich in the form of a testamentary disposition: he indicated that as long as he lived, he remained the owner of all assets. However, upon his demise, all was to pass into ownership of the Soviet Roerichs Foundation.

The collection was exported to Moscow onboard a special governmental aircraft, while the Indian part of the collection was quartered in the dilapidated mansion in Volkhonka, where it was gradually turned into a temporary exhibition while the Lopukhin estate was being restored.

All circumstances regarding the transference of the Indian part of the collection in 1990 proved in this way that the will of the last of Roerichs was clear to all the people and agencies concerned, and that this will was fulfilled but for one point:, Svyatoslav Roerich never managed before his death on the 30th of January 1993 in India to withdraw the items “temporarily stored” in the Museum of Oriental Art. All his demands were simply ignored. Two weeks after the last of the Roerichs passed away, the Director of the Museum of Oriental Art ordered a change to the status of the collection from temporary to permanent. But this didn’t legalized in any way the right of ownership of the paintings, neither for the Museum of Oriental Art nor for the Russian state as a whole.

Six months later, on the 4th of November 1993, the Russian government passed the resolution No. 1121 to establish the State museum of N.K.Roerich as a branch of the Museum оf Oriental Art. The official grounds for such action were based on the will of Svyatoslav Roerich’s widow Devika Rani Roerich. In October 1993, on her behalf a telegram was sent to President Yeltzin threatening to withdraw the collection to India if it was not “entrusted under the state supervision.” However, Devika, an Indian movie star of 1940s, was never an heiress to Svyatoslav Roerich parents’ heritage, which had been earlier transferred to Russia - neither in legal nor in any other sense. The contradiction between her wish and the repeatedly expressed will of her late husband is clear and looks strange in view of customs and culture of India. The telegram from the widow, who passed away herself shortly after, was not notarized by anyone, and some people close to the family insisted that in October 1993 Devika was too unwell even to sign it, let alone understand the contents. At that time Devika Rani Roerich was taken care of by the Roerichs’ secretary Mary Punacha. After Devika Rani passed away, Mary Punacha was charged by the Indian justice system with embezzlement of the Roerichs’ assets and belongings, as well as with forged signatures, which appeared in the last will of D. Rani. Criminal proceedings against the former secretary are still underway.

Svyatoslav Roerich’s last years were marked In Russia by turbulent historical changes. The USSR ceased to exist as a state, and the Soviet Roerichs Foundation became obsolete in its name and was transformed into the International Centre of Roerichs. However, neither its concept and staff, nor its bank account had been changed. Svyatoslav Roerich, both in his special letter to Mr. Yeltzin and thanks to his notary, managed to maintain that all his instructions regarding the heritage transfer to the Soviet Roerichs Foundations would remain valid towards the ICR. This confirms that he indeed saw them as the same organization. However, after he passed away, when it became clearly impossible to ask him directly once more, the arbitration courts in Russia did not accept his interpretation, and perceived a certain gap in the legal transmittance of rights from the Soviet Roerichs Foundations to the ICR.

A strange unofficial telegram from India and the deliberate confusion (between the names of the institution in its past and present state) are, broadly speaking, the two facts that promoted the Russian government’s resolution in 1993. This, in fact, was the basis on which the ICR was deprived of the Lopukhin estate that was supposed to be handed over to the Museum of Oriental Art. What came next? Strangely enough, nothing. The ICR not only continued to be located in the Lopukhin estate after having made a new lease contract with the Moscow authorities, but it also managed to fully restore the mansion and open the public Museum of N.K. Roerich. And by doing so, it fulfilled the will of its founder Svyatoslav Roerich. In 2007, the director general of the Museum of N.K. Roerich, first vice-president of the ICR, Mrs L.V. Shaposhnikova, received the “Cultural Heritage” national award for the re-qualification of the historical estate. A year earlier, by Presidential decree, Ludmila V. Shaposhnikova was awarded the Order of Friendship for the protection of cultural heritage (Roerichs’ and the Lopukhins’ estate – editor) and for her contribution to museology (since she created the public Museum of N.K. Roerich). As for the State –run Roerichs Museum – a branch of the Museum of Oriental Art – it was created only on paper. And this takes us to today, fifteen years later..

Once it had restored the mansion, the ICR focused on the collection of 228 paintings bequeathed to it by S.N. Roerich, which was still stored at the Museum of Oriental Art against the owner’s will. A petition was filed to one of Moscow’s general jurisdiction courts in order to acknowledge the fact that the ICR was to receive the legacy of S.N. Roerich, accordingly to his testament. This fact was indeed acknowledged.

The Cosmic laws, which the whole Roerich family dedicated itself reflecting on, unfortunately does not make up for earthly greed. Eternity will, of course, not be perturbed by it, but we are still down here, for the moment.

The then Head of the Ministry of Culture, Mr. Mikhail Shvydkoy, started to worry and sought for this decision to be annulled through the Moscow City Court. This case was asked to undergo another hearing. At present, the courts are refusing to examine the claim, based on grounds that the proceedings should be "as per the lawsuit", yet it does so without specifying who should sue whom and regarding what. In any event, all mentioned above seems quite threatening for the Museum of Oriental Art. It is most likely this fact that caused another statement demanding to dispossess the ICR of the Lopukhin estate. It would not have been difficult to gain support from the Ministry of the State inventory, which would have taken into consideration the historical venue and the current condition of the estate. It is only hard to believe that, by winning the lawsuit, the estate would really fall in the hands of the State Roerichs’ Museum.

Whatever the outcome, the estate would still stay here in Volkhonka, but what would happen to the Roerichs’ heritage? Whatever your personal attitude towards them may be, the heritage is not just a legacy; it is a priceless cultural asset of Russia. Moreover, it also has a certain monetary value. Even ignoring the fact that there are no grounds to legalize the collection of S.N. Roerich in the Museum of Oriental Art, the eviction of the ICR from the Lopukhin estate annihilates any legitimate reason to maintain the Roerichs’ heritage collection in Russia. The eviction would violate all conditions set for the returning the Roerichs’ heritage to Russia, as well as breach state promises to Svyatoslav Roerich. Ultimately, this would mean that the International Centre-Museum of Nicholas Roerich, which has become world-famous during the course of the past 18 years, would be destroyed.