Inetrnational Centre of the Roerichs

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A.V. Stetsenko. The Roerichs' Heritage Needs International Protection

The international treaty on Protection of Artistic and Scientific Institutions and Historic Monuments went down in history as the Roerich Pact. It is the first treaty in the world to ensure international protection of all objects of cultural heritage independently of whether they are public or private property. No other international treaty ensures the same high level of unconditional protection for historic monuments, as well as institutions of science and culture, and their personnel. This is guaranteed not only during armed conflicts but also in time of peace. This latter provision of the Roerich Pact is becoming more and more significant in today's world.

The issue of protection raises very specific questions that require immediate action in order to give assistance to those objects of cultural heritage that need it. This paper discusses the necessity of international protection of the Roerichs' heritage. Each member of this outstanding family - Nikolay Konstantinovich Roerich, his wife Yelena Ivanovna and their sons Yuri and Svyatoslav – significantly contributed to the heritage of world culture and its protection. Now it is their heritage that needs to be protected by the heirs and the world community.

The need for international involvement in the Roerichs' heritage protection is determined, first of all, by the international significance of the heritage. Indeed this is because, the Roerichs' legacy was intended not only for Russia but also for all humanity.

The base of the Roerichs' heritage is its philosophical element – the Living Ethics teachings – or, rather, the philosophy of cosmic reality. The teaching contains unique and remarkable knowledge that reveals the direction of mankind's cosmic evolution. The Living Ethics was published in ten languages during the Roerichs' lifetime. Today, it is published in sixteen languages. It is growing in popularity throughout the world and more copies are being sold. The philosophical aspect of the heritage was brought along the artistic and scientific work of the Roerich family, as well as their philantropic work.

The heritage of the Roerichs is essentially international nature, its location is spread out through numerous countries, and, at present, there are problems its concerning storage. For these reasons especially we should exercise international control over its preservation. There is not a single country where the conditions would allow this to occur smoothly. It is primarily true about the states which have the greatest portion of the Roerichs' heritage: Russia, India, the USA and Bulgaria. The most dramatic situation is the Russian one, but I will address this issue further on.

In 1992, S. N. Roerich established the International Roerich Memorial Trust as an Indian-Russian cultural organization located on the grounds ofn his father's Indian property in the Kullu Valey, in order to preserve the memorial house of his parents and the Urusvati Himalayan Research Institute with all their collections,.

It should be noted that the Roerichs are held in high esteem in India. This is reflected by the way in which India, unlike Russia, celebrated the 100th anniversary of S. N. Roerich at government level. Indeed, for the centenary of Svyatoslav Roerich, a delegation from the International Center of the Roerichs was invited to India the take part in the celebrations. To mark this occasion, Manmohan Singh, India's Prime Minister, received the heads of the delegation L. V. Shaposhnikova and Yu. M. Vorontsov in his residence.

Despite all of this, , India is also facing challenges concerning the preservation of this heritage.

Presently, the Roerichs Museum and Urusvati Institute, as well as their collections are in critical conditions. If we do not take immediate action to save them, a considerable part of this heritage may be lost. The Roerichs' house in Kully Valley is falling into decay and the precious collections that are stored in the house, as well as the Urusvati Institute itself, are gradually deteriorating.

For many years the International Center of the Roerichs in conjunction with the Russian Embassy in India have been trying to organize a joint project of Russian and Indian experts, with the task of salvaging this portion of the heritage. The International Center of the Roerichs is ready to arrange for Russian experts to go to India to save the house and systematically reorganize the collections located there. We have been urging the Trust's management to agree to this joint action. For, we should bring Russian and Indian experts together to start the deconservation process for the Urusvati Institute and resume its work. However, this problem has not yet been resolved, due to the inertia of the local bureaucrats who run the Trust.

Now a few words about the preservation of the Roerichs' heritage in the USA. The Nicholas Roerich Museum founded in New York in the late 1940s is no longer a museum in the true sense of the word. After the death of the former director S. G. Fosdik, D. Entin took his place. The latter changed the goals and objectives of the museum drastically. He broke the will of Ye. I. Roerich and began to publish her diary. The author forbade anyone to do so until one hundred years from her death. D. Entin contested the will of S. N. Roerich and tried to prevent his inheritance from being transferred to Russia. After S. N. Roerich's death, D. Entin turned the museum into a staging post for the trading of the family's heritage. Several paintings by N. K. Roerich were sold at auction in New York through the museum and now lie hidden away in private collections. In recent times, Entin issued a catalogue of paintings by S. N. Rierich held within the museum collection in order to sell them. If we do not stop it, the world community may lose not only the paintings but also a portion of the valuable archive kept in the museum.

History shows that failure to protect heritage leads to the tragedy of its loss.

In the late 1930s the first public museum of N. K. Roerich and a number of other public organizations of culture founded by him in the USA were done away with. Nikolay Konstantinovich donated the American people nearly 1000 paintings. Despite this generous gift, the museum they were kept in was done away with. This act of vandalism took place not only because his closest followers betrayed him but also because the public was passive. The paintings and other pieces of the Roerichs' heritage that had been kept in the museum were appropriated by L. Horsh, N. K. Roerich's confidant, in the most shameful way and subsequently sold to private collectors. The archives give evidence that this tragedy was possible because of the involvement of an influential US government official Henry Walles. Together with L. Horsh, Walles did away with this center of culture. This was only possible because the public did nothing to protect the public museum.

The fate of the Roerichs' heritage was marked by tragedy even in Russia, where it was stolen away and devastated. I would like to recall the key moments of this tragedy which has been developing in Russia for 50 years.

Nikolay Roerich and his wife Yelena Ivanovna were destined to never return to their homeland although they longed for it. Before she passed away in 1955, Yelena Ivanovna divided the inheritance between Yuri and Svyatoslav and demanded that they should bring it back to Russia.

Like his father before him, Svyatoslav Roerich was a great artist. He married Devika Rani and became an Indian citizen. As for Yuri Roerich, an outstanding orientalist, he strove to get back to his home country. In 1957 he arrived in Moscow and brought the first part of his parents' heritage: with him came about 600 paintings by Nikolay Roerich, the archive of the expedition to Central Asia, as well as his own scientific archive and several rare collections that the Roerichs had gathered throughout their lives.

Yuri Nikolaevich, after his first exhibition of N. K. Roerich's paintings in Moscow, declared his intention to hand over to the Russian state the greatest part of the collection he had brought back as a gift, provided that the state would open a museum named after his father. The Ministry of Culture accepted the gift and promised to open the museum. However, he never followed through with his promise.

In May 1960 Yu. N. Roerich died suddenly without having drafted a will. He was unmarried and had no children. A big part of the inheritance he had brought was in his flat. Almost nothing has been preserved. Almost everything has been taken away[1].

But the tragedy of the Roerichs' heritage in Russia does not end here. The mechanism that brought along its destruction had started and the state was not going to stop it.

In 1978, the USSR Ministry of Culture made a request and S. N. Roerich assigned the Ministry 296 paintings (132 painted by N. K. Roerich and 164 by S. N. Roerich) for temporary use to organize a series of travelling exhibitions. Later S. N. Roerich bequeathed this collection to the International Center of the Roerichs as part of the remaining heritage he had handed over to Russia in 1990. However, the Ministry of Culture never returned this collection to the Center, even though the owner himself had appealed to the Russian President B. N. Yeltsin in 1992 to enforce the return of the works. At present, this collection is kept in the State Museum of Oriental Art. In February 1993, two weeks after S. N. Roerich's death (30 January), the storage status of his collection was unlawfully changed from temporary to permanent.

At present, the collection seems very different from what it was when it was first given to the Ministry of Culture for storage. According to the federal office, the collection now is comprised of 282 paintings. However, according to the will of S. N. Roerich, there must be 288 paintings. There is evidence that some of the missing paintings can now be found in private collections abroad and some authentic paintings by the Roerichs stored in the Museum of Oriental Art are being replaced by copies. These facts prove that during temporary storage in state institutions part of this collection was also stolen and this is the reason why the state is unwilling to give this collection back to its legal owner - the International Center of the Roerichs. Once again, no state institution wants to conduct a thorough investigation over this matter, despite numerous appeals made by the Center, the public and the mass media.

However, this is not all.

Svyatoslav Roerich found out about the tragic fate of the first part of the inheritance that had been left in his brother's flat and about the Ministry's failure to keep the promise and open the Museum of Nikolay Roerich. Because of this, he decided to donate his part of the inheritance exclusively to the public Museum named after N. K. Roerich. A museum that was to be opened in Moscow for this very purpose in a special building.

The coming to power of M. S. Gorbachev's and the perestroika presented this as viable opportunity. The Russian government met the requirements of Svyatoslav Roerich. Thus, a public Centre-Museum named after N. K. Roerich was founded by Decree of the USSR Council of Ministers No 950 of November 4th, 1989, which was to be installed in the Lopukhin Mansion. This was in accordance to the Decision of the Moscow City Executive Committee No 2249 of November 28th, 1989. This became possible only because L. V. Shaposhnikova was able to overcome resistance of the state officials who adamantly opposed the creation of the public museum, despite the decision that had been made.

However, the state officials did not give up the idea of seizing the heritage. To realize it, the first step to be taken was to destroy the museum that had received the heritage.

The first attempt to do it was made a few months after the death of S. N. Roerich. A falsified telegram and then a letter from S. N. Roerich's widow Devika Rani was sent to Russia's President B. N. Yeltsin. These written documents demanded that the heritage should be taken from the International Center to be given to the state in order to open the State Museum of N. K. Roerich. The Decree of the Russian Government No 1121 was issued on 4 November 1993 and was based on the demands presented in the letter and the telegram. The Decree was titled «On Opening the State Museum of N. K. Roerich» on the site of the Lopukhin Mansion as a branch of the State Museum of Oriental Art, in order to replace the public museum. Obviously, this decree is illegal: it breaks the promise given by the state to S. N. Roerich and contradicts the government acts passed earlier, which granted the public museum the occupancy of the Lopukhin Mansion. An important thing should be added to this: Devika Rani had no right to cancel the will of her husband because she had no right of succession of his parents' property. This is proven by the verdict reached by the Senior Counsel of the Supreme Court of India, D. Sharma.

M. Punacha, former secretary of Roerich, upon the order of Russian officials falsified the telegram and the letter allegedly sent by D. Rani. After D. Rani passed away, M. Punacha was arrested by the Indian police. She was charged with theft of an exceptionally large portion of the Roerich property, as well as with the forgery of Devika Rani's signature on her will. This example demonstrates how Russian officials made use of the services of Indian swindlers to achieve their goals and do away with the public museum.

At that time, namely in 1995-1996, the International Center of the Roerichs was able to protect its venue and prevent the collapse of the public museum. The Decree did not come into action. However, it was also not cancelled.

A further attempt to destroy the public museum and seize the heritage preserved within it was made in 2007 when Rosimushchestvo, the Federal Agency for State Property Management, made a legal claim to the Moscow Arbitration Court for the removal of the International Center of the Roerichs' from the Lopukhin Mansion.

The state officials are not affected by the fact that the mansion was intended to host the public museum they are trying to remove, and we have, therefore, been able to stop the process for a while. However, the question of whether we will be able to stay in the Lopukhin Mansion – which has been literally restored from its ruins thanks to the Center's funds and donations, but without any state funding – has not yet been resolved.

The facts I am referring to prove that the government is using its agencies to lead a deliberate campaign against the public museum and to seize the Roerichs' heritage. If it succeeds, the portion of the inheritance preserved in the public museum will undoubtedly meet the same fate that the inheritance left in Yuri Roerich's flat incurred. Everything will be stolen. A question may arise: Why doesn't the International Center of the Roerichs take legal action to protect itself? In fact, we did. For more than 15 years we have been trying to protect the heritage of the Roerichs in Russian courts. In the rest of the world the judicial bodies guarantee law and justice. Yet, the Russian courts of today are often used by Russian officials as an instrument to achieve goals that are far from legal. The International Center of the Roerichs had a chance to understand this because of its long experience in protecting its heritage. I can give you a few examples.

1. In 1994–1995 the International Center of the Roerichs won a lawsuit against the RF Government in the Supreme Court. The illegal provisions of the Government Decree On Opening the State Museum of N. K. Roerich were cancelled. Justice seemed to triumph. However, upon the demand of Ye. Yu. Sidorov, Minister for Culture, and other top officials, the Presidium of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation cancelled the decision of three lower officials and resumed the Decree without giving any reasons for doing so.

2. In December 2003, following the complaint of the Minister for Culture M. Ye. Shvydkoy, the Presidium of Moscow City Court unfoundedly cancelled the decision of Khamovnichesky Court in Moscow that affirmed that the International Center of the Roerichs should be the heir to S. N. Roerich's possessions as stated in his will. In his complaint Mr. Shvydkoy deceived the court stating that the paintings by the Roerichs should, according to S. N. Roerich's will, belong to the state. The court believed him even though the Minister gave no evidence. It should be added that the efforts of Shvydkoy and his predecessors made it possible for the Russian state to refuse to confirm that the International Center of the Roerichs should inherit Svyatoslav Roerich's possessions for 17 years after his death. This was so even though the validity of the will was confirmed by the conclusion made by the Seniour Counsel of the Supreme Court of India D. Sharma.

At the moment a new attempt to do away with the public museum and remove the Roerichs' heritage from the museum is being made in court.

It has been two years since proceedings began in the Moscow Arbitration Court to address the claim of the open joint stock company "Progress Publishing House" that the Roerichs' heritage should be removed from the Center. Although this publishing house has no relation to the Roerichs' heritage and does not have a single document to entitle the publishing house to this claim, it went so far as to claim that the the International Center of the Roerichs has the paintings and the archives illegally[2]. By doing so, L. V. Shaposhnikova was accused of misappropriation of the heritage. It should be noted that the authors of such libel used the MP A. V. Bednov to cast it. The great achievements of L. V. Shaposhnikova in preserving the Roerichs' heritage are generally recognized. She has received national awards for her service. Her work has been celebrated with an honorary award from the European Union – Europa Nostra. However, all this does not seem to stop Russian officials. Our appeal to the State Duma leaders to stop the MP's libelling campaign was futile. Some time ago the Duma responded by declaring that Bednov acts in full compliance with the legislation, while the actions of the International Center of the Roerichs were inappropriate.

These facts, mentioned above, about the illegality demonstrated by the Russian authorities with regards to the Roerich heritage prove that the ring of lawlessness around the International Center of the Roerich is tightening.

The Center is now reaching the limit of its legal abilities to protect the Roerich heritage in Russia. Repeated appeals of the Center and Russia's leading workers of culture to various Russian Presidents did not bring about any change. This was the case even when a Russian President made a decision or assigned a task: these were never implemented. For example, after the appeal of S. N. Roerich to B. N. Yeltsin in 1992, the President ordered the State Museum of Oriental Art to return the collection of the Roerichs paintings to the International Center of the Roerichs, but this order was never implemented. On 4 May 2008, President Putin assigned task of setting up a committee to resolve the main problems concerning the Roerichs' heritage in Russia (Decree No 857). In November 2008, the committee made the decision to preserve the work of the public museum in the Lopukhin Mansion, which had to be handed over to the International Center of the Roerichs for free use. How ineffectively this decision was implemented is demonstrated by the continuous attempts of Rosimushchestvo to remove us from the mansion (Rosimushchestvo has not yet withdrawn its claim from the arbitration court). And this is also clear by the way in which open joint stock company "Progress Publishing House" took action against the International Center of the Roerichs in order to snatch the Roerich heritage from it.

It should be noted, however, that the present Minister of Culture A. A. Avdeev is the first minister to have helped us. Yet, one minister is also unable to stop the state mechanism started 20 years ago designed to destroy the public museum.

No matter how the situation will develop, we cannot allow that the American tragedy of the mid‑1930s, when the public museum of Roerich was eliminated, should be repeated. To make sure it does not happen, the Roerich heritage must be given international protection.

[1] For more detail see: Ревякин Д. Гибнущее Наследие: Московская квартира Ю.Н. Рериха. М.: МЦР, Мастер-Банк, 2010.

[2] For more detail see.: Стеценко А.В. Новый виток борьбы за музей и наследие Рерихов // Защитим имя и наследие Рери­хов. Т. 5. М.: МЦР, Мастер-Банк, 2010. С. 29–50.