Members of the World of Art Movement, by Boris Kustodiev (1916–1920). The artist and art collector Alexander Benois is seated in the center of the painting, surrounded by other members of Mir iskusstva

Members of the World of Art Movement, by Boris Kustodiev (1916–1920). The artist and art collector Alexander Benois is seated in the center of the painting, surrounded by other members of Mir iskusstva

Essays “We know what we are losing …” The scattering of art in revolutionary Petrograd

The history of revolutionary Petrograd covers the period between the two times when the city changed its name, in 1914 and 1924. During this period, it came to witness a world war (not accidentally called the Great War) and two revolutions, as well as cold, famine, and destruction. Even though difficult to assess, the consequences for museums and collections, both private and public, were enormous, as they were for a variety of art institutions and, even more so, for private persons such as collectors, artists, art critics, and so on.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2019:3, pp 58-67
Published on on November 21, 2019

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The history of revolutionary Petrograd covers the period between the two times when the city changed its name, in 1914 and 1924. During this period, it came to witness a world war (not accidentally called the Great War) and two revolutions, as well as cold, famine, and destruction. Even though difficult to assess, the consequences for museums and collections, both private and public, were enormous, as they were for a variety of art institutions and, even more so, for private persons such as collectors, artists, art critics, and so on. We can follow the radical transformations that took place especially during 1917—1920 through newspaper publications, private journals written by artists, collectors, and Kulturträger of that period, as well as archival materials, and first and foremost through minutes from board meetings at the Russian Museum and the Hermitage. They also shed light on the unprecedented rate and scope of the changing hands of art production in Petrograd and, as a consequence, can shed light on the effects involved.

The transformations were not limited to simply re-distributing valuable art objects in the interests of the victorious revolutionary classes, neither were they due to simply nationalization of private art collections, nor even the dynamic processes of museum organization. These were already reported during the Soviet time, and in considerable detail even though not always quite precisely. Truly important was the unprecedented growth of activities in the practically deregulated art market and a broadening of its social base. There appeared new actors who had never before dealt with art collectors, art dealers, or even amateurs. This had economic as well as political and ideological reasons. The overall result was that the idea itself of property rights in relation to art as a segment of the economy was completely changed.

As early as the beginning of the 20th century, before the revolution, St. Petersburg already had a well-developed network of museums, among them imperial and departmental, public and private collections varying in subjects, dimensions, and the value of their holdings. There was a vivid artistic life with art exhibitions and magazines and a rapidly evolving art market attracting new actors. Art treasures from collections owned by the court and the nobility could be seen by the public, e.g., at the historical-artistic exhibition of family portraits organized by Sergei Diagilev in the Tauride Palace in 1905. The 1904 historical-artistic exhibition at the Baron Stieglitz Museum of Decorative and Applied Arts consisted entirely of art from private collections and was complete with an album in luxury edition.

With increased democratization, a new trend appeared in Russian art collecting. Not only individuals, but also hotels, such as the famous Evropeiskaia, and even restaurants were buying Russian and Western artworks. Thus, the famous Donon restaurant owned a superb collection of bronzes and canvases attributed to Teniers and Wouwerman. Original artworks decorated private mansions and operations halls in major banks. Already by the beginning of the 20th century, not only the rich and the artists, but also the ordinary people were collecting: the intelligentsia, lower rank civil servants, the military, and small tradespeople. A new trend of inexpensive collecting appeared with its specific interest in graphic art and collectibles like folk toys, children’s art, advertisements, and so on. For instance, postcards became popular collecting items after the regular publication of postcard catalogues started in 1901, and a special magazine dedicated to postcards started in 1904. By the early 1900s, collecting postcards, exlibrises, posters, etc., had already become a fashion. A typical example of collectorly desires was Alexander Benois, the central figure in the period’s artistic life.  Alongside painting and European drawings, he collected fashion plates, book vignettes, photographs, objects of folk art, children’s drawings, and toys. Applied art also became an object of careful cultivation and collectorship, no longer just as decoration to create an atmosphere. New collectors became actively involved in curatorial work exhibiting both contemporary and old art, and there were many groups that artists joined specifically for the organization of art shows.


However, it was only when the Revolution came to the capital that the true dimensions of the movement became evident. While the Revolution was gaining momentum between February and October 1917 and further on, crime in Petrograd was getting more and more serious. Press from that time tells stories of burglaries and expropriations naming art owners who fell victim and whose names were previously completely unknown either to the general public or to the experts. Museum holdings were expanding through numerous, partly compelled, donations and sales by private collectors, who also left their holdings at museums for safe storage. Thus, the significant scale of collecting activities became evident. In private collections, one would often find unexpected things. For instance, in 1921 the Hermitage purchased a veil “from the mummies of Ramses II and Ramses III” from an obscure private collector, and it also negotiated with another private individual the purchase of two Egyptian mummy heads.

Documents from museum archives describing transfers of private collections to museums demonstrate the extraordinary level of activity in art collecting before the Revolution and in museum organization after the revolution in the 1920s—1930s. Thus, until its liquidation in 1937, there was a Muzeinyi fond, Museum Fund, a collection of artifacts and archival documents assembled earlier out of former private holdings, all of them of exclusive value and rarity. After the fund was terminated, these pieces were scattered in all directions all over the country to be included in disparate museum collections. In the 1930s, the authorities decided that the Hermitage would in future specialize in Western and oriental art while the Russian Museum would take care of Russian art. At that time, thousands of artifacts were transferred from the Hermitage collections into other depositaries.

Yet, in spite of the massive sales, pillaging, and pogroms that came with the Revolution, and in spite of the Bolsheviks’ nationalization and requisition campaigns during the 1920s, there were still considerable amounts of art and historical objects remaining in private ownership. As late as 1941 objects from private collections continued to flow into museums all over the USSR. Until then, there existed a committee for expertise and purchase in Leningrad with special funds assigned by the state to buy artworks from the population that were later distributed among state museums. The committee purchased paintings, sculptures, prints, and applied art from Leningraders to send them on to the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow and to art galleries and art museums all over the country. There were so many art objects accumulated in the city that they sufficed to fill not only Leningrad’s museums but even museums in other cities. This demonstrates how rich and previously underestimated St. Petersburg art collections were.

With the revolutionary chaos and destruction that started already in February 1917, a process began, paradoxically, of further revitalization and expansion of the art market in Petrograd. Throughout 1917, parallel to the increasing economic collapse, the demand for artworks was also steadily increasing. The value of money was disappearing through inflation, and securities lost all value due to the nationalization in 1917—1918 of banks with all their property and other private property. Yet art objects appeared to remain a more reliable investment: despite all, there still remained numerous passionate art lovers in the city. No matter which of the current “isms”, contemporary paintings from art shows sold out almost immediately to connoisseurs. In 1917, just before the February Revolution, when the World of Art (Mir Iskusstva) opened its exhibition, Alexander Benois wrote in his journal: “The vernissage was a brilliant success: we sold art for 40,000 roubles!”  “The demand for art was extraordinary. At art shows, everything sells right away,” Nicolas Roerich wrote to his wife from Petrograd shortly before the October Bolshevik coup. The demand was hysterical and did not seem to depend on style or school, the name of the artist, or even the quality of the painting. In February 1917, in the exhibition space of the Art Academy, a posthumous exhibition of works by the academy member Iosef Krachovskii was on show, judged by its critics as “miserable”. Nevertheless, almost all objects displayed there were sold. Even after October, Alexander Benois’ elder brother, the watercolor painter Albert Benois, was surviving (and compared to the rest of famished Petrograd, doing quite well) by selling his works. As late as the Soviet 1920s, the demand for work by the Silver Age celebrity Konstantin Somov remained unabated and he could hardly cope with the stream of orders, even though the general interest in modernist art had declined. In the cold and famine of those early years it was quite possible to trade art for wood and food. The author and critic Kornei Chukovskii reported in 1919 that the artist Iurii Annenkov charged him a pud of wheat flour for a portrait. At the same time, things could work out quite differently for others, as for instance, for the graphic artist Nikolai Gerardov who took his life due to hunger in 1919. And this was not an isolated episode.

Besides sales at art shows, galleries, and dealer’s offices (like the art bureau run by the famous art dealer Nadezhda Dobychina), there were also quite busy private art traders, or rather, speculators, and there also existed various art stores, storages, and pawnshops. Some of them were well known from pre-revolutionary times. But there also appeared new legal sales agents run by new Soviet institutions. For instance, one such art store belonged to the First Petrograd pawnbroker (one among altogether about a dozen similar shops), or a dozen second hand stores that were run by the Petrokommuna. In the press, one could read curious things, like the story about a team of workers who started a store on Liteinyi Prospect to sell what they described as “everything possible” and what in reality turned out to be art and other valuable artifacts.


While private and state-run trading organizations bought artwork from the people, there existed special organizations that dealt with objects yielded by nationalizations and requisitions, as well as property classified as ”ownerless”. Such objects were collected at the storage at the Palace of Arts (as the Winter Palace was renamed then) and traded at the Gosfond store that was run by the regional people’s education department (also located at the Winter palace). There were special storages for “ownerless goods” (most often, expropriated or pillaged in acts of vandalism) at Gorprodukt (trading in consumer goods) and the Petrokommuna, as well as storages that belonged to central agencies such as the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Trade, the Workers and Peasants’ Inspection, the People’s Commissariat of Trade and Industry, and so on. Almost every Soviet organization had an art storage of its own to collect, keep, and trade valuable objects. This fact alone demonstrates the amount of art treasures accumulated in the city and the dimensions of art trade at that time. Also, the Cheka, later (O)GPU, had their own storage; it was from there that the Russian Museum received, for instance, some paintings by the 18th century artists Dmitrii Levitskii and Fedor Rokotov.

In addition, there were also quite ordinary street markets actively involved with trading in art, often of first-rate quality. Merely two days after the Bolsheviks took power in October 1917, newspapers were reporting: “At the Aleksandrovskii marketplace, two unknown men in navy uniforms were selling a golden frame decorated with precious stones that they quite openly declared had been taken from the Winter Palace. For the frame, the burglars asked 20,000 roubles. No one dared detain them because they were armed with rifles.”  Three years later, Petr Neradovskii, the famous art historian at the Russian Museum, informed the board that the museum had purchased a portrait by Leon Bakst that was once the property of the sugar magnates Tereshchenkos. The man who sold the painting to the museum had acquired it from an unknown sailor at a street market. Because the Tereshchenkos’ collection had already been deposited at the museum for temporary storage, the board took the honest decision to include the portrait in their collection and not in the museum’s own holdings. Later, the collection was returned to the original owners, but what happened to the portrait in question nobody knows.

These examples demonstrate from what kind of new sources art appeared on the quite lively market. Like during no other period, after the revolution art became an object of lively criminal interest.

The unprecedented growth of crime is of course easy to explain. New groups of people had been arriving as migrants from the outside and could not all possibly be registered. Already in the autumn of 1914, conscripts and their families started flowing into Petrograd, then the center of all state and military administration, seeking better positions and places of service. War refugees were moving into the capital city, too. After treatment in Petrograd’s military hospitals, the wounded or sick military personnel were demobilized and stayed in the city. They had little means of sustenance and plenty of seductions and bad examples in front of their eyes. In the earliest revolutionary events in February—March 1917, mobs were seizing police precincts, destroying documentation, and attacking prisons to set free prisoners of the tsarist regime. Among those, political prisoners constituted but a small fraction. Large groups of criminal offenders were at large, joined by deserters who also found themselves safe in the large city. The revolutionary authorities were incapable of and inexperienced in fighting crime. At the same time, from the very first days of the February Revolution, high-flying rhetoric was concealing the brutish reality. Plunderers and pillagers appealed to social justice, namely the revolutionary redistribution of wealth. On the revolutionary day of February 27, 2017, a many thousand-strong crowd of people occupied the Tauride Palace where the Provisional Committee of the State Duma was holding its meeting. Immediately, all silver tableware disappeared from the Duma’s canteens. The “victorious proletariat” after October were no better. In 1918, when the Congress of Committees of Poor Peasants (kombeds) convened to celebrate the first anniversary of the October revolution, its delegates left their hotels taking “knives, forks, spoons, and even window curtains with them…”


At first, robbers attacked passers-by in the streets, then burglars took over and started robbing private houses and apartments. The nobility’s palaces and mansions were equally attractive to both idealistic “revolutionary expropriators” and ordinary criminals, as well as large apartments owned by the rich. Starting in February, the situation was gaining momentum. After the Bolsheviks occupied the retired dancer and the tsar’s favorite Kshesinskaia’s mansion, they could not be evicted even by court order, and Kshesinskaia sued the Provisional Government for 2  million roubles in compensation for the valuables that remained in the house. She won the case but never received the money; but the court order did produce unpredicted results when in June 1917 the objects from the mansion disappeared, armed soldiers took guard at the entrance, and a plaque was mounted on the wall declaring that the house was now the property of the people. Legally, the plaque had no significance at all. “People’s property” was just scattered among the new authorities. Later, Kshesinskaia recollected having seen Alexandra Kollontai wearing her outfits. Another object, a golden cigarette case with an inscription from Crown Prince Nicholas, changed hands many times before Lili Brik received it as a gift from her then husband, the Soviet general Primakov, later to be expropriated when he was arrested by the NKVD.

After October 1917, robberies and burglaries acquired truly massive dimensions. In the summer of 1919, specialists at the Russian Museum were inspecting the studio of a recently deceased sculptor whose complete collection of books, manuscripts, and small sculptures was found missing. To prevent something like that from happening again, in 1921 the museum took over the famous artist Sergei Makovskii’s library when Makovskii had to emigrate in haste in 1920. Earlier, in autumn 1919, a special committee inspected the summer palace that belonged to Agathon Fabergé, the son of Karl Fabergé, himself a jeweler and art collector. Already before the revolution, this place was known as a “smaller Hermitage” because of the extremely valuable objects kept there. By the time of the inspection, Fabergé had already been arrested and released three times and his house subjected to multiple searches, after which the red military used is as their lodgings. The committee experts had to report that the collection had been stolen in its entirety.


In February 1920, the board of the Hermitage reported the disappearance of a bust by Donatello from the Stroganoff Palace. In June, the committee inspected the Oranienbaum Palace and also reported massive losses: “as for art furniture and interior design, there is nothing left that would be of any artistic interest, and, by the way, from the Large Palace, there disappeared in an unknown direction a painting of the Hermitage level of quality and international value, A concert by Ekgout, dated 1753.”

After the October coup, criminal records read like a nightmarish detective story: burglars breaking in literally a day before the committee for the protection of art planned its visit. In June 1921, the Kazan Cathedral and the Church of the Resurrection of Christ (on Spilled Blood), both situated close to the Russian Museum, were broken into. In 1922, because of the growing number of burglaries, the director issued a special order introducing security watches up to six rounds a night. Inventories of the Anichkov Palace (since 1918, the Museum of the City) record losses and make occasional comments like “taken away by vandals on the night of February 25, 1922.” Robberies also took place in the Hermitage. Thus, in January 1923 a canvas by van Mieris was stolen directly from the display (later restored to the museum).

At first, pillaging was not specialized, and thieves would take paintings and prints alongside money and gold. However, during the NEP, art became a special object of criminal interest. In the summer of 1923, Benois, at that time the director of the painting gallery at the Hermitage, writes in his journal: “…stolen, cut out of their frames: this is a new phenomenon, it makes one wonder. I am not even reporting any special cases, they are too numerous.” How many objects disappeared like that and what happened to them afterwards is impossible to say.

I must point out again that even in legal or semilegal sales, let alone plain crime, the artifacts in question were objects from the property of the so-called byvshie (literally, “former people”, meaning the former privileged ones). As early as 1918, this word was already in use referring to the nobility and merchants, state bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, the priesthood, and the intelligentsia. During the years of red terror, the word, even though defined vaguely, also occurred in official documents. These byvshie had come into the ownership of art before the revolution, and after the October coup and Bolshevik repressions they also became the main sellers. In the late 1920s, there was an attack made in the press against the Museum of the City at the Anichkov Palace because of its alleged attempts to protect the property of the former exploiting classes. And indeed, in 1928 the museum was closed and its holdings were scattered. Benefiting from these movements were various groups, including the byvshie who sold the works as a means of survival, but also old and new collectors, the revolutionary nouveau riche, and those who stood close to the new authorities.

And indeed, the authorities’ legitimate actions were not so different from plain pillaging. Already in February 1917, rekvizitsiia became a household word. The Romanovs’ estate was requisitioned first. In March 1917, revolutionary military detachments attempted to requisition the Large Palace in Peterhof. In most cases of such actions, historical artifacts were destroyed or disappeared. In March 1917, Benois accompanied a commissar on an inspection of the Oranienbaum Palace. He noted that even though the Large Palace had suffered damage, its outstanding collection of Meissen china had survived. After October 1917, this collection also disappeared.


Activists among the intelligentsia were trying to curb the destruction and initiated a number of committees and councils to protect art and historical monuments. In May 1917, the official Committee for the Protection of Monuments of Art and Antiquities was established, and on July 1, 1917, the Art Historical Committee of the Winter Palace. The well-known artist and art collector Vasilii Vereshchagin was elected its chair, once the founder of the Starye Gody magazine and of the (imperial) Society for Monument Protection and Conservation. The goal of the Committee was to receive and inventory property from imperial palaces and to identify artifacts that would be valuable as museum items. In August of the same year, three other committees were set up to deal with imperial palaces in Gatchina, Peterhof, and Tsarskoe Selo. However, these committees could do nothing against the uncontrollable exportation of art and the pillaging of precious metals, china, bronzes, and paintings. The Soviet regime also used such organizations for its own purposes. During the first years after the October revolution, Narkompros would set up similar committees. In 1919—1920, representatives from the Hermitage, the Russian Museum, the Museum of the City Petrograd, and others were all participating in a special committee distributing among themselves valuable artifacts from the Anichkov Palace.


Already during the time of the Provisional Government, some palaces and mansions were described in great detail and compensation was planned for the owners. Some money was even paid out to those whose houses were requisitioned “for revolutionary purposes” by various political parties. Needless to say, the Provisional Government’s commitments were null and void after October. No rules or systems applied then in any measures taken by the new authorities.

Still, organizing a museum would be a useful strategy to protect a collection from dispersion. For example, after the October coup, Bolshevik revolutionary sailors intended to set up their club at the Stroganoff Palace. Lunacharsky and Benois interfered by declaring the palace a museum — which, however, did not protect it from being pillaged afterwards in 1919—1920. In 1918, they gave the status of a museum to the studio of the deceased artist Konstantin Makovskii, including all objects in it, and the private apartment of Mikhail Roslavlev, an architect, painter, and the owner of a large collection of art by Mir Iskusstva. During the same year, the Soviet of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies in Tsarskoe Selo intended to occupy the palace of Grand Duke Pavel Aleksandrovich. To prevent the takeover, Narkompros declared the palace a public museum. A complicated plan by monument protection activists to save the Anichkov Palace resulted in the establishment of the already mentioned the Museum of the City Petrograd in 1918.

None of these museums survived for a long time, and already by the 1920s all of them were closed. The original owners would as a result lose any rights to their property, and only in a few cases were some of them allowed to stay in their own home turned museum, for instance, in the capacity of a keeper. This is what happened to Senator Evgraf Reitern’s (and Russia’s largest) collection of engravings and lithographs. In 1918, the Russian Museum acquired all 25,500 sheets of it for a purely symbolic sum of 20,000 roubles. In return, Reitern was employed as a keeper and given an apartment at the Russian Museum close to his collection, because by that time the former senator had already been evicted from his own place and had nowhere at all to live.

Life itself forced collectors to sell their treasures. It was in Petrograd (much earlier than in other Russian cities) that the Bolsheviks first started relocating tenants and “compacting” (uplotnenie) lodgings in requisitioned private homes. The new municipal politics decreed the nationalization of all private housing property. Even though the campaign was only complete in 1921, already in autumn-winter of 1917 district Soviets were given wide-ranging rights in the redistribution of de-privatized dwellings. In January 1918, a special committee was established in Petrograd to ensure occupancy by proletarian families of houses and apartments of the bourgeoisie. In March 1918, all housing space above the new norm was decreed to be subject to requisitioning, and non-compliance or attempts to conceal housing spaces was to be punished by eviction and confiscation. Apartments of the former rich were thus transformed into communal housing, where neither entire art collections nor even isolated artifacts could be kept. It should be added that those byvshie, or netrudovye elementy (Russ. “idle elements”, non-working disenfranchised persons) were also deprived of the right to employment and were heavily taxed. They had in other words hardly any means of survival. Many of them also expected to be deprived of their collections in the near future and feared for their lives if that were the case.

And still, legal art sales by art owners at that time increased considerably such that the most significant and valuable items nevertheless found new homes for themselves in museums, at least at first. In what concerned the visual arts, Bolshevik leaders were almost indifferent, so thanks to the efforts of cultural lobbyists the new authorities at first were easy to convince to fund purchases for museum painting collections. The result was that during the years of revolution, state museum holdings increased manifold.

Selling a collection to a museum (given the will of the museum to acquire it) was one way to protect it, and another was to transfer the collection’s core components into a museum for temporary keeping. This latter practice was invented by artists employed at museums or sitting on museum boards. It had first developed during the time when such precautions became relevant because of the defeats the Russian army was suffering in the war, and later during revolutionary rioting. In what concerns the imperial museums, after February 1917 they were all given state status and could therefore provide the artifacts in their keeping with some safety. Their storages were closed for the general public and possessed enough space to house boxes with collections. Already in March 1917, Benois writes about his attempt to convince an aristocratic family to deposit the family collection of china and silverware at the Alexander III Museum. He failed then, but later on, the silver did eventually land in the museum storages, only to be sold abroad during Stalin’s secret art sale campaign in the 1930s. The Russian Museum was active in accepting private collections for keeping, which the Hermitage refused to do, but already in 1918 became aware that this was a mistake. In September 1918, Sergei Troinitskii, the director, addressed the Hermitage board at an extraordinary meeting asking them to revise the decision: “By accepting artifacts for keeping, the Russian Museum undoubtedly succeeded in rescuing many valuable objects. In the present situation, private collections are under the threat of destruction, and for their salvation, maybe, the Hermitage should revise its standpoint.”

Many collections first deposited for safekeeping in museums were later taken over to be officially included in the museums’ own holdings. Such was the fate of collections from the families of the disenfranchised nobility. Thus, one of the best museums in Petrograd, the already mentioned Museum of the Central School for Technical Drawing (the former Stieglitz School) accepted for keeping collections that belonged to outstanding noble families. Yet, in quite a short time, the Museum itself had to face the threat of being abolished, and in autumn 1923 its facilities with all museum collections were given over to the Hermitage — at that time the only organization that could provide protection both for the collections kept there and for the unfortunate Stieglitz Museum itself. The Museum was reorganized to become a branch of the Hermitage, but even in this capacity it only survived until the beginning of the 1930s.


On November 10, 1918, the Decree on the registration and protection of monuments of art and antiquity was published, adopted even a month earlier, in October. Now, private owners were obligated to have their collections registered and no longer allowed to sell or hand over the objects anywhere without first informing the authorities. As was always the case in the matters of the Bolsheviks’ law, the decree’s formulations were vague, and the practice remained only partially under control. Collectors and antiquarians suspected that this was an attempt to gather information for further requisitions. They first stopped contacting museums with offers of sale or transfer of things for keeping, not hoping that the museums could protect them from pillage — but later these contacts intensified so that soon museums could not find free storage to house more artwork. In 1923, the writer Evgenii Zamiatin, arrested several times, imprisoned, and finally exiled abroad, was trying to protect just 8 paintings and 30 drawings by depositing them at the Russian Museum. Because of lack of space, the board only agreed to accept the smaller objects. In 1922, the authorities demanded that the museums should immediately submit complete lists of deposited art. In the mid-1920s, all deposited collections were proclaimed national property and given over to the museums that now became their legitimate owners.

In order to protect art, many collectors in early Soviet Russia would donate art, but the tradition itself of donating had been established long before, and not only to the Hermitage or the Russian Museum, but also to smaller museums. The diplomat and art historian Prince Vladimir Argutinskii-Dolgorukov, for instance, devised a collecting strategy specifically with a view to donating the collection in future. When making an acquisition, he would take notes of the museum to receive the artifact, so that even in our time objects that once were in his collection can be seen at the Hermitage, the Russian Museum, the Louvre, and the Museum of St. Petersburg History. The Revolution gave an additional impetus to donors. For example , in 1918, Alexander Polovtsov Jr., a diplomat, ethnographer, and orientalist, who had many times on earlier occasions made museum donations, handed over to the Stieglitz Museum a large part of his collection after his private mansion was requisitioned.

However, even if a piece of art found a place in a museum collection, that still was no guarantee of safety. The status of a museum as a state organization would not stop burglars, or the multiple attempts by the authorities to re-distribute museum holdings, with the result that rare and valuable artifacts legitimately owned by museums in Petrograd were isolated and relocated, to be used for political purposes. Already in 1917, in connection with the Bolsheviks’ peace negotiations with Germany (the Peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk), the parties started discussing the surrender by the Bolsheviks of the so-called Kassel (Malmaison) collection from the Hermitage. Those were paintings from the Kassel palace once looted by Napoleon and relocated to Paris to decorate the Malmaison palace. Alexander I acquired the collection in 1814. Representatives of the Hermitage applied much effort to exclude this item from the peace treaty. Another case was the conclusion of peace treaty after the 1921 Polish-Soviet war when the now independent Polish republic demanded that Soviet Russia surrender valuable assets obtained by the Empire in the course of partitions. Among other things, the Polish delegation claimed collections and individual artwork from the Hermitage, the Gatchina palace, and the Art Academy. Those artifacts once belonged to the royal palace in Łazienki and the Warsaw Library. A special Russian-Ukranian-Polish committee was then set up to negotiate these matters.

Relocation was also going on inside Russia. Museums in Moscow, for instance, were objecting against the return to Petrograd of museum and church artifacts that had been evacuated from the capital during the war. They also demanded that Glavmuzei (the main museum administration) transfer a number of pieces from old Petersburg collections, even those of the Hermitage and the Russian Museum, into the administration of museums in Moscow, the new capital. Finally, already in the beginning of the 1920s, in the course of cultural revolution with its slogans of decentralization and democratization, an intensive campaign started relocating art from former private collections deposited in Petrograd’s major museums to provincial ones, quite often just recently organized.

In 1918, when the Bolsheviks by decree separated the church from the state, active, even though still relatively cautious, measures towards the alienation of church property were already being taken. In 1922, the Bolsheviks’ violent campaign culminated in the confiscation of valuable objects owned by the church. This was proclaimed to be a measure for famine relief and was accompanied by repression and atrocities against the priesthood and the believers. In the acts of massive destruction of churches, it was still possible to protect some buildings and objects, like old icons, by transferring them into museums. Another committee for the evaluation of antiquary objects was established under the auspices of the People’s Commissariat of Trade and Industry and its head, Leonid Krasin, with the purpose of preparing a large-scale art sale for profit.

In the mid-1920s, there started another dramatic episode of art relocation and destruction of collections, and now the sales of museum exhibits was carried out on a massive state-run official basis, both abroad  and inside the country. Items for sale were forcefully selected directly from museums and libraries, those institutions that were by definition designed to protect them. For instance, in 1926 a part of the Diamond Fund was sold to the British antique dealer Norman Weiss, and in 1927 Christie’s auctioned some of the Romanov jewelry. In the 1930s, such sales acquired truly grandiose dimensions, and museum workers were appealing to Stalin to stop the sales.

In such circumstances, smuggling art treasures abroad was not the worst option for a private collector. Even before October collectors were selling through foreign antique dealers and their agents. Afterwards, for art to cross state borders was more complicated, but the stream did not diminish, as demonstrated by the artist Osip Braz selling in Sweden part of his European old master’s collection at the end of 1917.  In the summer of 1918, the newspaper Vechernee slovo reported: “Hundreds of agents make massive purchases of paintings, china, bronze, and furniture before they arrive on the market, so that we never even find out what exactly we are losing. Antique dealers from olden times evaluate art objects taken abroad quite highly, not less than 300 million roubles.”  It is believed that in some cases foreign commissioners used the support of the authorities. In 1919, the Sovnarkom issued its decree “On prohibition of exportation of objects of art and antiquities”, interpreted by the market as a measure against free art trade. A similar measure had already been proposed before the February Revolution, but then Benois resolutely criticized it. Now, the decree provided the authorities with another instrument of repression but it failed to stop the export of art that now continued illegally and grew out of control.


Nowadays, one hundred years later, one cannot but conclude that the history of private collections during the early 1900s still remains unwritten, the dimensions of losses still not evaluated, and the cultural regulation from those years still not systematized and not analyzed in full. No due respect has been paid to the professionals — those artists, museum specialists, conservators, antique dealers, collectors, and art critics — who spared no time nor efforts to monitor the arts scene, to collect and check information about pillaging and plunders, and to compile inventories and descriptions for every monument. It was predominantly their enthusiasm that protected museums, collections, and individual monuments and the construction of the museum system in general. Not only in Russia, but also internationally, the immense and tragic consequences of art plunders have not been researched, nor has any reliable mechanism been elaborated that could protect artwork and their owners. ≈


  1. On August 31, 1914, in response to anti-German sentiments that had appeared at the beginning of WW1, by the imperial ukaz the name St. Petersburg was changed for a Russified one, Petrograd. On December 26, 1924, four days after Lenin’s death, Petrograd received a new name, Leningrad.

  2. Minutes of meetings of the Hermitage Council of the revolutionary era were published in the 2000s.
  3. Sergei Diagilev, Spisok portretov, otobrannykh dlia istoriko-khudozhestvennoi vystavki 1905 goda general’nym komissarom S.P. Diagilevym v osmotrennykh om v techenie letnikh mesiatsev 1904 goda 72-kh russkikh imeniiakh. (St. Petersburg: Ekspeditsiia zagotovleniia gosudarstvennykh bumag, 1904).
  4. Adrian Prakhov, Al’bom istoricheskoi vystavki predmetov iskusstva, ustroennoi v 1904 godu v S.-Peterburge v pol’zu ranenykh voinov. (St. Peterburg: tovarishchestvo R. Golike i A. Vil’borga, 1907).
  5. See on A. Benois’ passion of collecting his memoirs — Alexander Benois, Moi vospominaniia. Moskva: Nauka. On Russian collectors and collections see, for example, Nataliia Mel’nik (2009). Kollektsii i kollektsionery: sbornik statei po materialam nauchnoi konferentsii (Sankt-Peterburg, 2008). (St. Petersburg: Palace Edition, 1980)
  6. On the work of the Museum Fund see, for example, Elena Osokina, Nebesnaia golubizna angel’skikh odezhd: sud’ba proizvedenii drevnerusskoi zhivopisi, 1920—1930-e gody. (Moskva: Novoe literaturnoe obozreniie, 2018).
  7. Alexandre Benois, 1916—1918, eds., M. Zakharov (2016) (Diary of A.N. Benois / 09/14/1916 — .23.01.1918
  8. E.I. Roerich — N.K. Roerich [October 14, 1917] O. I. Eshalova, A. P. Sobolev (eds.) N. K. Roerich. 1917–1919. Materialy k biografii. (St. Petersburg: Costa Company, 2008.) Cit. by:
  9. During late 1917 through 1922, Petrograd was surviving truly tragic times that are described in numerous memoirs and diaries, but especially convincingly in Viktor Shklovsky’s essay Petersburg during the Blockade, in: Viktor Shklovsky, Knight’s Move, transl. by Richard Sheldon (London: Dalkey Archive Press, 2005 /1923): 9—20. No communal services were working in the city and there was no food, wood, or kerosene (thus, a daily ratio of bread due to a “dependent person” or a “non-working element” was one sixteenth of a pound of bread and three herrings, Izvestiia Petrogradskogo kommisariata po prodovol’stviiu, July 9, 1918.)
  10. Chukovskii K.I. : at 15 vols T. 11: Dnevnik: 1901—1921. M.: TERRA-Knizhnyi klub, 2006.
  11. Petrokommuna (the Petrograd Consumer Commune), set up in 1919 to distribute food and other commodities among the population.
  12. Incident diary. // Day. 1917. November 10.
  13. Diary (Zhurnal) No 584 of the Art Department, November 16, 1920. Departmental archive of timing. op. 6.ex. 4. L. 91 reverse.
  14. Smilg-Benario M, Na sovetskoi sluzhbe // Arkhiv russkoi revoliutsii. 3. Berlin (1921); 165.
  15. As far as we know, that was historically Russia’s earliest protection sign.
  16. Katanian V. Prikosnovenie k idolam. M .: Zakharov — Vagrius. (1997); 101.
  17. Zhurnaly zasedanii soveta Ermitazha. Part II 1920—1926 years. SPb: Publishing House of the State. Hermitage 2009. SS. 141—142.
  18. F. 474, op. 1, eh 521. L. 5 inventory.
  19. Benoit A.N. 1918—1924. (
  20. Benoit A.N. 1916—1918. M., 2016.S. 150—151 (Diary of A.N. Benois / 09/14/1916 — 01/23/1918. Http://
  21. Iulia Kantor (ed) Vokrug Zimnego. M.: Rosspen 2017. C. 10.
  22. E. Ivleva “ Evgraf Evgrafovich Reitern (1836—1918) i ego kollektsiia russkikh illustrirovannykh izdanii” (2008). In Nemtsy v Sankt-Peterburge. Vyp. 4, Sankt-Peterburg: MAE RAN. See, accessed on July 10, 2019.
  23. Benoit A.N. 1916—1918. M.6 (2016), 169.
  24. Zhurnaly zasedanii soveta Ermitazha 1917—1919. SPb .: GE. (2001), 141.
  25. Krivova N. A. (1997). Vlast’ i tserkov’ s v 1922—1925 gg.: Politbiuro i GPU v bor’be za tserkovnye tsennosti i politicheskoe podchinenie dukhovenstva. (Moscow: AIRO-XX).
  26. G. Mosiakin “Antikvarnyi eksportnyi fond”, Nashe nasledie, 1991, Nos 2—3 (Moscow), 1991, No. 2,3. Later on, the Committee of the People’s Commissariat for foreign trade was headed by Gorky who during those years himself gathered an antique collection. Benoit A.N. Diary. 1918—1924. M., (2010), 207.
  27. Ilyin, N. Semenova, Sold treasures of Russia. M., 2000; Robert C. Williams, Russian Art and American Money, 1900—1940 (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press,.1980).
  28. Piotrovskii, Istoriia Ermitazha. M .: Art, 2000, 438, 439—440
  29. Benoit A.N. 1916—1918. M., (2016), 544.
    1. Vechernee slovo, June 8, 1918.
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