The question of restitution of looted war art from Russia to Germany has been widely written about in recent months. Few commentators have, however, mentioned the legal difficulties that underlie this complex issue. Specifically, the status of objects in Russian museums has yet to be redefined following the breakup of the Soviet Union. In the meantime, Russia’s huge financial and economic difficulties have imposed enormous strains on its artistic and cultural infrastructure (the extremely optimistic 2% allocation for culture from the federal budget has not been achieved: at the last count, around 40% of the revised 1994 allocation of 0.89% had been handed out).
Mikhail Shvydkoi has been Deputy Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation since 1993. An academic, expert on the theatre and former director of the Kultura publishing group, he was asked by The Art Newspaper to outline the current situation in Russia and describe some of the most significant new initiatives.
Mikhail Shvydkoi: In 1993 we inherited a programme for preserving and developing the culture of Russia which is due to be completed this year. It was based on the fact that, in the extremely difficult and uncertain situation Russia was and is facing, the most important thing was to preserve everything of value in our national heritage. We have supported the policy of reform and restructuring. Nevertheless, we have tried to avoid political and aesthetic extremes and have remained the guardians of the interests of the artist. The Ministry of Culture has, up to a point, been forced to assume the functions of the former Arts Unions that are now in ruins. We have, for example, set up pensions for outstanding cultural figures as well as grants for promising artists.
Financially, culture has not received its proper entitlement for many years: the laws that were passed have not been implemented (for example, the allocation of 2% for culture from the federal budget and 6% from the local budget), so we are now in a very difficult financial situation. Nevertheless, we have managed to preserve the network of state cultural institutions, and in some cases to extend it. In Russia over the last three years 300 new museums have appeared, including art museums. In addition, we are currently devising a programme of cultural development for 1996 to 2000. A group of our leading cultural experts and art specialists is working on the first draft of Russia’s national report or the Council of Europe on problems of culture. The findings of the report will help us to forecast the situation in 1996 and beyond.
Above all, the main sponsor of culture must continue to be the State. In the first place, this is rooted in Russian tradition; second, it is obvious that the new tax laws do not offer sufficient incentives for private patrons of the arts. Private patronage could never meet more than 10% to 15% of the overall budget requirements. When nobody in Russia is showing any profits, it is useless to look to these sources to stimulate culture. To some extent, we need to model ourselves on Western Europe, where culture is financed mainly from the State budget.
Overall, our problem is the lack of identity of the new national culture. We have certain standard images of various different cultures, such as Tuva, Dagestan, and so on. But nobody knows what Russian culture is, or the ideology behind it. This image must grow and mature, and this requires time and patience.
The Art Newspaper: A number of new laws on culture are being prepared. What is the reason for this?
From my own point of view the most important is the “Law concerning the museum funds and the museums of Russia”. Great attention is being given these days to discussing questions of restitution with the Germans. But, at the same time, there is the restitution to the Church. This is a complex philosophical and administrative issue: is culture a part of religion, or is religion a part of culture? Not only do different people regard this problem differently, but they also decide it differently.
For the time being, however, our Ministry has to defend museum holdings from the restitution process, and satisfy both the interests of the Church and, in addition, defend Russia’s cultural heritage.
The country is also witnessing changes in the property laws that in turn affect the museums. Private museums are coming into existence, and ownership of museums is changing. For example, the unique Weapons Museum in the City of Tula has become part of a private company called The Tula Weapons Factory. A major legal problem has thus arisen, and we are trying to prevent a similar situation from arising in future. A museum cannot be part of a private company, with all the implications that might have.
Yes, we want to defend Russia’s heritage. But, the fact is that Russia has proved to be simply unready for freedom, and is also totally undefended in the area of law. The museum law will, I hope, be passed this year, during the present Parliament.
The Council of the Federation has sent the State Duma a draft of the law “Concerning the ownership of cultural valuables that have been transferred to the territory of the Russian Federation as a result of World War II” for it to consider. The law, which has been long awaited, has been seen by only a few people, but already it is causing fierce controversy. What is your attitude to this draft law?
This draft law is, as I see it, still very raw, although also extremely necessary. It still contains many contradictory provisions. Realistically, the law is not going to be passed before 1996. Furthermore, when this law is being voted on in Parliament, especially in the run up to the elections, it will be played as a political card. Nobody will want to be unpatriotic, and I won’t want to be either, but it’s absolutely obvious that, when we talk of works of art that came here as a result of the war, we must divide them into different categories of ownership. The authors of the present draft law are proposing to declare practically everything national property. That is impossible, because what was brought from Germany covers a number of different types of property, including items that formerly belonged to third countries. We must establish a legal basis before declaring that everything is national property. It is here that the position of the Ministry varies from that of a number of the legislators.
Culture in exchange for debts, or for sausage meat is not acceptable. Only culture in exchange for culture is valid
The Ministry of Culture adopts a very straightforward position on this: no returns without compensation, no returns for debt or past credits that we have taken. Culture in exchange for debts, or for sausage meat is not acceptable. Only culture in exchange for culture is valid.
At a recent meeting at the Ministry of Culture to assess the final figures for 1994 it was noted that 0.82% of the federal budget would be designated for culture and art. In fact only 39.6% of this figure was received.
That is true, but a variety of sources of finance are beginning to appear, with 10% coming from private patrons. Cultural institutions are beginning to stand on their own feet. Today these cultural institutions are themselves earning 20% of the money needed to keep themselves going (through the commercial use of buildings, for example, and commercial projects). Whether this is good or bad is another question, but culture in Russia has survived significantly better than many other sectors.
Does the privatisation of culture pose a threat?
We have entered into the sphere of a mixed economy—it could even be called a market economy, and as far as art is concerned this is the new economic and legal reality. The Ministry has supported all private cultural ventures but with extreme caution.
The Ministry of Culture has recently acquiesced over the passing of the presidential decree privatising monuments of local and municipal significance, while retaining control of their preservation.
What are the long-term possibilities for international cultural collaboration ?
As I see it, the country underwent a collapse from 1991 to 1992, when Russia ceased to be a part of the USSR and no longer behaved as a great cultural power. In 1993 and 1994 we tried to strengthen our position, with the State financing the best and brightest that Russian culture had to show abroad.
We are now doing this with funds from the federal budget and the help of funds from the territories. I will always defend funding for international art projects that are necessary and important.
• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline “We will not return paintings for sausage meat”