Historic homecoming: US returns stolen artifacts to Russia

© usembassyru
American authorities returned 28 crucial historical documents dating back to the 18th-20th centuries to the Russian government on Thursday in an official ceremony held at the residence of the US Ambassador in Moscow.

Among them are imperial decrees signed by several Russian emperors, Joseph Stalin’s mandates and several works of art. The documents include 10 authentic imperial decrees concerning the royal household and gratuities, signed by Russian emperors from Peter the Great to Pavel the First, an original decree to the People's Commissar of Defense of the USSR signed by Joseph Stalin (dating March 14, 1944) and 17 drawings made by architect Yakov Chernikhov, a prominent representative of Soviet constructivism, that date back to the first half of the 20th century. 

The most exciting part of the story was the actual acquisition of the documents. The historical valuables were stolen from three federal Russian archives in the 1990s and appeared at auctions, art galleries and private collections in the US, with the archives not even aware that some of them were missing. They were recovered by Department of Homeland Security officials during investigations carried out between 2006 and 2012. 

The imperial decrees were – for the most part – reported missing by the Russian Ministry of Culture in 2011 after being stolen in 1994 from the Russian State Historical Archive by the infamous Vladimir Fainberg group. Apart from the now repatriated documents, Vladimir Fainberg, a collector of antiques, along with his accomplices stole and transported abroad some 700 unique autographs of Russian emperors which had an auction price of $24 mn. The thief fled Russia and has been living in Israel since 1996, with Russian authorities’ efforts to secure his extradition having been futile.

One of the decrees, signed by Peter the Great, was recovered by an officer of the Department of Homeland Security officer at a private art gallery in New Hampshire, after it became clear that the person who turned the document in to the gallery failed to present any warrant of its acquisition. American officials then contacted the Russian Culture Ministry, inquiring whether the document was missing. It turned out that Russia had not been aware of it, and ordered a special review of archives, which showed that the decree was replaced with a fake copy, while the original had actually been stolen.

Normally, in such cases as these American investigators act in response to requests from the Russian Culture Ministry. Yet, regarding Yakov Chernikhov’s works, it was the architect’s grandson who made an official complaint that the works had gone missing and had been, he believed, illegally transported to the United States. It took US authorities six years to locate and confiscate the valuables, with the agents of the Department of Homeland Security working under cover to ascertain that the works in question were genuine. They mainly related to architectural projects, many of which were used during the construction of Soviet industrial and railway buildings. They had been stolen in 2003-2006 from the Russian State Literature and Art Archive in Moscow and later seized by US authorities at an American antiques market.

William Stevens, spokesman for the US Embassy in Moscow, told Russia’s Kommersant newspaper that political rifts haven't hurt practical ties between the two countries. “Russian officials often complain about the U.S.'s extraterritorial implementation of its law, but in this case it is the US that is implementing Russian laws on its territory,” – Stevens told the newspaper. “The Russian government presented us with information stating that certain valuables were illegally taken out of their country and brought into ours and we have helped them return the stolen property.”

The official ceremony was conducted by the US Ambassador to Russia John Tefft. The ceremony was attended by representatives of the US Department of Homeland Security and Russia's Culture Ministry, history experts and prominent cultural figures, with some 160 journalists covering the historic event.

Thursday’s event is the sixth of its kind in recent years. Starting from 2007 American officials have returned over 150 artifacts stolen from Russia in the 1990s. The previous ceremony was held on June 13, 2013., when eight archival documents that had been stolen from the Russian archives and illegally brought to the US were returned home by the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul.