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3 Sep, 2007 11:40

Russia denies using law unfairly against tourists

The department in charge of the country's heritage has dismissed criticism in the Western media that Russia is using the law unfairly against visitors. It follows the trial of a South American student arrested while trying to export Soviet medals and coins.

Tourists visiting Russia are being advised to take into account the country's laws when buying antiques and works of art as souvenirs. The advice follows the case of a South American student who was arrested after buying Soviet medals at a flea-market and charged with attempting to smuggle Russian artefacts out of the country. She was found guilty but was eventually let-off with a fine. The Russian court was lenient with 29-year-old Roxana Contreras, but the case could have had more severe consequences.

She had spent $US 60 on medals and old banknotes at a Voronezh market, but at the airport she was detained on suspicion of smuggling. Her ignorance cost her $US 650, but the maximum penalty is seven years in prison and a fine of up to $US 40,000.

“She went to a book seller and purchased three antique banknotes. Then the next day, the salesman sold her several medals,” said lawyer, Aleksey Andreeshchev.

She went to a book seller and purchased three antique banknotes. Then the next day, the salesman sold her several medals.

Aleksey Andreeshchev, lawyer

The Soviet military decorations and old notes, which she had not declared, were discovered in her luggage. Russian law bans cultural valuables such as art and religious objects, musical instruments and any museum exhibit from being taken out of the country without special permission.

The Chilean woman says she didn't know the items she bought as gifts had any cultural value.

“I don’t have any expectations, but I would really like to give my stance,” Roxana Contreras said.

Under the law, though, ignorance is no excuse. As well as paying the fine her souvenirs were confiscated.

After the incident the Western press criticised Russia for using the law unfairly against foreign tourists.

Evgeny Strelchik from the Federal Service for Protection of Cultural Heritage says it's nothing but media speculation and Russia has no misunderstanding with other countries concerning the protection of its assets.

“Several icons were stolen from the museum of the city of Ustyuzhy in 1993-1994. They were taken illegally first to Scandinavia and then to London and Germany. Then we saw one of the icons in a catalogue and contacted the gallery owner. We gave him all the possible evidence that the icon had been stolen from Russia and he voluntarily decided to return it,” said Evgeny Strelchik. 

He says hundreds of cultural and historical items exported illegally and worth an estimated $US 2.5 MLN were returned to Russia in 2006, with around another 800 still to be brought back

When travelling to a foreign country it's always advisable to be aware of its laws. Every country tries to protect its cultural heritage. When abroad, you need to ensure you're not buying something which is legally protected, otherwise taking home something like a letter to Lenin or even a Tula samovar could get you arrested and sentenced to jail, which is a very high a price to pay.