Thursday, August 12, 2021

Putin Regime Revives Early Soviet Practice of Seizing Art in Private Hands

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 6 – At the dawn of the Bolshevik era, the Cheka routinely seized art held in private hands and either transferred it to state institutions or sold it for the benefit of the Soviet state. Now, under Vladimir Putin, the FSB is doing the same thing, further compromising private ownership and giving the powers even greater control over Russia’s heritage.

            The most recent case took place two weeks ago in Tyumen when FSB officers, accompanying the local museum director, seized art belonging to private individuals and transferred it to the museum, Znak journalist Olga Balyuk reports (

            “Such cases, when state museums or the siloviki try to get in their hands exponents of private collections, have been occurring in Russia” since Putin came to power, Balyuk continues, detailing cases in 2002 and 2003 in particular. And despite the efforts of the owners to recover their property, the courts have not taken action to defend them.

            The FSB has insisted in each case that it has the right to do so because its officers say the nominal owners had acquired the art illegally, although court cases show that those who had acquired the art in question had done so in a completely legitimate fashion and should be allowed to retain it.

            While these cases have been wending their way through the courts, the museums have not displayed the art because its provenance is under question. But this year, they are displaying new confidence that they will never have to return the art they and the FSB have seized and are displaying it publicly.

            Some of the art in question, Balyuk reports, consists of Russian productions that ended up abroad as a result of the first emigration in the 1920s. Others includes classic paintings. And still others popular and numismatic art produced in Russia.  But possession of such things in Russia today is no longer a guarantee that one will be allowed to keep it.

            While many may argue that national treasures should be on public view rather than closely held in private collections, this program of seizures has two consequences that should not be ignored. On the one hand, it will give the Russian state even more power to define what is included and what is not in the national patrimony by giving it the power to decide what it shown or even kept.

            And on the other, it will further erode the progress Russia made in the 1990s toward the establishment of the right of people to own things for their own use, restoring the tsarist and Soviet idea that no one really owns anything except by permission of the powers that be.

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