MOSCOW - Close to three decades after he dragged 364 master drawings and paintings from defeated Germany to the Soviet Union in a suitcase, Viktor Baldin saw a chance to send them back to their owner - the Bremen Kunsthalle.
Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was about to set out for a state visit to West Germany, and Baldin wrote him to propose that he bring the collection with him as a goodwill gesture. That 1973 letter brought no results - nor did the series he subsequently wrote to top Soviet political and cultural officials, up to the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.
The Baldin collection remains in Russia, at the center of a decades-long dispute over the so-called trophy art that Soviet troops looted from Germany and its wartime allies. The collection of 362 drawings and two small paintings went on display Saturday at Moscow's Museum of Architecture, along with copies of Baldin's letters and accounts of his quest to return the art.
The exhibit comes amid a furious dispute between Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi, who is intent on returning the collection to Bremen, and a group led by Communist legislator and former Culture Minister Nikolai Gubenko, who opposes returning trophy art, especially without compensation.
Last Tuesday, the Prosecutor General's Office stepped into the fight, warning Shvydkoi that it would be illegal to send the collection to Germany.
Gubenko claims the collection is worth about $1.5 billion.
Architecture Museum director David Sarkisian said Saturday that a Russian auction house, Gelos, had appraised the collection at about $23.5 million - with one work alone, a Goya portrait, worth more than $4 million.
The collection is but one of many taken from Germany and its World War II allies. Many Russians see the trophy art as rightful compensation for the 20 million deaths, untold injuries and immense destruction the Soviet Union suffered in the Nazi invasion.
Baldin, an art restorer who served as a Soviet army captain and later directed the architecture museum for 25 years, "was a front-line soldier," Sarkisian said. "Nonetheless, he always wanted to give the Germans what he carried out of Germany."
Baldin believed he had saved the collection from destruction. His engineers and sappers' unit had requisitioned a castle, Schloss Karnzow, near the town of Kyritz north of Berlin, and, the night before they were to return to the Soviet Union, a soldier tipped him off about a pile of drawings in the dark, dank basement. The pile included works by Raphael, Titian, Durer, Rubens, Rembrandt and Delacroix.
He wrote in his 1990 memoirs of spending a furious night cutting the drawings out of their packaging and laying them in a suitcase, taking as many as he could manage. His commanders refused him use of a truck, so he carried the artworks all the way home - along the way trading belts, watches and money for drawings, "mostly nude women," that other soldiers had grabbed from the basement stash.
Baldin kept his collection for three years under a bed in his office. In 1948, he gave it to the Architecture Museum, and in 1991, it was transferred to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. For more than two decades, he tried unsuccessfully to get it back to Germany.
"In all spheres, the war is over for us. We're already friendly with Germans, we marry them, we dream of traveling there and they here," Sarkisian said. "But for some reason, there's a terrible war going on for culture."