Book: Moscow Lied About Amber Room
Published: June 15, 2004 (Issue # 977)
Alexander Belenky / The St. Petersburg Times
The cover of the new book on the Amber Room that has created uproar in Russia.
Moscow has known since 1945 that the Amber Room was destroyed, possibly at the hands of the Red Army, but for years has lied that it survived, a new book says.
"The Amber Room: The Untold Story of the Greatest Hoax of the Twentieth Century," published this month, concludes that the panels of the Amber Room were either burned or looted just after Soviet troops captured Koenigsberg from the Germans in April 1945.
The original room was considered a masterpiece of craftsmanship, requiring delicate work to attach the brittle, golden, hardened resin, or amber, to panels and forming a mosaic that covered three sides of a room in the Catherine Palace outside St. Petersburg.
The room was a gift from Prussian King Frederick William to Peter the Great, but not mounted in the palace until the mid-18th century. If it were found it could be worth up to $250 million, the authors say.
After almost 60 years of fruitless searching, the Amber Room was recreated and opened with much ceremony during last year's celebrations of the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg.
The authors of the new book, Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, researched Russian archives, most of it them in St. Petersburg, and concluded that city museum curator Anatoly Kuchumov, working together with the KGB, spent his life feeding rumors that the panels had survived and had been stashed in an unidentified hiding place.
n In summary the book says:
In 1941, the German army took the panels to Koenigsberg, then the capital of the German province of East Prussia but which is today called Kaliningrad, from the Catherine Palace at Pushkin, which is also known by its pre-revolutionary name, Tsarskoye Selo.
Alexander Brusov, a Moscow cultural official, who was sent to Koenigsberg two months after the capture of the city, concluded that the room had been destroyed.
This was unwelcome news to the Soviet hierarchy, so they suppressed it and next year they sent Kuchumov, who, against the evidence before him, produced a report saying the room had survived.
This resulted in numerous and expensive searches, some of them by the East German Stasi secret police and others by Soviet government teams, but searchers noticed that certain information was being withheld.
After a West German got interested, the Stasi and KGB egged him on and were delighted to read that he had promulgated a theory that the Nazis had succeeded in evacuating the panels from Koenigsberg to parts of Germany that were later occupied by American troops who had taken them back to the United States.
Kuchumov was motivated by sticks and carrots.
After Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, curators in Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was then known, had scrambled to evacuate the most valuable items. Kuchumov's task was to remove the most important cultural relics from the Catherine Palace and he would spend much of the war with them in Novosibirsk until Pushkin was liberated.
However, when he attempted to remove the amber panels damaged them, and he decided to cover them over and hope that the Germans might not find them. They did find them and removed them to Koenigsberg, where they were put on display.
Ivan Mikryukov, director of the nearby Pavlovsk museum, who packed up cultural items to be shipped out from the Pavlovsk palace was condemned as "defeatist."
The authors suggest that Kuchumov's failure regarding the Amber Room and the punishment of Mikryukov, who was sent to Kazakhstan where he died, motivated Kuchumov to maintain the myth that the room had survived.
Moscow appreciated his efforts and in 1986 he would be rewarded with the Lenin Prize for "outstanding achievements" and "the solution of tasks vital to the state."
His researches ignored information that confirmed that the room was destroyed.
The government was motivated to cover up the destruction of the Amber Room, by its wish to highlight Nazi cultural depredations and partly to obscure similar actions by the Soviets in Germany after the war, the authors say.
The panels, about a dozen of which were 4 meters high, 10 1 meter high, and an amber skirting board were packed into crates after heavy bombing by the British in 1944.
Plans to evacuate were developed, but could not be realized before rail routes out of Koenigsberg were cut off and it would have been unsafe to evacuate them by road.
The large crates were in the Knights' Hall of the Koenigsberg Castle when the city fell and could not easily be moved.
On April 2 1946, Kuchumov recorded the following statement by Paul Feyerabend, director of the Blutgericht restaurant that was located below the hall:
"At the beginning of April 1945 the packed Amber Room stood in the Knight's Hall.
"Several days later the city's resistance began. I was located in the cloakroom and the Knight's Hall and during the attack Alfred Rohde [director of the Koenigsberg Castle Museum] was nowhere to be seen.
"On the afternoon of April 9 ... I was in the wine cellar with several servants. Later, with their agreement, I hung from the north wing of the castle a white flag as a sign of surrender. At 11:30 p.m. that night a Russian colonel came.
"When I told him everything and gave statements he ordered the evacuation of the castle. At 12:30 a.m., when I left, my restaurant was occupied by artillery regiments of the Red Army. The cellar and Knights' Hall were not damaged at all.
"After I came back from Elbing, where I had been hospitalized, I heard from Alfred Rohde that the Knights' Hall and the restaurant beneath it had been burned down."
Kuchumov never reported the statement to Moscow.
The curator had also rejected Brusov's findings that the room had been burned. On June 5 1945, Brusov had entered the Knights' Hall and saw the remnants of the room.
"Found bronze hangings from the Tsarskoye Selo doors ... Cornice pieces that could have been in the Amber Room ... Iron strips with bolts with the help of which parts of the Amber Room were boxed into crates ... We should give up looking for the Amber Room," Brusov wrote that night.
In March 1946, Kuchumov found the burnt remains of three stone and glass mosaics belonging to the Amber Room in the Knight's Hall, but no trace of amber, the book says.
The authors note that Kuchumov, an amber expert, would have known that amber melts between 200 and 380 degrees Celsius. A blaze that was hot enough to melt glass used in the mosaics - requiring a temperature of 1,400 degrees - would have meant there was nothing left of the amber panels.
They also say that months after the Red Army had occupied the city, a lot of looting had gone on and this could explain the absence of some metal objects, which might have survived the fire that were absent when Kuchumov made his visit.
Brusov, for instance, described a speech by General Galitsky, head of the 11th Army, to a meeting in Koenigsberg of treasure hunters and people on official visits, calling everyone "free marketeers."
"I will not allow anything else to be taken from the city," he was quoted saying.
Signs that things were out of control were that also several informants were hanged.
"One man who claimed to have found a Nazi stash, including large crates of amber, had been sent away, only to be found the next day hanged from a tree, his hands tied behind his back.
"Brusov discovered that two more German informers had died in the same manner," the authors write.
The book traces the development of an Amber Room industry that took off after 1958 when the Communist Party published in Russian and German newspapers account of the survival of the Amber Room.
The articles denigrated Brusov's work and invited readers to share evidence and information. Many people responded, but the room was not found. The authors found a link between Kuchumov and these articles.
In the 1970s, after consultations with the Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers, the Kaliningrad search went ahead, but with very little assistance, the book says.
Scott-Clark and Levy report letters from G.S. Fors, the KGB chief at the Culture Ministry, to Kuchumov in 1971 and 1978 that say: "We would like to scale down the digging," and "I feel uncomfortable because we are wasting state funds."
The authors say these statements suggest that Fors and Kuchumov let the search go ahead in the full knowledge that the Amber Room would not be found.
In 1989, Kuchumov would suggest in "The Amber Room," a book he co-wrote with M. G. Voronov, that he was defensive.
He wrote that the failure of the searches for the Amber Room should not be an embarrassment. "The Amber Room did not die," he said although by then no one was suggesting it had died. "This masterpiece could not have been deliberately destroyed."
How the authors received the materials the book cites is a story in itself. Although confronted by unwelcoming officials, their network of friends and old women who helped them eventually delivered the goods.
The authors adopted a Russian motto: " Everything is forbidden, but all things are possible."
"For every official file, diary or briefing paper said by archives and librarians to be missing or inaccessible, we found draft or duplicate documents stashed away in living rooms and in hallways," they wrote in their introduction.
But the administration of the Catherine Palace was unhelpful, appearing in the book more interested in money than scholarship or establishing the truth.
"Ours is not a charitable enterprise," director Ivan Sautov is quoted as saying. "Why should you make money from what we know."
"Everyone has to sign a contract," head curator Larissa Bardovskaya says. "Steven Spielberg signed and paid half a million to hire the mirrored ballroom. ... Elton John threw a party and he signed for $250,000."
Avenir Ovsyanov, a former colonel who was part of a secret team searching for the Amber Room in the Kaliningrad region in the 1970s, a task that produced no significant results and was evidently hampered from above. He later became the director of the Kaliningrad Center for Coordinating the Search for Cultural Relics.
He said in February 1945 special "trophy brigades" were formed whose task was to accompany the Red Army and gather 1,745 works of art selected from German museum catalogues. Trophy brigades attached to the 11th, 50th and 43rd armies of the Third Belarussian front were in Koenigsberg after its capture.
Learning in June 1996 that files concerning those trophy brigades were in a closed section of the Central Archive of the Defense Ministry in Podolsk in the Moscow region, he applied for a permit to inspect them.
"On July 17 1996 I received a reply from Colonel Vimuchkin," Ovsyanov is quoted saying.
The reply said: " In your letter you petitioned to get various documents. After our analysis we have ascertained that the material that is interesting to you is not to be found anywhere in our archive. There is no reason for you to research this any further."
Ovsyanov wrote again, but this time included the names and titles of the documents.
The second reply said: "At the moment in the Central Archive of the Defense Ministry we have special works that are connected to a new law about restoration [restitution] of art treasures and due to this reason the access to these documents in restricted."
Ovsyanov applied again on Oct. 16 1997 after the law was passed in May.
The third reply was: "We have received your petition ... and we are trying to extract the following documents and will let you know in due course."
Ovsyanov is still waiting.
During the war, knowledge of the trophy brigades was withheld, even from the Allies.
"Secrecy was understandable at that time ... and during the Cold War. But now we are at peace, I cannot understand the behavior of our officials, who still block access to the trophy brigade archives," he said.
"Is the truth so powerful and strange that no one can be allowed to see it?"