‘A Knife in Our Back’

The disclosure of thefts from the Hermitage stunned Russian museum workers, alarmed antique dealers, and spurred President Putin to act.

Icon depicting Our Lady of Kazan, 1894, one of more than 20 returned objects.


The full tragedy of the life of Hermitage Museum curator Larisa Zavadskaya may never be known, but more details are emerging about the final years of this middle-aged specialist in enamels at one of the world’s great museums. By all appearances a devoted custodian of art for 30 years, she had been the quiet keeper of thousands of artifacts in the museum’s Russian culture department. Anonymous in life—she lived in a communal flat with her family in Saint Petersburg and earned $500 a month—she became notorious after her death last year for her involvement in the ultimate inside job: the theft of 221 treasures from the collection in her care. What brought her to hawk stolen third-tier treasures in Saint Petersburg’s dubious world of antiquarians and pawnshops is still unclear.

Sometime in the last decade, Zavadskaya, a heavyset diabetic, stuffed an icon or a chalice into her purse and smuggled it out of the museum—to pay for insulin, her husband later said. This was the beginning of an odyssey that would involve her son, a Hermitage courier; and her husband, Nikolai Zavadsky, a university lecturer; and at least one mysterious figure said to be the Svengali of the enterprise. Her death ended it. Her heart stopped and she collapsed at her desk when an inventory of her collection began.

The 38-year-old Ivan Sobolev, identified in the Russian press only as the mysterious organizer of the operation, is under arrest. So are Zavadskaya’s husband and son. Few details have been released on Sobolev, except that he once taught alongside Zavadsky.

The fallout from the heist includes public outrage, long-winded tirades in the media deploring the deteriorating moral fabric of the country, and a museum community in turmoil. No longer are curators trusted absolutely. At a recent emergency session of Russia’s museum union at the Hermitage, the fallout was called the “Chernobyl Effect.”

Museum union members said at the conference that they are concerned that the Hermitage crime—along with the recent theft of Yakov Chernikov drawings worth $1.3 million from the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art—will lead to less autonomy and more state control for all cultural institutions. They deplored the fact that museum officials are not included in a commission hastily convened by President Vladimir Putin, which is composed of officials from the ministry of culture and law enforcement agencies, including the interior ministry and the security services. The commission’s mandate is to oversee an audit of the country’s museums and galleries, with an estimated inventory of 79.5 million items and 63,000 employees.

“When I saw the Hermitage theft preceding the war in the Middle East on the TV news, I couldn’t believe it,” Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage, said in an interview with ARTnews in his museum office. “But this is also a war, and we [at the Hermitage] are in the front lines. At a certain point we realized we had to develop our defense. From the beginning I apologized to my colleagues that my museum became the weak link in the chain for a moment. But in general we are a strong link.”

Piotrovsky asserted that many people—he declined to give names—would like to take control of the Hermitage and its finances and that the theft is being used to try to oust him. He has adamantly and repeatedly stated that he will not resign over the scandal, telling journalists at a press conference, “Don’t hold your breath.” There have also been calls for the resignation of various officials, including minister of culture Alexander Sokolov.

The reverberations of the theft can be felt in Moscow, as museums begin to contemplate installing metal detectors and video surveillance cameras for employees. Antiquarians are suddenly extremely concerned with the provenances of the objects in their stocks.

Vladimir Studenikin, a longtime antique dealer, has a gallery in Moscow’s center specializing in porcelain and icons. Studenikin takes great pains to distinguish his business from the black-market icon trade and the shady pawnshops that pass as antique galleries these days. On August 4 Studenikin heard on television that 221 objects, mostly jewelry and religious artifacts, had been stolen from the Hermitage. He waited anxiously for the list to appear on the Internet.

Studenikin said he was horrified to discover that he had in his collection a gilded silver chalice decorated with oval enamel portraits of Jesus, Mary, and John the Baptist, which belonged to the Hermitage. He said he had purchased the chalice, which had been exhibited many times, in 2004. He would not say how much he had paid for the piece.

“Why were we so upset and horrified?” asked his colleague Galina Oystrakh, wringing her hands in their office, its walls covered with jeweled icons set in silver or gold. “Anyone can come up and say this or that is from the Hermitage. After we found the chalice, the next day we took a longer look at the list, and we analyzed descriptions with the pictures for 12 hours.” Oystrakh discovered that she was in possession of a small icon belonging to the museum. She and Studenikin called the society of antique dealers, which arranged a meeting with the cultural heritage department of the ministry of culture.

Before long it came to light that a well-known icon collector, Maxim Shepel, had sold the chalice to Studenikin. Shepel was taken into police custody for ten days, during which time he suffered a nervous collapse and a severe eye injury that some reports said was self-inflicted but others said appeared to be from a beating. Shepel was released and entered a psychiatric hospital.

“Maxim Shepel is a collector, and he is a very unusual person,” said Studenikin. “He was not in any way involved with this crime.”

After Shepel was taken into custody, those in possession of hot Hermitage antiques quickly dumped them. Stolen artifacts began to appear anonymously outside police stations. An icon worth $200,000 was found at the entrance to the Saint Petersburg office of the FSB (the successor to the KGB). Another icon, with the title Saint Alexander Nevsky at Prayer, was found in a locker at the Finland train station after police received a tip. By press time 25 objects had been returned, 22 of them anonymously. Antiquarians and museum officials believe that most of the pieces will be returned.

At press time only one other dealer, Alexander Yerofeyev, had publicly returned an artifact: a cross for which he had paid 20,000 rubles (more than $700). Sipping a cappuccino on Saint Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospekt, Yerofeyev said he had two motives for the act: “One, my son is on a science trip in Germany with the Hermitage, and my other son goes to the Hermitage twice a week. Two, I’m a Jewish businessman living in Russia, which means I have to be very careful.”

Yerofeyev said that Zavadskaya had tried to sell him silver coffee and tea sets. Her story did not arouse suspicion, he said, because it was better than most. She told him she was selling these things for friends who had been in a car accident.

“You have to understand that we don’t have heirlooms passing from one generation to another like you do in America,” Yerofeyev said. “Our social fabric was demolished, and three or four generations had their heirlooms confiscated, or they sold them for food, or they scratched the markings off so they could keep them.” He continued, “Everyone who sells something in our shop has a story, and it is usually tragic.”

A short walk from the Nevsky Prospekt, on the Neva Embankment, the Hermitage is more crowded than Moscow’s metro at rush hour. The Rembrandts are completely obscured by people. It is hard to see the malachite in the Malachite Room. If anything, the theft has increased interest in the museum, bringing record crowds in August, according to museum spokespeople.

“I think we still don’t understand what happened at the Hermitage,” said Piotrovsky. “I think there are unknown people involved, much more serious than the people we know to be involved.” He added, “We have been fighting the last few years just to keep our autonomy. Now this is a knife in our back. Maybe you think I am paranoid, but this is not a simple thing. Some people don’t like me, and some people don’t like the Hermitage.”

Yet Piotrovsky, a scholar of Oriental and Islamic art and culture, who speaks 12 languages, seems to have recovered from his initial shock. He is fighting for his position and his museum, but at the same time he is trying to capitalize on the scandal. Russian museums have been desperately underfunded and poorly maintained for years, and directors have been knocking on government doors to get money for increased storage and modernization of record-keeping.

The irony is not lost on Russia’s museum directors. They may finally get the state assistance they have long sought, but the price could be their independence.

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