by  Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy

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#977, Tuesday, June 15, 2004                                  

Outrage At Amber Room Book

By Galina Stolyarova

Russian cultural figures have reacted with outrage to a new book on the fate of the Amber Room, which the book says was destroyed in Königsberg during World War II.

It is not clear that any of the critics have read the book and none of them have presented any evidence that the book is wrong.

The book, "The Amber Room: The Untold Story of the Greatest Hoax of the Twentieth Century", was published this month.

Russians have heavily criticized the book, with former Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi accusing the authors of trying to rewrite history.

Even the thought that the Red Army could, willingly or not, be behind the destruction, is perceived as blasphemy in Russia.

British journalists Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy spent several years researching Russian archives, most of them in St. Petersburg. Their conclusions are largely based on the diaries of Anatoly Kuchumov, former curator of the Amber Room, who was involved in the search of the room after the war, and the evidence of several witnesses.

But Russian scholars argue that Kuchumov's diaries contain no speculations of the kind made in the book.

"Kuchumov's diaries have been well examined, and there is nothing in them alluding to the idea that the Amber Room could be destroyed by the Soviets," said Adelaida Yolkina, senior researcher at the Pavlovsk Museum Estate. "He also never made oral or written statement suggesting that the Red Army was to blame."

Yolkina said she found the accusations insulting.

"Back then it was a principle of the state to find and preserve cultural valuables that perished during the war," she said.

"Every little thing was looked after and returned, even a small fragment of a toe of a sculpture wouldn't be thrown away. It is impossible to see the Red Army being so careless that they let the Amber Room be destroyed."

But the authors insist they weren't trying to make a political point with the book.

"It was about reporting the evidence only," Scott-Clark said Monday in a telephone interview from Albany in the United States. "Furthermore, when we started working on this issue we were hoping to be able to find the Amber Room. But eventually, through the evidence that we received it became obvious that the Amber Room was gone in the fire."

Avenir Ovsyanov, director of the Kaliningrad Center for Coordinating the Search for Cultural Relics and one of those quoted in the book, said he was bewildered by the attitude of the authors.

"If they presented their story as one of many already existing versions, then people who are involved in research around the Amber Room could probably consider tactful silence in regard to it," Ovsyanov told Izvestia. "But they pretend their research has a final say whereas the verdict made in the book is both amateurish and groundless."

Ovsyanov, who personally knew Kuchumov and met him several times to discuss the issue, said the curator believed until his death that the Amber Room would be found one day.

Ovsyanov said Kuchumov's finding of the burned remains of Italian mosaics from the Amber Room in the Knight's Hall, can't be considered sufficient basis for a claims made in the book that all panels had gone up in flames.

"You need to discriminate between the main details of the Amber Room's interior, like wall or floor panels from additional ensemble, which Kuchumov's findings represent," he said. "It is unreal to suggest that all the interior was kept in the same hall, considering its modest size."

"Also, the curator's finds were clearly identifiable, with even their numbers visible, so if we imagine the impossible that the entire Amber Room was there, then there had to be traces of amber, if not whole fragments of items on the spot," Ovsyanov added. "What about the remains of the mirrors or the fire-resistant types of wood used in the floor panels? None were found."

Perhaps predictably, nobody at the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo, home to the original and the restored Amber Room, accepted the book's version of the fate of the Amber Room, according to the museum's press secretary Tatyana Zharkova.

"The history of the Amber Room has always been surrounded by numerous versions, assumptions and hypothesis," she told Interfax. "This book presents but one more, and this one is not taken seriously at the museum."

In the meantime, Leonid Arinshtein, an adviser to the president of the Russian Culture Foundation, agreed with the British researchers that the Amber Room had been destroyed, but argued that the Red Army is not to be blamed.

Arinshtein, at the time an infantry platoon commander, visited Koenigsberg castle on the evening of April 8, 1945, before the fire began, to be one of the last people to see what was remaining of the masterpiece. He was certain that the Room was destroyed in the blaze but said the Red Army had nothing to do with the demise.

"The castle caught fire only two or three days after the city had been captured," Arinshtein told RIA-Novosti.

"Panels of the Amber Room were kept in the basement packed in boxes," Arinshtein said. "Fires in Koenigsberg started before the storm of the city as a result of massive bombings by American and British aviation. So if the question of who is responsible arises, then it would be more appropriate to accuse the Allied air forces."

"We didn't say we blame the Red Army for destroying the Amber Room," Scott-Clark said. "What we said was that the fire in the castle didn't take place until the city was completely under the control of the Red Army. Such was the evidence of eye witnesses, including Arinshtein."

The authors have sent their conclusions to Russian and German officials, but have not yet received any official reaction on their book.

Arinshtein's interview to RIA-Novosti was one of the first reports read by the authors. "I can only regret that he didn't make that statement before," Scott-Clark said. "That would have saved many people a lot of trouble. His words confirm the report by Moscow expert Alexander Brusov, who was sent to Koenigsberg after the city was taken over by the Red Army."

Dealing with the Catherine Palace proved frustrating for the British journalists.

"It took us five months to secure a meeting with director Ivan Sautov and three weeks for him to reject us," Scott-Clark said.

The answer from the museum reads, "it is beyond our physical powers to answer your questions or meet the scheme suggested by you."

Confusingly though, Sautov's interview with Interfax suggests something different.

"We are frequently approached with such requests like 'give us texts, give us materials,'" the agency quoted Sautov as saying. "And when they don't get them, they take offense. But, naturally, if the information received from us is for publishing, we provide it on a commercial basis only.

"Our staff spends time and effort to search the archives for this information."

Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum, was very cautious in his comments. "Most importantly, the destruction of the Amber Room during the Second World War is fault of the people who started the war," Piotrovsky said. "Those who begin a war are responsible for all destructions happening during that war in both moral and legal terms. As for the Amber Room, it should be worth remembering that these were Germans who took it away from Tsarskoye Selo."

Samstag, 22. Mai 2004
Archiv-Dokumente entdeckt
Bernsteinzimmer verbrannt?  

Das Bernsteinzimmer ist nach Erkenntnissen zweier britischer Forscher 1945 in Königsberg verbrannt. Das gehe aus bislang unbeachteten Archivdokumenten aus dem Nachlass des sowjetischen Bernsteinzimmer-Beauftragten Anatoli Kutschumow hervor, schreiben Adrian Levy und Catherine Scott-Clark in ihrem im Juni erscheinenden Buch "The Amber Room: The Untold Story Of The Greatest Hoax Of The Twentieth Century" (Das Bernsteinzimmer: Die verschwiegene Geschichte des größten Schwindels des 20. Jahrhunderts").
Wie die Zeitung "The Guardian" am Samstag vorab berichtete, erfuhr Kutschumow den Erkenntnissen zufolge 1946, dass das Bernsteinzimmer nach der Besetzung Königsbergs durch sowjetische Truppen bei einem Feuer im Rittersaal des Königsberger Schlosses verbrannt war.
Kutschumow habe dies in seinem Bericht aber bewusst verschwiegen. Den Autoren zufolge fühlte er sich mitschuldig, weil er 1941 die Entscheidung getroffen hatte, das Bernsteinzimmer nicht zusammen mit anderen Kunstschätzen aus Leningrad - dem heutigen St. Petersburg - nach Sibirien in Sicherheit zu bringen. Stattdessen ließ er es im Katharinen-Palast vor den Toren der Stadt unter Tapete und Mull verstecken, was die Deutschen aber sofort durchschauten. So fiel ihnen das "Achte Weltwunder" in die Hände.
Über das verschwundene Bernsteinzimmer kursieren die unterschiedlichsten Theorien. Nach Meinung mancher Forscher muss es sich noch immer in Königsberg, dem heutigen russischen Kaliningrad, befinden. Andere glauben, dass es 1945 mit dem Schiff "Wilhelm Gustloff" in der Ostsee unterging. Eine Rekonstruktion des ganz mit goldenem Bernstein ausgekleideten Zimmers hatten Bundeskanzler Gerhard Schröder und der russische Präsident Wladimir Putin im vergangenen Jahr zum 300-jährigen Bestehen von St. Petersburg eröffnet.







The shine comes off a glittering room


Saturday, Jul 31, 2004

The Amber Room:

The Fate of the World's Greatest

Lost Treasure

By Catherine Scott-Clark

and Adrian Levy

Viking Canada, 386 pages, $38


In 1941, during the opening act of the Siege of Leningrad, a nimble-fingered team of Nazi art snatchers pulled off a décor heist that ballooned into a brouhaha wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. In just 36 hours, six kleptos dispatched by the upper echelons of the Third Reich dismantled an extraordinary 18th-century room, panelled in precious amber nuggets fished from the Baltic Sea, that had graced the Catherine Palace on the outskirts of Leningrad for 170 years.

The ensemble could already lay claim to an eventful existence. It was commissioned around 1701 by Frederick I of Prussia, who never saw the 22 wood-backed, amber-encrusted panels, ranging in height from three to 12 feet, assembled into a room. Neither did his successor Frederick William I, who offloaded the embellishments to Peter the Great of Russia. Czarina Elizabeth finally rescued them from storage, but kept moving them around at considerable cost to the yellow nuggets. It wasn't until Catherine the Great asked her Italian architect to install the star-crossed gift in her summer palace that the Amber Room was revealed in all its resinous glory, perfected by the addition of four jewelled Florentine mosaics depicting the five senses.

Catherine's decorating scheme was achieved in 1770, but nationalism doesn't run by the clock: A masterpiece designed in Germany, for Germans, must return to Germany. Packed into 27 enormous crates, the dismembered décor was transported to the medieval city of Königsberg (today's Kaliningrad) on the Baltic coast, where it was reassembled for display in a museum housed in Königsberg Castle. Back into the giant crates it went after Allied bombing raids in 1944. In the mayhem of war's end, as Soviet troops captured Königsberg and reduced it to porridge, the crates went missing, their storied contents never to be seen again. If 890,000 Google entries under Amber Room are any indication, the fate of the phantom chamber has been vexing humankind ever since.

Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, a pair of British investigative journalists, joined the hunt for the missing décor in 2001, as a highly publicized, full-scale replica of the Amber Room was under construction in the Catherine Palace, now a museum, in conjunction with last year's celebration of the 300th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg, the original Leningrad. In a search spanning two years and a half-dozen countries, they combed files, chased down leads, knocked on doors, turned up revealing photographs and letters, collated far-flung documents, chummed with archivists and museum curators, and handed over cash-filled envelopes to a new class of "information brokers" -- Russians prepared to trade insider knowledge for dollars.

The authors claim to have solved the mystery of the Amber Room: The Red Army did it. Either inadvertently or to take revenge on Germany, they write, Soviet troops torched or looted the treasure-filled crates as they rampaged through Königsberg Castle in 1945. And that's not the half of it. They allege the facts of the case were covered up by the man at the centre of their investigation, Anatoly Kuchomov. The inexperienced palace curator, as he was then, couldn't figure out how to evacuate the Amber Room to a safe place in 1941, opting to conceal it under layers of muslin and cotton padding and keep his toes and fingers crossed.

Anxious to protect his bacon from Stalin's wrath, the theory continues, Kuchomov reported to his superiors that the Amber Room had survived, dispatched by the Nazis to a secret location. The Soviets bought the story to arouse international sympathy and fend off American charges that they had pillaged as many German artworks as the Germans had grabbed from Russia. In brief, a showcase of craftsmanship, utilizing a substance reputed for its healing properties and power to ward off the Evil Eye, was twisted into a political ploy resulting in wrecked lives and violent deaths.

Writing in the first-person plural and the present tense, Scott-Clark and Levy were hell-bent on turning 50-year-old reports filled with complicated acronyms into a page-turner. The men and women they describe, dead or alive, are treated as "dramatis personae," and described as such. Restoration architect Alexander Kedrinsky's teeth "gleam like May Day medals." Robert Stein, son of a strawberry farmer who went broke looking for the Amber Room, ultimately found dead and disemboweled, flickers "like a light bulb about to pop." And so on down to themselves, two reporters "trapped like herrings in a Russian barrel" -- a borrowed flat in Leningrad -- in "the vast, obstreperous, and secretive" former Soviet Union, waiting for the phone to ring.

But simplifying the narrative equivalent of a matryushka doll, one piece concealed inside the next, sometimes eludes even their metaphorical reach. The book stalls over plodding summaries of library findings. And it's a challenge trying to keep all the "characters" straight, much less their pseudonyms, motives, connections and double dealings. I found myself caring less and less about the Amber Room as I read on, anxious as a cheese blintz in a frying pan to come upon mention of the acronym it deserves: RIP.

Adele Freedman is a Canadian design and architecture writer living in Seattle, Wash.


A surprising solution to an art-world mystery

By Marc Spiegler. Marc Spiegler writes frequently about art-world controversies from Zurich, Switzerland
Published September 5, 2004

The Amber Room: The Fate of the World's Greatest Lost Treasure
By Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy
Walker, 386 pages, $26

Had the Amber Room never existed, it would be the stuff of fairy tales, alongside crystal swords, gingerbread houses and castles built atop diamonds big as the Ritz. Describing the amber-walled salon in suburban St. Petersburg's Catherine Palace, French poet Theophile Gautier wrote in 1866:

"The eye . . . is amazed and is blinded by the wealth and warmth of tints representing all colours of the spectrum of yellow--from smoky topaz up to a light lemon. The gold of carvings seems dim and false in this neighbourhood, especially when the sun falls on the walls and runs through transparent veins as those sliding on them."

First conceived by sculptor Andreas Schlueter of the 17th Century Prussian court, the Amber Room's creation involved casting melted Baltic amber--at the time a dozen times more valuable than gold--to form hundreds of small pieces that were later interlaced to form 46 wall panels. Backed by sheets of gold and silver, these panels were up to 12 feet tall. Never installed, they sat in storage until being given to Russian Czar Peter the Great.

Yet it was only in 1745 that an architect employed by Peter's daughter, Empress Elizabeth, finally installed the Amber Room. Elizabeth's daughter-in-law, Catherine the Great, moved the room to progressively more prestigious locations until 1782, in the process replacing lost or destroyed pieces with 900 pounds of newly cast amber. After so many peregrinations, the room remained in place, its splendor intact, throughout Russia's most turbulent period: the fall of the czars, the brief period of anarchy and democracy that followed, the rise of Lenin's communist regime. Then, during World War II, the marvel disappeared. Twice.

In "The Amber Room," British journalists Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy delve into the mystery of those vanishings, traversing half of Europe and five decades of history to arrive at a startling and controversial conclusion.

Their story starts in June 1941, as Adolf Hitler's armies blitzed their way toward St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad) after the Nazi leader betrayed his non-aggression pact with Joseph Stalin. Overnight, the city became a maelstrom of activity. Soldiers sprinted toward the western front. Ordinary citizens dug battle trenches and camouflaged pits intended to swallow up Panzer tank brigades.

Meanwhile, staff members of the Catherine Palace worked furiously to pack up its artworks and historical artifacts; they filled 402 crates and sent them deeper into Russia aboard 17 boxcars. But the Amber Room remained. The palace's chief curator, Anatoly Kuchumov, had no clue how to dismantle it; his first attempt had only succeeded in shattering several pieces. Dreading that the Germans might discover this national treasure, the palace staff tried to conceal it, building a set of fake walls inside the Amber Room to transform it into an innocuous space. And then Kuchumov fled east.

Nearly three years later, as the Red Army was retaking Russia, the curator returned to the badly damaged palace and discovered his worst fears realized: The Amber Room was gone. The Germans--whose armies traveled with art handlers wielding detailed lists of trophies for delivery back home--had succeeded where Kuchumov failed, taking the panels down and carting them away.

We now know that the panels had been taken to the German city of Koenigsberg (now Kaliningrad, in Russia). They were even briefly displayed there--as a Prussian treasure finally returned to its rightful land. But when the British air force started bombing Koenigsberg, the amber was boxed back up and stored in the city's castle.

Here, things turn tricky. This much is known: When Russian archeology professor Alexander Brusov journeyed to Koenigsberg seeking to repatriate Russian cultural treasures, the Amber Room had again disappeared. After some investigation, Brusov concluded that it had burned in its cellar storage spot before the Germans surrendered. But Kuchumov followed up with his own investigation. Saying there was no conclusive evidence for the fire theory, Kuchumov rebuked Brusov and asserted that the Germans had hidden the treasure before surrendering. But where?

For the rest of his life Kuchumov researched the mystery. He was hardly alone: Over the years, dozens of expeditions have tried to track down the steelbound crates containing the amber panels--in mine shafts, sunken ships, abandoned bunkers and castle cellars. Within communist East Germany, the state's Stasi security force launched its own hunt. Across the border, West German autodidact art detective George Stein led a fervent, quarter-century campaign to discover the room's location that only ended with his violent death in 1987.

Recounting their attempt to crack this enigma, Scott-Clark and Levy choose a narrative structure more akin to the police procedural than the historical approach usually favored by investigative journalists. Like math students showing their work in solving a particularly thorny problem, they trace in present tense the development of their contacts, the evolution of their theories, their major travails and minor triumphs. The quest offers a detailed view into the communist system 15 years after the Berlin Wall tumbled and its still-pervasive impact upon individual lives and our understanding of history.

Given a story whose first-person scenes primarily consist of the authors' trying to extract information from archives and aging sources, this approach proves remarkably compelling. Shadowing Scott-Clark and Levy, we are tricked by red herrings, bristle at bureaucrats demanding (and sometimes receiving) bribes, mourn potential sources who turn out to be dead and experience befuddlement as complex hypotheses disintegrate under the weight of a single, newly discovered document. Things are rarely what they seem. The KGB and the Stasi--theoretically anti-capitalist allies--were clearly working at cross-purposes, following nationalist agendas. Seemingly authoritative newspaper articles and even books turn out to be instruments of disinformation. "Trustworthy" reports are filled with fictions created for personal advancement, or self-preservation.

The only real problem with the authors' narrative approach is that readers must grapple with a head-spinningly large cast of characters. This is made only partially more digestible by the inclusion of a dramatis personae; a coffee table-size foldout chart, heavily annotated, would have been more apt. But it helps the book greatly that even its bit players prove so colorful: the Stasi operative posing as an archivist; the expatriate Ukrainian baron funding George Stein's operations; the Russian linguist whose Amber Room research team was code-named the Choral Society and worked out of a Kaliningrad church; a jet-setting Soviet version of James Bond creator Ian Fleming.

Propelled by direct prose with occasional outbreaks of lyricism, the story moves forward at a steady pace. It even has a surprise ending--which I am about to reveal. (To readers who get upset over such things: Skip to the final paragraph.) In the final few chapters of the book, the authors first consider and then favor the theory that the Amber Room fell victim to Russia's Red Army. The Russians also had their trophy brigades, who delivered 2 million artworks and artifacts to the USSR. Despite this monstrous efficacy, those brigades were an infamously undisciplined operation, from the generals cherry-picking for their private collections down to the lowly troops embezzling smaller items.

All of which makes plausible the notion that the Amber Room was intact when Russian battalions seized Koenigsberg and only disappeared during the interval between that Red Army victory and Brusov's arrival 61 days later. This is a particularly damning conclusion for Kuchumov, who starts out the book as a heroic curator striving to save the Amber Room and then pursuing its recovery until his death; by the end, he is suspected of being an active participant in a KGB cover-up of the wonder's shameful fate. Since the book's publication, other witnesses have come forward to validate the startling new theory, and the Russian government has, predictably, attacked it.

Meanwhile, Catherine Palace visitors can visit a recreation of the Amber Room, funded by a German company eager to signal rapprochement with Russia, now a trading partner with great profit potential. Yet the fate of the original chamber remains clouded, a truth lost down a sinkhole ripped open when things were
far less friendly between the two former empires.