Estonian cultural treasures outside Estonia
Every country’s cultural heritage constitutes a significant part of their identity. Cultural property should be freely accessible and usable for the achievement of national, ethnic or individual goals. Estonia has striven to adhere to this principle and the practice of international law by returning foreign cultural property and also retrieving many of its own cultural treasures. Nevertheless, a great number of national culture heritage treasures remain outside Estonia. A majority of them are located in the Russian Federation, where they were taken during World War I and World War II, as well as during the Soviet occupation that lasted for half a century.
Estonia has dealt with matters relating to the protection and restitution of national cultural property since independence in 1918. This work has been continued after the restoration of Estonia’s independence. Matters of restitution have been on the agenda in the Parliament as well as the Government, but most consistently in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Culture, in the National Archives and at the University of Tartu.
Estonia has had cultural property returned from many countries that had in various ways been dispersed around the world:
Russia returned, in accordance with the Tartu Peace Treaty, cultural property that had been evacuated from Estonia to Russia during World War I, including the archives of the Swedish era Governor General (XVI and XVII centuries) and the Tallinn City Archives, in the early 1920s.
Germany returned the Tallinn City Archives that were taken away from Tallinn in 1944, which contained documents from as early as the XIII century, in 1990.
Sweden returned the most important Estonian foreign policy documents from the years 1918-1939, including the original of the Tartu Peace Treaty signed by the Republic of Estonia and the Russian RFSR that had been evacuated to Sweden immediately before Estonia’s occupation by the Soviet Union, in 2002.
USA returned General Laidoner’s medal and order collection that was secretly taken to Finland during the German occupation; from there they were taken to Sweden and later to USA, in 2004.
Order of the Berlin Olympics 1st class
Swedish Order of the Sword Commander Grand Cross
Estonia has also returned cultural property:
John the Baptist
In 1991, Estonia returned the Petchory Uspenski Monastery’s library that had upon Estonia’s occupation by the Soviet Union been kept in Tartu University Library to Russia.
- In 2003, Estonia returned an altar wing (~1505) with Albrecht Dürer’s painting depicting John the Baptist that was lost from the Bremen Athenaeum during World War II and was confiscated by Estonia’s Customs Office in 1992 to Germany.
Estonian cultural property in Russia
A vast majority of Estonia cultural property abroad is illegally located in the Russian Federation. According to the Tartu Peace Treaty signed on 2 February 1920 between the Republic of Estonia and the Russian RFSR, the latter recognised Estonia’s independence and proprietorship of the national cultural property that in the course of World War I had been evacuated from Estonia or had by chance been taken to Russia. Regrettably, Russia has not fully lived up to the responsibilities it had assumed with this treaty.
Initially, in accordance to the Tartu Peace Treaty cultural property was returned to Estonia, nevertheless, the Russian authorities laid obstacles in finding and returning the cultural property to Estonia. The more time that went by, the harder it was to claim property, until it came to a complete stop because of reluctance from the Russian side. Attempts were made by the Estonian side to retrieve cultural property until the late 1930s.
During the half-century of Soviet occupation, huge amounts of cultural property were taken out of the country. Tens of thousands of archival documents were removed from the Estonian archives and placed in Russian archives: 18 705 storage items from the Estonian Historical Archives in Tartu originating from the XVI-XX centuries were relocated to various Russian archives between the years1948-1964.
When Estonia regained its independence, it immediately brought up the question of recovering the Estonian cultural property in bilateral negotiations with the Russian Federation. As a result of the negotiations, the wording of the intergovernmental agreement regarding co-operation in conservation of cultural heritage was initialled in November 1993, but the Russian party did not consent to sign it until December 1998 when the Estonian-Russian Intergovernmental Commission convened in Tallinn. Estonia at once appointed its delegates to a joint commission to be formed and charged with carrying out the agreement, but regrettably the Russian party has not yet accomplished this and therefore the commission has not been able to start functioning.
The Parliamentarian Assembly of the Council of Europe in its resolution nr. 1277 in 2002, urges the Russian authorities to settle rapidly all issues relating to the return of cultural property claimed by Council of Europe member states.
However, the sphere of activity is broad, as the list of Estonian cultural property kept illegally in the Russian Federation is long. A short description of the most important pieces follows.
The University of Tartu Art Museum collection at the Kramskoi Art Museum in the Voronezh Region
A sarcophagus from the University of Tartu’s Museum collection, now at the Voronezh Museum
Photo: Peep Pillak
Attic black-figured amphora
C. 510 B.C.
From Tartu University Art Museum
Held by Voronezh Fine Arts Museum
Photo: Malev Toom
An Egyptian knealing before the God Amon
New Kingdom limestone
From Tartu University Art Museum
Held by Voronezh Fine Arts Museum
Photo: Malev Toom
At the outbreak of World War I, the Russian troops were unsuccessful at the front and the authorities decided to evacuate the University of Tartu in September 1915. The cultural property was initially taken to Nizhni Novgorod, later to Perm and then to Voronezh. At the end of 1918, the first Soviet university was opened in Voronezh. Learning materials evacuated from Tartu were used, and teachers and students of primarily Russian origin who had left Tartu behind were called upon. The property of the University of Tartu Art Museum remained in the possession of the Voronezh University: antique ceramics, bronze and marble antique sculptures, relics of Ancient Egypt, Western European paintings, drawings and engravings, a collection of coins etc. In 1933, the treasures of the University of Tartu were handed over to the newly founded Figurative Arts Museum of the Voronezh Region. Although these treasures originating from the University of Tartu were openly exposed in the museum, the existence of the treasures in Russia was denied and lied about in the official responses to Estonian representatives until the end of the 1930s.
The University of Tartu resumed its pursuit of its treasures in 1988 as soon as the more liberal conditions of perestroika enabled it. When the negotiations began, the Voronezh representatives questioned the University of Tartu’s right of title to its property. The dragged-out negotiations were halted in connection with the restoration of Estonian independence and the Estonian representatives were even denied access to the University of Tartu collections.
The signing of the agreement regarding co-operation in conservation of cultural heritage in 1998, which also included the internationally recognized principle guaranteeing free access to cultural treasures of interest to the other party. This was followed by protocols of co-operation between the University of Tartu and the Art Museum of the Voronezh Region, which have despite differences in opinion enabled co-operation in matters of right of title to cultural property. On 15-16 September 2000, the University of Tartu organised an international restitution related conference "The Establishment of the Art Collection at the University of Tartu by Johann Karl Simon Morgenstern in 1803 and its Later Destiny" with the participation of representatives from Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands and UNESCO This conference centred on the University of Tartu collection in the Art Museum located in Voronezh. The conference lectures were published in English in a University of Tartu publication in 2001. A joint venture in progress is a catalogue of cultural property originating from the University of Tartu Art Museum but now located in Voronezh. These are significant steps towards the solution of this matter.
The President of the Republic of Estonia’s sign of office in the Kremlin Armoury in Moscow
The Estonian Presidential Sign of Office – the Collar of the Order of the National Coat of Arms
Photo: Peep Pillak
The sign of office of the President of the Republic of Estonia – the Collar of the Order of the National Coat of Arms – is in many aspects a piece of art and a relic of symbolic significance to Estonia. The Order of the National Coat of Arms was instituted in 1936 in order to commemorate 24 February 1918, the day on which Estonian independence was declared. The Order of the National Coat of Arms is bestowed only on Estonian citizens as a decoration of the highest class for services rendered to the state. A special class of the Order is the Collar of the Order of the National Coat of Arms. The Act provides that the Order of the National Coat of Arms is the sign of office of the President of the Republic and shall be passed on together with the office of the President of the Republic. There is one copy of the sign of office and cannot be awarded to anyone. The Order of the National Coat of Arms and the collar were designed by Paul Luhtein, one of Estonia’s most famous artists.
The Act describes the President’s insignia as follows: The Collar of the Order of the National Coat of Arms is a 30 mm wide gold chain with pieces in the form of Estonian ornaments. The centres of four of the ornaments of the collar are encrusted with precious stones. A grand national coat of arms of 69 mm in diameter is suspended from the chain. The insignia of the collar of the order include an eight-pointed gold star of 87 mm in diameter with a grand national coat of arms of 42 mm in diameter in the centre of the star.
In June 1940 when the Soviet Union occupied Estonia, Konstantin Päts formally remained in the President’s office until 22 July even after the formation of a puppet government. Nine days later he was arrested and deported with his family. Tormented over the years in many prisons, Päts died in 1956 as a detainee of the Burashevo psycho-neuro hospital. For Estonia as an occupied country incorporated into the Soviet Union, the soviet power structure did not foresee a President entitled to bear the Collar of the Order of the National Coat of Arms.
When war broke out between the Soviet Union and Germany in the summer of 1941, the communist activists fleeing from the German powers took the Collar of the Order of the National Coat of Arms to Russia. In 1963, the sign of office of the President of the Republic of Estonia was transferred from the USSR Finance Ministry’s Deposit for National Treasures to the collections of the Kremlin Armoury museum.
Moscow’s Kremlin Armoury treasurer Valentina Nikitina has unpacked the Estonian Presidential Sign of Office and is showing it to Estonian Ambassador to Russia Jüri Kahn on 18 December 1994
Photo: Peep Pillak
Upon the restoration of Estonia’s independence, the reclamation of the Collar of the Order of the National Coat of Arms from Russian resulted in the denial of its existence. Thereafter, it was maintained that indeed there is a similar collar in the Kremlin Armoury, but it has nothing to do with the sign of office of the Estonian President. Thereupon Estonia proved with the help of archival documents, photographs, Paul Luhtein’s drafts and written explanations that the sign of office of the President of the Republic of Estonia was indeed made in just a single copy and that this is the very one kept in the Kremlin Armoury. For the first time, Estonian representatives succeeded in seeing the national relic towards the end of 1994. Subsequently, Estonia has repeatedly raised the question of returning the sign of office and although many higher officials of the Russian Federation have reiterated that there are no obstacles to returning the President’s sign of office to Estonia, it remains to this very day in the Kremlin Armoury in Moscow.
The Estonian Postal Museum collection in the Popov Communications Museum in St. Petersburg
A part of the Estonian Postal Museum as seen in the end of the 1930s
Photo: Estonian Filmarchive
The preparations for the establishment of the Estonian Postal Museum date back to 1921, but formally the museum was founded in 1935 while the first exposition was not opened until 1938. The outbreak of World War II and the occupation of Estonia did not bring any direct losses to the Postal Museum. In 1944, the property of the Postal Museum was evacuated to protect them from the war to the Järlepa Manor and when the frontline had passed, the property of the museum was brought back to Tallinn. The museum continued to operate under the USSR Communications Peoples Commissariat as the Communications Museum. The property remained unpacked as the museum was lacking its own rooms.
In summer 1945, the Director of the A.S. Popov Communications Museum in Leningrad on a visit to the Estonian Communications Museum declared his intention to take over the properties. Attempts were made to keep the Communications Museum in Estonia, subordinating it to the Historical Museum of the Academy of Sciences. But in 1947, it was nevertheless decided to liquidate the Communications Museum as the valid structure of the all-Union historical museums did not foresee the existence of communications departments. The boxes with the properties of the Postal Museum were still sitting in the Historical Museum, until the infamous VII plenum of the Central Committee of the Estonian Communist (Bolshevik) Party and the subsequent witch-hunt on bourgeois nationalists. In 1951, the Director of the Popov Communications Museum repeated his proposal to the Historical Museum to surrender the property of the bourgeois Estonian Postal Museum and in the same year the boxes were loaded on to railway wagons and taken to Leningrad.
The 1951 annual report of the Historical Museum of the ESSR Academy of Sciences noted that 65 boxes and 344 parcels with various materials were taken to the USSR Communications Museum in Leningrad.
Of particular value was the stamp collection consisting of approximately 120 000 Estonian and 190 000 foreign stamps. Stamp drafts, printing blocks and trial prints, intercommunication means, various items connected with postal work, brochures, documents, photos and drawings were also taken.
Hopefully the property of the Estonian Postal Museum will one day return to Estonia, as their importance for the research of postal history is greatest in Estonia.
National cultural property that remains outside the state boundaries is not just an Estonian problem, but intensely on the agenda in the whole world. To solve complicated historical-juridical disputes, Estonia is prepared to hold interstate negotiations as well as participate in projects dealing with restitution matters of international cultural property and participate in the composing of agreements.
The material was compiled by Peep Pillak, counsellor, National Archives of Estonia