Works of Art in Russia: Two 1921 Editorials in the Burlington Magazine

by Anne Benson

In July and September of 1921, editorials in the Burlington Magazine expressed concern over the fate of Russia’s art treasures “ever since the outbreak of the revolution and especially since the appearance of a Bolshevik government”. The July article was speculative, while in September, the editors included a welcome eyewitness account providing evidence that the situation was perhaps not as bad as many had feared. One hundred years after the Russian revolution is an opportune time to reexamine the content of these editorials in the context of the present day. Many archives, unavailable until after the fall of the Soviet Union, have now been open for many years, and scholars and researchers free to publish and report their findings. Art historians, art lovers, collectors, and tourists from all over the world are welcomed to Russia, and may themselves explore the country’s rich array of museums, archives, and historic sites.

As posted here in April, the Burlington first published post-revolution news of the fate of Russian art works in the form of an April 1919 letter to the magazine from the Russian émigré, Alexander Polovtsov. Polovtsov was a respected expert and connoisseur who, along with several colleagues, helped to protect art treasures—both objects and buildings—and his was an eyewitness account. However, it was limited only to what he could verify up to the point he fled Russia in the autumn of 1918. The violence and confusion of the following two and a half years[1], a period that was short on hard news and rife with rumors difficult to confirm or deny, caused many in the art world to fear the worst for Russia’s rich, eclectic heritage of private and museum collections, church properties, monuments, and buildings. There was reason to worry.

Following the October revolution, the Bolsheviks and their supporters, collectively known as Reds, fought a brutal civil war against the Whites for control of Russia. The Whites comprised a contingent of loosely associated Tsarist sympathizers, Cossacks, nationalists, and conservative factions, collectively backed by the western Allies—principally Britain, France, and the United States. Two important White leaders, Admiral Kolchak and General Denikin,[2] lost decisive battles in 1920 and by spring of 1921 the war was all but over. The Bolsheviks were now the Russian government in power. They inherited a country whose infrastructure was in ruins and was without a functioning economy. Millions were dead; millions more were wounded and missing. The civil war might have ended, but peace was elusive. The peasants immediately rose against the new government, thousands of factory workers went on strike, and there was a devastating famine in the Volga basin that would take the lives of even more millions of people. Given all this, it is striking that the Burlington’s editors were optimistic about the fate of Russia’s art treasures in the two 1921 editorials. However, this optimism, we now know, was not at all unfounded.

In mid-1921, Vladimir Lenin maintained a precarious hold on Bolshevik leadership. Having survived an assassination attempt in August of 1918, he was not a well man. Two bullets were still lodged in his body; he was exhausted, weak, and had difficulty speaking. Rivals, principally Joseph Stalin, were openly plotting his overthrow. It is hard to imagine that, given the challenges facing the country, the fate of art and culture was foremost on any faction’s agenda. Lenin, however, was always determined that Bolshevism and the new Soviet state should foster art and culture as well as the education of the people, as part of a drive to create the new “Soviet Man” (sic).[3] To this end, in 1917, he had created the Commissariat of Enlightenment (Narkompros)[4], and appointed as its commissar, Anatoly Lunacharsky.[5] (fig. 1)

Figure 1. Lunacharsky stamp c1970

Lunacharsky, born in Poltava, Ukraine in 1875, was a “poet-philosopher” rather than a politician or bureaucrat, and although never to be a hardline Bolshevik, he became a Marxist while still at his gymnasium in Kiev. As a young man, he went to Switzerland to study with Avenarius[6] at the University of Zurich. He returned to Russia in 1898 and fell in with other young socialists, and like many of his contemporaries, was exiled for what Tsarism deemed subversive activities. When he returned from exile in 1904 he went abroad, met Lenin for the first time, and joined the Bolsheviks. “I approached them as a philosopher and, I will say more definitely, as a poet of the revolution…Art and religion then occupied the centre of my attention, yet not as an aesthete, but as a Marxist”.[7] In spite of denying his aestheticism, Lunacharsky proved an idealist as well as a champion of culture and the arts, privileging their survival and appreciation above ideology or any party line. Luckily for him, Lenin proved his steadfast supporter.[8]

In 1918, Lunacharsky felt free to appoint experienced and knowledgeable people like Polovtsov, Count Valentin Zubov, George Lukomski, Peter von Weiner, and other experts (regardless of their class affiliations) to positions authorizing them[9] to recommend the state seize certain properties and their contents in the name of “the people.” This accomplished, those properties would be protected from pillage while their premises and contents were identified, evaluated, and catalogued. The buildings were then designated museums. Art historians now accept that, given the chaos of this period of war and revolution, these early efforts proved very effective; physical damage to Russia’s art works was, on the scale of things, quite minimal. By mid-1918, many sites had opened to a remarkably respectful, interested, and appreciative public. Fortunately, most museums in and near Moscow and Petrograd went on to survive the civil war relatively intact, but many more remotely located church properties and country estates, even though given protected status, did not.

When the Bolsheviks took power, one of the ways they retained it was to create a vast bureaucracy into which the new citizenry was coopted. Various offices, sometimes competing, assumed control over the dissemination of art and culture, including commissions that decided where and by whom art treasures would be displayed, broken up, stored, or sold. This bureaucracy was convoluted and opaque, and explanation of its workings is necessarily simplified.


Since the overthrow of the Tsar, efforts had been made not only to protect Russia’s treasures but also to prevent their export. During the tenure of the Provisional Government, Maxim Gorky, for example, directed his own appeal, claiming that “the old masters have gone away and a great heritage is left behind. Now it belongs to the whole people.”[10] Several other fairly ad hoc efforts at protection and preservation were made by concerned individuals—including Polovtsov and many others—mostly members of the nobility and intelligentsia. By 1921, however, the Soviet government depended on the State Museum Fund (Gosmuzeifond)[11] “as a centralized repository on which the nation’s museums could draw.” It operated under Narkompros and Lunacharsky, and while it did serve to protect art treasures, the system also identified and organized them in a way that would eventually make sales of this same heritage, the bulk of which took place from 1928 to 1932, all that much easier for those involved.[12] However, the State Depository of Valuables (Gokhran) (fig. 2 above) ultimately became the primary storehouse for a wide variety of impounded items—private property being abolished[13] and émigrés forbidden to export or carry out any personal assets—appropriated in the name of the state. This depository, consisting of several sites and warehouses, was the first stop on a confiscated object’s journey to becoming categorized—either as significant or insignificant. Insignificant objects could be broken up or melted down to bolster the coffers of the bankrupt government. An object deemed significant could be transferred from the State Depository to the Museum Fund, and then, after more appraisal by experts, sent to the appropriate museum or gallery for public display.[14]

This system at first, and for a very brief period—a period including the dates of the Burlington editorials—created a wealth of accessible cultural institutions unique in Russian history. Even though the many important collectors living in St. Petersburg and Moscow in pre-revolutionary days had established a variety of museums or opened their homes to the public[15], organization was haphazard, and rules for admittance were arbitrary. Funding to support these efforts was privately sourced. The new Bolshevik government reorganized and supported the system as well as adding sites. There were museums housed in palaces, town houses, mansions, church properties, and country estates. Their offerings were various—from collections of French Impressionist paintings, to toys, to museums of history and “everyday life”.[16] Not only was the public welcomed to places most had never dreamed of entering, but thanks to the efforts of curators, ordinary people, the majority with little or no education, were able to understand and learn from what they saw. Rather than housing a jumble of pieces representing the diverse interests of a single family or collector, each museum was established around a category, period, or theme and the display of related objects thus rationalized.

In sum, the optimism of the Burlington’s July editorial was well-founded. In addition to the positive evidence summarized above, there was still widespread hope for the Communist/Marxist/Socialist dream in 1921, despite its tumultuous introduction into Russia. Britain would officially recognize the Soviet Union in 1922; Lenin and his followers had not abandoned the idea that the revolution begun in Russia would overtake the world. The Burlington’s caveat that the reports of émigrés be treated with circumspection was reasonable, as was welcoming direct reporting from less biased parties. Consequently, the magazine’s September editorial focused entirely on an eyewitness report from the Russian art collector, historian, and critic, Paul Ettinger (1866-1948).

Ettinger was Polish born, but lived in Moscow most of his life. In addition to his contributions to this magazine, he published articles in several languages on diverse art historical subjects, as a look through the World Catalogue will show. Even with scant biographical material, it is reasonable to presume he was expert in his field. In his article quoted for the September editorial, Ettinger reported only what he saw, or was allowed to see; he did not editorialize or make judgements. Russia was a dangerous, unstable place in 1921, and had just been through a period of government-sanctioned terror, where an individual who spoke out or acted in any way perceived as hostile to the new regime was likely to be imprisoned, exiled, tortured, or executed.

After his brief clarification of the Soviet cultural bureaucracy (para. 2) Ettinger goes on to discuss several museums, most of which still operate today—some with different names. Their collections, however, have gone through many changes since 1917. In addition to the collection reordering mentioned above, the selling of art to foreign buyers was just beginning. During the late 1920s and early 30s thousands of art objects, pieces of jewellery, books, and church holdings were sold to collectors and museums outside Russia to raise cash. As early as 1919, Gorky was put in charge of “evaluating and selecting objects to be sold abroad through the…Antiques Export Fund” (Antikvariat).[17] In addition, starting in 1921, further thousands of objects of precious metal, especially religious articles, were melted down to make bars or minted into currency; jewels also were removed from their settings and sold separately.[18]

Shchukin drawing Matisse.jpgIn 1921, censorship of art was lax,[19] but very soon, as restrictions on free expression grew more severe, some art would be banned as “bourgeois” or “counter-revolutionary” and sold, put in storage, or even destroyed. The story of the Shchukin collection (para.4), now recognized as having been one of the most important in the world, illustrates the effects of Soviet censorship on art—on how it could be collected as well as displayed. Originally, the collection had been shown to the public in Sergei Shchukin’s own Trubetskoy Palace, where he arranged displays to his own taste. Sergei bought widely, his tastes included both Impressionists and Post-Impressionists as well as more abstract artists like Picasso. He was an important patron of Matisse, who visited Shchukin in Moscow in 1904, and made a sketch of him in 1912. (figure 3.) By 1921 Shchukin had fled to Paris, and the collection was nationalized and merged with that of Ivan Morozov. The result became the core holdings of the State Museum of New Western Art. In 1928 Stalin began issuing stricter censorship directives regarding art, and the collection was broken up—some works went to the Hermitage, some to other museums, some were stored. When Shchukin died in 1936 his name had passed into obscurity in Russia.[20]

The politicization of art was a conscious and critical strategy. How would a museum and its collection best embody a Bolshevist agenda?[21] Collecting and displaying art had to date been the province of the privileged, and access to art was controlled by individual owners or the institutions they created. Even though there were state museums in Tsarist times, most contained collections that an individual had chosen and were housed in a building—a palace or town house for example—that belonged to that same collector. When collections were assembled under the aegis of the state, as in Moscow’s Alexander III Museum (Now the Pushkin State Museum), these institutions, designed to enlighten scholars and the educated, were administered by elite directors—members of the nobility, academics, and individuals of wealth and social standing, most of whom had little concern for or experience with education of “the people” in the Bolshevik sense. However, cultural control was integral to Lenin’s ideal—the managed enlightenment of the masses—where the new Soviet men, women and children existed only to further and reflect the ideology of the state and to do its work.[22]

250px-Vladimirskaya.jpgDisputes about the mission of the Tretyakov Gallery (para. 3) show how changing political agendas affected the Russian museum world. Pavel Tretyakov, a Moscow textile magnate who amassed a fortune in the late 19th century, was one of the earliest collectors of modern Russian art.[23] His collection quickly grew larger and broader—it included more traditional pieces as well important icons like The Mother of God of Vladimir, praised by Ettinger in his essay. (fig. 4) Tretyakov opened his gallery to the public as a museum in 1874 and by 1890 it was welcoming 50,000 visitors a year. In 1893 Tretyakov presented his museum to the city of Moscow and it reopened as the “Moscow City Gallery of Pavel and Sergei Tretyakov.” Its policies and mission were subject to the Moscow City Duma, which in 1913 hired the art historian Igor Grabar museum director. During the war years of 1914-1918 Grabar, a staunch advocate of modernism, was challenged by conservative factions questioning whether modern art was truly “Russian.” After years of wrangling, Grabar and his allies won out and he kept his job, but disputes about the place of non-objective art and the avant-garde were by no means settled.[24] By 1921 the Tretyakov was nationalized and Lenin had subtly reworded its official title by changing “of” to “named after” Pavel and Sergei. The Bolsheviks soon devalued modern art, and by 1927 the museum had reordered its displays and was hosting ideologically driven tours such as “Lives of Different Classes before the Revolution,” and the like.[25]

Relgion is poison.jpgThe editorial’s last two paragraphs address the status of church property in 1921. Although Ettinger is silent on this, it was common knowledge that Lenin viewed Russian Orthodoxy as Bolshevism’s main competitor and was determined to destroy it. Marx, after all, had called religion “the opium of the people.” Starting in 1917, the new government waged aChurch pillage.jpg propaganda campaign against the church. (fig. 5). Ettinger, however, confined his reporting to an initiative aimed at restoring and preserving ancient icons of significance, and efforts to exhibit church treasures both as art works and as part of Russian cultural patrimony. The famine of 1921 gave Lenin the excuse he needed to actively pillage church property—using the need to raise funds as cover, he called for the church to give up its treasures on behalf of the victims (image). After this first step, it was open season, and soon the vast holdings of the church were being sold abroad, broken up, melted down, or destroyed—clerics were arrested, church and monastery buildings were repurposed to serve the state. (fig. 6). In general, what did survive were important pieces of church silver and medieval icons. Stripped of their religious significance, they were designated art, and collected for display in museums.[26]


Figure 1. Soviet commemorative stamp depicting Anatoly Lunacharsky, from 1975.

Figure 2. Members of the Gokhran with Imperial Jewels, sometime in the 1920s. Photo from the Gokhran website

Figure 3. Portrait of Sergei I. Shchukin by Henri Matisse, 1912, Charcoal on Paper, 49.5 x 30.5 cm.Metropolitan Museum of Art. From the collection of the Matisse family.

Figure 4. Icon of the Mother of God of Vladimir, Panel, c. 1100. 103.6 x 108.5 cm, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Figure 5. Soviet anti-religion propaganda poster, 1920s, “Religion is poison, protect your children.” Collection of the Hoover Institute

Figure 6. Pillage of the Russian Church, 1920s, Russian State Film and Documentary Archive at Krasnogorsk.


[1] For historical accounts and background see esp. S. Smith (2017), O. Figes (2014 and 1997), and D. Lieven (2015).

[2] O. Figes: A People’s Tragedy (1997) pp 678-796. Kolchak was captured and executed and Denikin, after his army’s defeat outside Moscow, retreated with a number of followers to Crimea, from where they were evacuated to North Africa, and ultimately to France.

[3] O. Figes: Revolutionary Russia (2014) pp 195+196. This concept is discussed in many sources.

[4] The names for these offices and their transliterations are taken from N. Semonyova et al: Selling Russia’s Treasures (2013) p.353.

[5] S. Fitzpatrick: The Commissariat of Enlightenment, Cambridge (1970), p. 1

[6] The German philosopher Richard Avenarius (1843-1896)

[7] Qtd. in Fitzpatrick, p 3. Op. cit. n.4

[8] According a to subordinate, Viktor Shulgin, Lenin defended Lunacharsky’s unorthodox thinking, saying, “He is drawn toward the future with his whole being. That is why there is such joy and laughter in him. And he is ready to give that joy and laughter to everyone.” (Qtd. in Fitzpatrick, p. 10). In 1933 Stalin appointed him ambassador to Spain. Lunacharsky died in France on his way to taking on his new post. His name fell from favor during Great Terror years of the late 30s, but was rehabilitated after Stalin’s death.

[9] Polovtsov, for example, was named “Commissar-curator”. ‘For his personal account of saving Russia’s treasures see his Les Tresors d’Art en Russie sous le Regime Bolsheviste (1919)

[10] Gorky’s appeal is quoted in Sukharnov (J. Carmichael trans.), The Russian Revolution 1917, Princeton UP (1984) p. 208n.

[11] The Museum Fund was administered by Natalya Trotskaya, wife of Leon Trotsky.

[12] A. Odom et al: Treasures into Tractors, the Selling of Russia’s Cultural Heritage, 1918-1938 (2009), Introduction, p. xv. A weakness of this system was corruption, which led to a flourishing black market.

[13] Ettinger, in the Sept. 1921 editorial explains that in practice, forbidding all private ownership of art objects was nearly impossible to enforce at this time, and concessions were made as long as the objects were registered with the state. In these cases, people kept “possession” of their property, but did not own it outright.

[14] N. Semonyova: “Citizens, Preserve Monuments of Art” in N. Semonyova et al, op. cit. n. pp. 17, 18 + 84.

[15] G. Norman: The Hermitage. (1998) pp. 109-113.

[16]R. Gafiffulin: “Sales of Work from the Leningrad Palace Museums 1926-1939” in Odom op. cit n.12, p. 137. The Romanov Palaces in Leningrad were all put to this use, for example. N. Semenova in Odom Ch. 3 pp 70-72 “A Soviet Museum Experiment”, explains that country houses and smaller town houses were often made into Proletarian Museums whose collections were arranged to promote Bolshevik ideology and foster the appreciation of beauty for the edification of “the workers”. 4

[17] Odom op. cit. n.12, p. 9.

[18] R. Davis and E. Kasinec: “Witness to the Crime.” Journal of the History of Collections, 3, no.1, 1991 pp. 55-57.

[19] Figes, op. cit. n.3, p. 738

[20] R. Bartlett: “The Revolutionary Artist Who Changed the Course of Russian Art.” Apollo, Oct. 2017. The Shchukin collection was recently partially reassembled with the cooperation of several museums and collectors, resulting in the exhibition “Icons of Modern Art,” held in Paris at the Foundation Louis Vuitton, in October, 2016.

[21] S. Smith: “Cultural Heritage and the People’s Property” in M. Frame et al. (eds.) Russian Culture in War and Revolution, 1914-1921, Bloomington (2014), pp. 416-417.

[22] Figes (1997), pp. 794-798.

[23] Bartlett, op. cit. n.19

[24]A. Cohen: Imagining the Unimaginable, World War, Modern Art and the Politics of Public Culture in Russia 1914-1917 (2008) pp. 157-174.

[25] N. Semonyova: “A Soviet Museum Experiment.” In Odom, p. 68 and P. Akinsha and A. Jolles: “On the Third Front” in Odom, p. 177.

[26] Many historical sources tell the story of the church’s destruction by the Soviets. This post relies especially on Figes (1997) and Y. Pyatnitsky: “The Pillage of the Russian Church”, in Semonyova (2013) op. cit. n13, pp.60-69.

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