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Culture

Berlin, Moscow Tighten Ties Through Culture

Russian President Putin and German President Rau kicked off an ambitious Russian-German cultural project in Berlin and vowed to intensify cultural exchange. But the issue of "stolen art“ remains a stumbling block.

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Culture binds -- Russian President Putin, left, with German President Rau

Germany and France strengthened bilateral relations with a unique new cultural initiative on Sunday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and German President Johannes Rau formally inaugurated the "Russian-German Cultural Encounters 2003-4" -- a series of cultural events in both nations --in a lavish ceremony at the concert hall on the Gendarmenmarkt in eastern Berlin.

"Getting to know each other better"

On the occasion, Russian President Putin said that serious success in bilateral politics would not be possible without close cultural contacts. The German-Russian relations are free from the "burden of the cold war," he said.

German President Rau said that the mammoth cultural program that would be on till the end of next year is an opportunity to "get to know each other better and learn as much as possible from the cultural heritage and contemporary culture of the other country." He said that the "foundation of our friendship" would be enriched with new elements.

Over 350 cultural treats in store

The opening ceremony began with a concert by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, directed by Michail Pletnev and with works by Ludwig van Beethoven and Peter Tschaikowsky.

The concert marks the beginning of more than 350 theatre performances, operas, ballets, exhibitions as well as literary events and film screenings that will be held till the end of next year in both countries. The aim of the cultural offensive is to enable both countries to get a broader picture of each other and to get rid of prejudices that still exist on both sides.

Strong Russian flavor at German events

Some of the highlights of the German-Russian cultural extravaganza include a festival of Russian music in Saarbrücken in summer where the renowned ballet ensemble of the Moscow Bolschoi Theater will perform.

The ongoing international film festival in Berlin, the Berlinale, is also showing a retrospective of Russian films that were made after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and are largely unknown in Germany.

Russia will also be a focus at the famous Frankfurt book fair and the exhibition "Berlin-Moscow/Moscow-Berlin 1950-2000" will kick off in October in Berlin and make its way to Moscow in early 2004.

"Stolen art" mars German-Russian relations

But despite the optimistic and ambitious tone of the project, the lingering problem of so-called "stolen" or "looted" art still continues to hinder German-Russian cultural relations.

Russian soldiers retreating from Germany after World War II are believed to have taken millions of German cultural treasures back to the Soviet Union with them as a form of reparation for their war losses.

For years German churches, museums and cultural institutions -- supported by the German government -- have been fighting to get back some of their long-lost art works.

In April last year, in what was regarded as a major coup for Germany, Russia agreed to return more than 100 stained glass windows to the 14th century Marienkirche (St. Mary’s Church) in the eastern German city of Frankfurt on the Oder. The precious windows were confiscated by the Russians after World War II and hidden in the vaults of the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg for over 50 years.

Legislation hampering return of art works

One of the main reasons for the enduring debate that has come to be a touchy subject between the two nations is the different sets of legislation in both countries regarding the return of "looted -" or "lost art".

In 1997, the Russian Parliament, the Duma, passed a law forbidding the handing back of works of art that were seized by official organizations of the Soviet state, thus putting a freeze on what is believed to be a huge cache of German art treasures still in Russia.

The law passed by the Duma did not however apply to private individuals. As a result Germany was able to get back a priceless collection of paintings and drawings by Caspar David Friedrich, Rembrandt, Albrecht Dürer and other legendary artists that had been in the private collection of Russian officer and art lover Viktor Baldin.

The Baldin collection has since been returned to the art museum in Bremen and by the same exception to the 1997 law, the silver collection of the princely family of Anhalt has also been returned to its rightful place in Germany.

German law incompatible

But despite those minor successes, the going has been far from smooth between Germany and Russia as far as the issue of "looted art" is concerned.

Professor Wolfgang Eichwede from the East European research center at the university of Bremen told DW-WORLD, " a large part of looted German art is still missing till today and we can only guess about its whereabouts."

Professor Eichwede was heavily involved in the negotiations for the return of the Baldin collection to Germany and is also engaged in the German effort to return Russian cultural treasures in Germany.

He says that according to German law, the acquisition of stolen or looted art is legally valid after 10 years, provided the buyer had bought the art without being aware that it was stolen. To prove the opposite, the Professor says, is very difficult.

"For example we tracked down a valuable icon from Russia that was in the possession of a German family in Berchtesgaden (southern Germany). Only through much convincing and a small compensation, could we manage to get the family to give the work of art back to Russia. That’s because German law collides clearly with international law in this respect," he said.

Slow, but sure progress

Professor Eichwede says that there has been much progress on the issue since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 and that one needs to be patient. The return of the Baldin collection is in line with Russian law and was therefore not surprising, he says. The law passed by the Duma in 1997, is a problem however.

"Still I’m happy that the German side has agreed to pursue a policy that will take gradual steps in the right direction," he says. What’s needed is a pragmatic approach from both sides, according to the Professor.

It's hoped that the newly-launched German-Russian cultural year would provide fresh impetus to tackle the "stolen art" problem.

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