Editorial: our symbolic treasure

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Photo: taiga.space

As times go by, historic cultural treasures increase in value, both as assets and emotionally. In disputes between the nations, they evolve into a kind of symbolic metric and in the remarks around their ownership the current temperature of relations between the states is seen and felt. Likewise with an art collection taken to Russia from University of Tartu during WW1. While Fine Arts Museum in Voronezh celebrates 200th birthday of Otto Friedrich von Richter's Ancient Egypt Collection, we are still stuck with the centenary since it was taken away.

The return of University of Tartu’s art assets has been addressed almost every time that Estonia and Russia, for any reason, have had high level things to discuss. Till today, no signs of amendments to status quo. It was the topic after Estonia’s War for Independence, then in 1930ies, during the collapse of Soviet Union at the end of 190ies, and in mid-2000ies. To not much avail.

In 2005 as for the first time Estonia and Russia signed the border treaties, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told his Estonian colleague Urmas Paet the Russian side was not sure «that this was supposed to be an [art] collection to be returned to Estonia». Meanwhile, when it came to the original of Estonia’s President’s official chain held at Kremlin, Moscow, Mr Lavrov hinted to «certain juridical procedures being finalised» according to Mr Paet.

No doubt, legal aspects are important and even complex. However, would it be legal nuances alone, the parties might sit down and get it solved by use of neutral experts. Estonia has referred to Tartu peace treaty pursuant to which lots of assets were returned. Regarding the issue, there’s also the Hague convention from 1954 (a protocol regarding defence of art assets in military conflicts). Among other things, the document reads: «Each contractual state undertakes: as war activity ends, to return art assets located on its territory to the powers over territories formerly occupied. These assets cannot be withheld as fee for war damages.»

Perhaps, there comes a day that Russia’s legal view turns to our favour in a larger degree. Currently, the best we have is scientific cooperation, possibly exhibitions activities. And – importantly for Estonia – keeping the issues in mind.