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The Russian Law on Cultural Property
Displaced to the U.S.S.R.
as a Result of World War II


  The law provides that, except for three specific classes of such property, all cultural property (called "cultural valuables" and broadly defined) currently located in the Russian Federation that had been removed under Soviet authority to the U.S.S.R. "in implementation of compensatory restitution"1 from "former enemy states," i.e., the territories of Germany and its World War II allies--Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, Romania and Finland--is the property of the Russian Federation and is "federally owned," irrespective of who actually possesses it or the circumstances of such possession.2 Cultural valuables removed to the U.S.S.R under these circumstances are termed "displaced cultural valuables," as defined in Article 4 of the law and further elaborated upon in Article 5. The three exempt classes of cultural property, as specified in Article 8 of the law, are as follows:

  1. Cultural property for which "interested states"--nations that were fully or partially occupied by former enemy states--had previously filed claims with former enemy states for restitution before the expiration of time limits established pursuant to peace treaties entered into with such states (except that in the case of Germany, it is pursuant to the procedure established by the U.S.S.R.); such time limits expired in 1950 for Germany and 1948 for the other former enemy states.

  2. Cultural property that was formerly owned by religious or private charitable organizations, was used exclusively for religious or charitable purposes, and did not serve the interests of militarism or Nazism/Fascism; and

  3. Cultural property that belonged to those persons who were deprived of such property because of their race, religion or national affiliation, or because they actively struggled against Nazism/Fascism.

  These exceptions are only temporary, however: any claims for cultural property thereunder must be made no later than October 21, 1999 (i.e., 18 months after the effective date of the legislation), at which time all property for which no such claims were filed becomes the federal property of the Russian Federation. This deadline applies to potential claims both of interested states (Article 9) and of former enemy states (Article 10). Cultural property for which claims are filed without evidence showing that it falls into one of the three categories will also become Russian Federation property.

  Furthermore, the law expressly provides that only states can file claims and that these claims must be made only to the government of the Russian Federation (Article 18). The claims of persons or any entities other than states "are not subject to consideration." In this connection, the law specifically mentions interested states and former enemy states as potential claimant states. It is unclear whether (and on what basis) claims will be accepted from states that fall outside these two categories--such as the United States, Great Britain, Israel, etc. In this connection, the United States has begun to submit claims on behalf of its citizens and will continue to do so (see Checklist below).

  Even if a state files a claim with satisfactory evidence that the cultural property being claimed fits into one of the three pertinent categories, the claimant state must still satisfy additional conditions before obtaining the right to recover such property. First, an interested state must confirm that it has not received any lump sum compensation for such property from Germany or any other former enemy state. Second, the interested state must offer to the Russian Federation, "on the basis of the principle of mutuality," "no less favorable legal conditions" for the return of any cultural property of the Russian Federation which was plundered by former enemy states, which is currently, or may be in the future, located in the territory of that interested state, and for which the Russian Federation has made restitution claims (Article 9).

  If the claimant state is a former enemy state, its right to recover property is contingent on its having taken special legislative measures to ensure implementation of its obligation to return to the Russian Federation, free of charge, cultural property of the Russian Federation which was plundered and illegally removed and which is currently, or may be in the future, located in the territory of that former enemy state (Article 10).

  Also, regardless of whether the particular cultural property otherwise fits into any of the three pertinent categories, no property of any kind that by its content or nature "may serve the purpose of resurrecting the spirit of militarism and (or) Nazism (Fascism)" may be given over to any state or otherwise exported from the Russian Federation (Article 11).

  If all of the above conditions are met and the transfer of the cultural property to the claimant state is approved, that state must reimburse the Russian Federation for the expenses incurred for the identification, expert examination, storage and restoration of the property, as well as for transfer expenses such as transportation costs (Article 18).

  The law provides for the creation of a "Federal Body" to adjudicate claims. Its decisions are binding but may be appealed in accordance with Russian Federation law (Article 16). Property may be transferred only after its transfer has been authorized by the Federal Body, and upon passage of a federal law regarding that transfer.

  The law provides the Federal Body with the discretion, for "humanitarian reasons," to return cultural property comprising family heirlooms, such as family archives, photographs, letters, decorations and awards, and portraits of family members and their ancestors, to authorized representatives of the families to which the heirlooms belonged, even though such heirlooms had become the property of the Russian Federation under the law (Article 12). However, heirlooms of persons active in "militarist" or Nazi/Fascist regimes are not eligible for return.

  Heirloom claimants must reimburse the Russian Federation for expenses incurred for the identification, expert examination, storage and restoration of the heirlooms, as well as for transfer expenses, such as transportation costs. In addition, these claimants must reimburse the Russian Federation for the "value" of the claimed heirlooms (Article 19). There is no time limit specified for heirloom claims.

  Finally, the Russian Federation is directed to conclude international treaties to promote the objectives of the law. These include treaties to facilitate the exchange of "displaced" cultural property for cultural property "lawfully removed from the territory of the Russian Federation at various times," apparently leaving open the possibility of returns effected through exchanges as well as through the claims process outlined above (Articles 15 and 22). No time restrictions are specified for such returns through exchange.

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