With an exhibit that opened Saturday, a Minneapolis art museum has emerged as an unlikely player in the world of cultural diplomacy between Russia and the United States.
The Museum of Russian Art has been grappling with a little-known arts embargo by Russia for the past five years. Its new World War I exhibit, however, offers a national model for both honoring the embargo and bringing Russia's cultural heritage to the U.S.
Everything on display — from historic photographs of the war front to historic weapons and correspondence — is either reproductions of items from Russian state archives or from collections in other countries.
"This is the first time in five years, since the embargo, that Russia is coordinating with a museum in the United States," said Vladimir von Tsurikov, museum director. "No physical items had to leave Russia for it."
The exhibit was a collaboration with the Russian Ministry of Culture, the State Archives of the Russian Federation and other Russian cultural institutions, which flew representatives to Minneapolis for Sunday's opening reception.
"I hope this marks the beginning of the return to our long-standing tradition of cultural collaboration between our two countries," said Tatyana Volosatova, acting general director of the State Museum and Exhibition Center.
Volosatova's sentiments were echoed by others attending the opening of "Faces of War: Russia in World War I (1914-1918)." Russian officials, along with Minnesota arts leaders, argued that cultural exchanges should not be halted by political differences.
The event unfolded as President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin prepared to meet this week in a less-cordial spirit.
Dispute over archive
The freeze on art and cultural loans from Russian state museums, however, has nothing to do with recent U.S.-Russia tensions. It stems from a long-standing dispute between Russia and an Orthodox Hasidic Jewish group that claims ownership of a collection of historic religious books and manuscripts that were compiled by its early leaders.
The New York-based group, Chabad, sued for possession of the collection, held in Russia, and obtained a default judgment in 2010 from the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. In 2013, a chief judge imposed a $50,000 a day fine on Russia for each day it doesn't return the collection.
Russia has argued that it is not subject to the jurisdiction of a U.S. court. In 2010, it barred art and cultural items held in state museums and institutions from being loaned to U.S. museums, saying it feared that assets would be seized as a result of the court decision. It wants a specific guarantee that won't happen. The U.S. State Department, however, calls it an "unwarranted concern."
"There is a 50-year-old U.S. statute providing for immunity from judicial interference for works of art on loan from foreign countries for temporary exhibit in the United States," according to a State Department statement issued last week. "We believe that statute protects Russian art on loan from seizure."
The dispute undercut or derailed planned Russian exhibits at museums ranging from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — as well as Minneapolis' Museum of Russian Art. The museums were left to find objects from outside Russia or from private Russian collections.
No art, cultural artifacts or historic documents have been loaned from Russia to the U.S. since the court ruling.
"Faces of War" is the first major exhibit in the U.S. showcasing a new model of Russia-U.S. cooperation, said Sergey Mironenko, director of the State Archives of the Russian Federation, who attended the opening.
Visitors are greeted by large-screen videos of marching soldiers, and a "Boom!" of gunfire, thanks to historic footage and audio from Russia and other nations. Dozens of photographs from the period come from the same.
The yellowed telegraphs on display, showing the final correspondence between Germany and Russia before war was declared, are precise reproductions of originals held in Russian archives.
The military uniforms, swords, imperial banner and other items behind glass came from collections outside of Russia, said von Tsurikov.
"Anything three-dimensional here came from another country," he said.
The exhibit, displayed in Moscow last year, marks the 100th anniversary of World War I, which was a particularly critical juncture in Russian history. The destruction and turmoil of war lead to the abdication of Czar Nicholas II in 1917, and the subsequent rise of the Soviet state.
The exhibit, however, is not just about Russia, stressed Mironenko. More than 30 nations were involved in World War I, and 10 million lives were lost across the globe. The exhibit tells their story too, he said.
The museum's multimedia approach to telling that story, with a half-dozen screens showing video footage of the war, brings that key moment in history to life. Mironenko said the multimedia format works well for working around the arts embargo. He'd like to see a similar project, perhaps to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Russia's 1917 revolution.
"I look forward to doing more of this in the future," he said.