Restitution of Polish cultural treasures – what the Bolsheviks gave back to us after 1920 (Part 1)

The Royal Castle in Warsaw, Batory Hall. Photo taken prior to 1939 (Source: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe/Ilustrowany Kurier Codzienny)

The Treaty of Riga, though sometimes assessed critically, brought tens of thousands of archives, works of art, and state symbols back to Poland. Without them, Poland would be a devoid of its most valuable artistic collections and souvenirs.

Jerzy Miziołek

In antiquity, an important element of celebrating victory was the presentation of the spoils of war (trophies). There was a similar practice in the early modern period, when the idea of ​​triumphs – in line with the spirit of the Renaissance – was revived. Parades with trophies – mainly banners and weapons – were also held in Poland in the 16th and 17th centuries, as confirmed by the texts and works of art from this period. The trophies after the great Polish victory in 19201 primarily consisted cultural goods and national symbols stolen from the territory of the Commonwealth by tsarist Russia in the period from the first partition (1772) to 1915. These robberies were part of the secret St. Petersburg, Russo-Prussian convention of 1797, which obligated both parties to “eliminate everything that could recall the memory of the Kingdom of Poland”. In the frenzy of this liquidation, after the Kościuszko Uprising, the Prussians robbed the Wawel Castle treasury and eventually melted the stolen goods. The act of destroying Polish treasure and national symbols also took place in Russia, but most of these goods were intact, divided, among others, between the Hermitage and the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, the Kremlin Armoury and other buildings of the Kremlin.

While the palaces of St. Petersburg and Moscow were becoming more and more filled, the buildings of the Commonwealth, in both royal castles, were very much empty. The memoirs of Wojciech Kossak from autumn 1918 give a good idea of the immense destruction of the Royal Castle in Warsaw and the terrifying emptiness of its interior after the robberies that lasted until 1915: “Before we got to the great hall with Bacciarelli’s ceiling, we went through dozens of larger and smaller rooms, empty, tattered, many did not even have floors. All those who have seen the Castle in Warsaw in all its splendor today will never be able to imagine approximately what the Royal Castle in Warsaw looked like after it was abandoned by the occupiers”.

A similar situation occurred in the Wawel Castle, as most of its treasures were in Russia. Some of the 156 famous Wawel Castle tapestries, taken – by the order of Catherine II – from Warsaw to Russia at the end of the 18th century, became upholstery for sofas. The priceless espaliers of King Sigismund Augustus, as tapestries were formerly called in Poland, were therefore used as ornaments for often inferior furniture. A lot of valuable objects, though usually of a smaller artistic class, also found their way – generously distributed by the tsars – to various provinces nearby and farther away. However, Poles living in Russia, as if in premonition of Poland’s rebirth, monitored the fate of looted cultural goods. Branches of the Polish Society for the Protection of Cultural Properties of the Past operated in almost 40 towns in the tsarist state. This society played a huge role in the long-term process of recovering Polish cultural heritage.

Article XI of the Treaty of Riga

The preliminary agreement on peace and armistice, signed on October 12th, 1920, already had the following provision: “There will be an obligation to return to Poland archives, libraries, works of art, historical war trophies, cultural property and similar objects of cultural heritage, taken from Poland to Russia since the time of the partitions of the Republic of Poland”. In the treaty signed on March 18th, the following year, these issues were included in chapter XI. During this time, the treaty negotations reached a deadlock several times, sometimes even appeared close to being broken off, but the Polish side consistently and determinedly referred to the preliminary agreement. “In response – writes Władysław Semkowicz – the Russian-Ukrainian side declared that it did not feel obliged to be responsible for the actions of the tsarist government, nor did it recognize any property, especially private, because in Soviet Russia all works of art, for example, were nationalized and de facto belong to all of mankind. Recognizing, however, the nations’ principles of establishment and their right to physically possess the cultural property created by a given nation, Russia is ready to hand over to Poland what has been taken away, but only what constitutes a product of the spiritual creativity of the Polish nation. What cannot be released is the product of general human culture and is kept in treasuries of universal cultural significance”.

The Russian side has used similar, absurd arguments on many occasions; these concerned not only works of art from Polish collections, made by non-Polish painters or sculptors, but also the entire collection of the Cabinet of Prints of the University of Warsaw, extremely important for Polish culture, and priceless archives.

Finally, the treaty was signed. its XI chapter contains the following provisions: “Russia and Ukraine hereby return to Poland the following items, exported to Russia or Ukraine from the territory of the Republic of Poland from January 1st, 1772: a / any war trophies (e.g. flags, banners, all military emblems, weapons, regalia, etc.), as well as trophies taken from the Polish Nation in 1792 in its struggle for independence against Tsarist Russia; b / libraries, book collections, archaeological, and archive collections, works of art, cultural property and all kinds of collections and items of historical, national, artistic, archaeological and scientific value or of any cultural value”.

After signing the treaty, the Polish Re-evacuation and the Special Commission were established, headed by Minister Antoni Olszewski. The section which dealt with the implementation of the provisions contained in Chapter XI of the Treaty, consisted of eminent specialists in the field of archival science, museology, history, art history, and librarianship. They faced an extremely difficult task, as almost every object of restitution had to be found and proof of ownership had to be obtained. “The Poles – wrote Pyotr Voykov, chairman of the Russian-Ukrainian delegation in his report, demand literally everything that is remembered by some of their scholars or laymen, all the way up to and including the carriage of King Stanisław August”.

Restitution of national cultural treasures

Despite the many obstacles on the part of the Russians, things were moving forward thanks to the competence and persistence of Polish experts. By May 16th, 1922, 85 packages containing the files of the provincial property offices and 55 packages containing the documents of the Board of Mutual Insurance of the Kingdom of Poland were sent to Warsaw. At the same time, the following, among others, were returned to Poland: 24 busts from the Hall of Deputies at Wawel Castle, 41 Wawel Castle tapestries, a monument of Prince Józef Poniatowski, a painting by Jan Matejko – “The Battle of Grunwald”, furnishings for the Palace on the Water in Łazienki and the Royal Castle (375 coffers) containing among others regalia of Stanisław August, banners, 21 pictures of Bernard Bellott with views of Warsaw, bronze busts from the Knight’s Hall, six paintings by Marcello Bacciarelli from the same Hall (with scenes from Polish history, showing, among others, “Prussian Homage”, “The Union of Poland with Lithuania”, “The Battle of Vienna”). The appearance of many of these objects at that time, as well as the banners stored for decades in the Kremlin, are perfectly documented by the excellent, well-described Russian photos collected in the so-called Morelowski Album, kept at the National Library in Warsaw. This album, like other collections of photographs, was probably used to negotiate the recovery of all the objects reproduced in it.

After the furnishings of the Royal Castle in Warsaw returned from Russia, the time had come to recreate its representative rooms – Marble, Knight, Ball, Throne, and the Cabinet of European Monarchs, in order to faithfully restore their appearance from the times of Stanisław August. This process was facilitated immensely through the use of designs for decorating these rooms made by court artists, incl. Johann Christian Kammsetzer. These designs were stored in the University’s Cabinet of Engravings, which was also recovered.


1 the Battle of Warsaw (also known as the Miracle on the Vistula) resulted in a decisive Polish victory during the Polish–Soviet War. Poland, on the verge of total defeat, repulsed and defeated the Soviet Army, halting the spread of communism further westwards into Europe.