Monday, April 15, 2024

Restitution of Polish treasures – what Bolsheviks gave back after „Miracle on the Vistula”

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 1920 (1) 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”.

The Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Dennis Jarvis

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.

Wawel Royal Castle in Cracow (Photo taken between 1925-35) (Source: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe)

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.

From the Royal Castle in Warsaw, it is time to move to the Wawel Hill. The local castle, recovered from the Austrian hands in 1905, was plundered to the same extent as the royal residence in Warsaw. As is commonly known, the Wawel tapestries, commissioned by King Sigismund Augustus in Flanders and bequeathed by him in his will to the entire nation, give the halls of the Wawel Royal Castle a special meaning. Their fate was extremely dramatic, and only due to the great determination of the Polish recovery commission, and especially to Marian Morelowski, were we able to recover most of these relics that were taken to Russia. The preserved documents show, on the one hand, the aforementioned determination of the Polish side – as proven by the numerous letters of President Olszewski and the erudite memorial of Morelowski in over a dozen pages, and on the other hand, the unusual dispersion and disastrous treatment of the priceless collection by the Russians.

Arakcheyev’s mansion

In his previously quoted report, Wojkow wrote as follows: “We recognized the right of Poles to 156 magnificent tapestries and handed over to them 101 of those that were taken in 1606 from the Krakow castle called Wawel, first to Warsaw, and in 1794, after the suppression of Kościuszko’s uprising to Petrograd before Catherine’s feet. Then they were distributed and sent to various places, including the palaces in Gatchina and the Winter Palace, the Academy of Fine Arts, the Koniuszy Museum, etc. These priceless tapestries decorated the walls of Arakcheyev’s mansion, and it was necessary to have a fireplace and drive hangers into the walls of the house, he did not hesitate to cut out spots in the tapestries for hooks to be nailed in or smoke boxes connected to the fireplace inserted. We found cut out pieces discarded somewhere in the warehouses and returned them to the Poles together with the tapestries”.

In the following years, we managed to recover more tapestries, used, inter alia, to upholster sofas, but unfortunately the desired number of 156 has not been reached to this day. Currently, there are 137 tapestries in total (one of them, returned after World War II, is in the collection of the Royal Castle in Warsaw). Their return, carried out in parts, lasting until 1928, was one of the greatest achievements in the recovery of Polish cultural goods. In view of the destruction of the royal insignia and the destruction of the Crown Treasury, annihilated by the Prussians in 1795, the Sigismund tapestries and Szczerbiec – the coronation sword of Polish kings – gained the role of key symbols of Polish statehood.

Tapestry depicting Adam and Eve at the Wawel Royal Castle, 1927. (Source: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe)

The history of Szczerbiec, one of the most beautiful and mysterious swords of the Middle Ages, is extremely complex. Initially, the Russians did not agree to send it to Poland, as it was not stolen, but bought for the Hermitage after a series of intricate twists in the history of the cultural property. “In the end – writes Zdzisław Żygulski – there was a peculiar exchange: Poles received the longed-for Szczerbiec, resigning from the restitution of an excellent painting from the collection of King Stanisław August – ‘The Stolen Kiss’ by Jean-Honoré Fragonard”. Such a change was possible only because, on the one hand, the prevailing belief in Russia was that the sword was not authentic, and on the other, it is known how much certain influential Russians cared about the charming work of the French painter.

Let us refer to the report of June 17th, 1924 by Antoni Olszewski and his deputy Edward Kuntze: “The value of returned cultural treasures for Poland is very difficult to include in an appropriate amount of money. For Poland, which has been systematically stripped of almost everything that had to do with the history and culture of the nation for 150 years, the return of any item is of exceptional importance. […] The volume statistics of property already imported to Poland shows 319 wagons, 172 of which are state-owned. “Thinking about these 319 wagons, it should be remembered that the Russians, withdrawing from the German troops in the summer of 1915, plundered many institutions of literally everything (just like the German army after the fall of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944). A good reference point of ​​the scale of the robbery in 1915 can be seen from this fact: 65 wagons were filled with the equipment of the Royal Castle in Warsaw alone. We know what the interior of this monument looked like at that time from the previously quoted fragment from the memoirs of Wojciech Kossak.

Joy from the recovered national identity

In one of the photos documenting the implementation of the provisions of the Treaty of Riga, we can see the interior of a large room with a huge number of microscopes taken from Warsaw universities. The background for these numerous scientific instruments and the figures of the secretaries of the Polish and Russian delegations – Aleksander Łada and Iwan Duwan – immortalized in the photo – is the painting by Henryk Siemiradzki, “The Apotheosis of Copernicus”. This work – created in 1891 and donated to the University of Warsaw by Barbara Pankratjewowa née Gorczakow – returned to the walls of the University Library on October 23rd, 1925, but the public presentation took place in the library only in June 1927, with the participation of the university authorities, a group of professors, and numerous readers. The priceless photograph commemorates this very event, in which one can feel the atmosphere of curiosity and quiet joy. Unfortunately – like many of the works recovered from Russia – the painting of Siemiradzki was also lost during World War II.

The joy from the recovery of national cultural goods is present both in the pages of numerous publications authored by participants in revindication negotiations, and in the publications of researchers who had the privilege of publishing the recovered treasures first. One of the privileged ones was Stanisław Pereświet-Sołtan, the publisher of the recovered letters of our greatest composer: “For many admirers of Chopin’s genius, it will be easy to understand my joy when, in ordering the archives returned to us by Russia between various old junk in the Archives of Historical Records in Warsaw, between the list of underwear and the bill from the tailor for the work of the navy blue tailcoat (literally!), I was lucky to find cards with a clear signature: ‘F.F. Chopin’. All thirteen letters were written by Frederic Chopin in the years 1824–1827”. These priceless letters are a source of priceless information about Chopin’s high school and university years. Without them, our knowledge of his life, likings, and education would be extremely modest, or rather poor.

Thanks to the victory in the war of 1920 and the signing of the Treaty in Riga, it was possible to recreate archive collections, reconstruct the interiors of royal castles in Krakow and Warsaw, organize and assemble the Łazienki Park and start – after the recovery of documents, manuscripts (such as “Holy Cross Sermons” [2]), incunabula, and books – research on the history of the Republic of Poland reborn after long years of captivity.

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.

2 the oldest prose text in the Polish language that is still in existence, dating back to around the late 13th century

This article was published in 2021 in “Do Rzeczy” magazine.