This article analyses the historical and political background of the Russian law on cultural property displaced to the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War (April 1998, with amendments in 2000). Following the 1990–1991 revelations about the extensive cultural treasures captured by Soviet authorities at the end of the Second World War, there was hope abroad for restitution, with a series of bilateral agreements with the countries of origin, but in spring 1994 the Duma blocked further restitution. We follow the fierce debates, the Constitutional Court ruling (1999), the amended law (July 2000), and its implementation under the Ministry of Culture.
We show the wide-scale Russian support of the law, with its concept of “compensatory restitution” that virtually nationalizes the spoils of war, with only scant provisions for restitution to those who fought against the Nazi regime and those victimized by it. What explanation emerges involves the manipulation of historical memory by the Stalinist regime, as the cultural trophies assume symbolic importance in the “myth and memory” of “victory” in the Great Patriotic War. Restitution to legal owners is to be considered only in exchange for equally substantial compensation for wartime loss and suffering of the population at large.