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Moscow Museum Displays Restored Chechen Art - 2002-07-02

People in the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya have lived through more than a decade of almost constant fighting. Two wars have killed thousands, driven even more from their homes, and reduced the capital city, Grozny, to ruins. One building destroyed in the fighting was the Grozny Museum, which housed a large art collection. But a handful of the pieces were saved from the ruined museum and brought to Moscow for restoration.

The first thing visitors see at the exhibit of art from the Grozny Museum is a frame holding a canvas that has been ripped apart at the center. The painting is of a person but the canvas is so mangled, art restorers do not even know who it is.

About the only think conservators know about the picture is that it is of a man, possibly Jesus, says Nadezhda Koshkina, who heads the painting restoration department at the Grabar Art Conservation Center in Moscow and worked on the exhibit.

"This is an example of the condition in which all these paintings came to us," said Ms. Koshina. "Almost each of them had such punctures, deformation, and huge losses. We haven't started this restoration and we may not even have the right to restore it because we don't know what it looked like before."

This painting will probably never be saved, but many of the other paintings look as if they were never damaged at all. Ms. Koshkina and her team of restorers have spent the past seven years working on this collection and have finished 45 paintings. The works are now part of a temporary exhibit at the Tretyakov Museum in Moscow.

The paintings were rescued from the Grozny Museum in Chechnya, one of the better regional museums in the Soviet Union. The museum was opened in 1951, and by 1990 housed about 2,000 works, including products of such famous Russian painters as Repin and Tropinin.

But the paintings were buried under rubble during the first Chechen war, 1994-1996. Workers from the Russian Ministry of Emergencies Situations recovered the paintings from the Grozny Museum in 1995.

"The paintings were like people - weak and helpless, wounded, hit with bullets, cut with knives," said the director of the Tretyakov Museum, Valentin Rodionov. "Some were dead, they were cut out by the edge of the frame."

In the exhibit, there are photographs of some of the paintings before they were restored, so visitors can get a sense of how badly they were damaged.

One wall is covered by a large painting depicting the capture in 1859 of a great Chechen fighter, Imam Shamil, during the Russian empire's expansion into Chechnya. Restorers say they need another two or three years to finish this painting, which is creased and covered with small tears and water spots.

Another painting of a bride with long black hair covered by a white veil had a tear ripping open one side of her face. Restorers repaired the tear and now it is impossible for the naked, untrained eye to see.

Restorers who worked on the project say they cannot help but be appalled by the damage done to the paintings. But they try not to form an opinion on who is to blame for the damage. "If you're choosing between the two combating sides, both will be guilty, no matter from whose point of view the information is presented," said Aleksei Vladimirov, the director of the Grabar Art Conservation Center. "Both sides would be guilty that cannot find peace."

Russian officials have been much more direct in placing blame. They say Chechen separatists holed up in the museum during the first war and fired at Russian troops from the building's upper stories. But the majority of the damage to the building was caused by Russian bombing and shelling.

Both sides fighting in the breakaway region have blamed the other for looting art from Chechen museums. Last November, two paintings from the Grozny Museum turned up for sale at the Sotheby's auction house in London. The pieces were later returned to Russian authorities, but other paintings have been sold on the black market.

Officials from the Moscow-backed Chechen administration say they would like to rebuild the Grozny Museum in the near future. "This is a sign that peace is returning to Chechnya, and we hope that we will be able to see the museum rebuilt again," said Akhmed Kadyrov, head of the Chechen administration who attended the opening of the exhibit.

Peace in Chechnya does not seem likely in the near future. Russia withdrew its troops from Chechnya in 1996, but reinvaded the breakaway region in 1999 after a series of apartment bombings killed hundreds of people in Russia. Russian officials blamed Chechen rebels for the bombings.

Russian officials have often declared the war in Chechnya over. But Russian soldiers, Chechen fighters, and civilians die almost daily as the fighting continues. Human rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch, have accused the Russian military of gross human rights violations in the Chechen campaign, something Moscow strongly denies.

Ms. Koshkina from the Grabar Art Restoration Center says it may seem strange to be talking about art when people are still dying and suffering. While the damage done to the art at the Grozny Museum is extensive, it is nothing compared to the suffering of people in Chechnya. But Ms. Koshkina says visitors to the exhibit can understand the destruction of Chechnya through the destruction of the art. "When you see all these paintings, especially as numerous as they are, you think that mankind has taken a wrong direction," she said.

The exhibit is scheduled to run for two months. Meanwhile, Ms. Koshkina and her team of art restorers will continue working on the remaining 27 paintings which will take several more years to restore.