The Roerichs’ Heritage: Inventions and Faxes
On the basis of a dubious document sent by fax from India right after S. N. Roerich’s death, Russian bureaucrats attempted to liquidate his museum and to expropriate the collection by resolution 1121.
On August 4th 2008, the Moscow City Arbitration Court of Trial dismissed the action of the Federal Agency for Federal Property Management in regards to the ICR (International Centre of the Roerichs) and its dispossession - due to the expiry of the statute of limitations - of the restored “Lopukhin estate” on the Volkhonka street. The circumstances of the struggle for the Roerich family’s legacy in Russia are complicated and intricate. But the central role in it is played by the many attempts made over the course of the years to implement in full the RF Resolution No. 1121, dated 4.11.93 and titled “On the Establishment of the State Museum by the name of Nicholas Roerich” (by tacit agreement providing for an actual liquidation of the ICR Public Museum by the name of Nicholas Roerich).
This resolution allows the settlement of the main issue concerning the State Museum of Oriental Art and the people supporting it – the desire to replace the ICR public museum, the subject itself (to establish which Svetoslav Roerich transferred to Russia his parents’ legacy) with a state museum. This includes more than two hundred paintings (worth hundreds of millions of Euros) kept today in the Oriental Museum. “Novaya Gazeta” decided to go back to this matter “upon the discovery of new facts,” speaking in procedural language.
Numerous governmental and legal documents, business papers as well as articles signed by Svetoslav Roerich will make the basis for this investigation. The circumstances that preceded those documents clarify the interviews collected by us from direct participants of the events that occurred long ago, and that reflect their personal positions. Among the interviewees is Ludmila Shaposhnikova, who was the main organizer for the establishment of the Soviet Roerich Foundation (subsequently transformed into the International Centre of the Roerichs). Among these was also Rostislav Rybakov, once one of the Foundation leaders. Presently, he is the head of the Oriental Studies Institute. The information communicated to us during a telephone interview with the Deputy Chief Commissioner of the Bangalore police (India) has proved to be very useful. The Deputy Chief Commissioner, Abdul Rekhman Infant is conducting a long investigation in Bangalore regarding the case of misappropriation of the Roerich family’s possessions and forgery of documents. The editors also thank Alexander Kadakin for his story. Mr. Kadakin is now the Russian Federation Ambassador in Sweden and worked in India until 2004, first as an Envoy, and then (from 1999) as the Ambassador.
It may be useful to begin with a brief summary of the current state of affairs.
The initial position
In the autumn of 1989, in accordance with Svetoslav Roerich’s will, the Public Centre-Museum by name of Nicholas Roerich was created in Moscow as the main base of the Soviet Roerich Foundation. In 1990, to establish the Foundation, Roerich transferred to it the main part of his parents’ heritage. This included a great portion of his father’s and his own paintings, as well as the most complete archive of the Roerichs, and other rarities – this part of the legacy now constitutes the basis of the International Centre of the Roerichs on Volkhonka street. When doing so, Svetoslav demanded to add to this part of the collection the paintings owned and imported by him to the USSR at an earlier stage and that were now kept in temporary custody at the State Museum of Oriental Art.
Subsequently, in 1992, Svetoslav Roerich founded in India the International Roerich Memorial Trust (IRMT) on the grounds of his parents’ estate in the Kullu valley. Some time before, he had created an art gallery in the state of Karnataka, which his wife, cinema actress Devika Rani, acquired in the early 50s when she married Roerich. Svetoslav believed that he had more or less decided the fate of the Russian part of the legacy in 1990 and that the RIMT, the purpose of which was to protect the heritage in India, was to be managed by representatives of both India and Russia alike. Today, however, the Indian state representatives are trying to reduce the role of the Russian representatives in the management of the RIMT. The main value of the RIMT in Bangalore is as a big plot of land and as a unique plantation, where plants that produce essential oils are cultivated in order to sell the end product to perfume companies, mainly, in France. As for Kullu, it is a resort-like property at the foothills of the Himalayas, where Indian officers especially like to rest from the heat.
Svetoslav Roerich died in January 1993 and Devika Rani Roerich passed away soon after her husband, in March 1994. She had no rights to the part of legacy that Roerich brought to Russia.However, after their death, the Indian police and courts discovered a large number of dubious documents that disposed of the property not only in India, but also in Moscow. Allegedly, the former famous actress signed them in 1993, during the last year of her life, when her health was critically compromised, at the age of a hundred (ca., since her precise age is not officially known).
Investigation on these events (tragic for Svetoslav’s spouse) is extremely important. Otherwise, it is not possible to understand the circumstances under which RF Government Resolution No. 1121 was born. If we look observe the lot awaiting all aspects of the Roerichs’ expansive legacy as a whole, the first thought that occurs is that some mystical fate is pursuing them: scandals of quite criminal character do not subside neither in Russia, nor in India. But, most probably, it is no more than mere human greed and corruption, which occur in great quantities in both countries.
Public or governmental? Museum establishment
As Rybakov explains in 1989, when the Soviet Roerich Foundation was being registered, he himself underestimated the issue that would later become the main argument in the conflict around the legacy – whether the Roerich Centre including its museum should be placed under the patronage of the state or have a public status. However, in Roerich’s famous letter that, according to Rybakov, was brought by him to Russia (and published in the summer of 1989 in the “Sovetskaya Cultura” newspaper), Svetoslav expressed his will unambiguously: the foundation and the museum must be created on public grounds unambiguously. He especially stressed that the Centre-Museum “in no event must be subordinated to either the Ministry of Culture, or the State Museum of Oriental Art” (this is understandable taking into account the whole family’s former experience of “communication with the state”).
For Ludmila Shaposhnikova, Roerich’s request that she should take over the leadership of the museum was unexpected, to that point that, she had been an Indologist and taught at the Institute of Asian and African Studies. She did not deal directly with the Roerichs or with museum business. The meeting with Svetoslav Roerich in the early 60s of the last century, when he introduced her to the world of the Roerichs’ heritage, changed the rest of her life. It took some time for Ludmila Shaposhnikova to agree to Roerich’s offer of a position as head of the future museum.
Once she had agreed, Shaposhnikova very well understood that Svetoslav’s main concern was the creation of a museum: according to his conception, the Foundation was to provide anything necessary to the museum that may be required for its work. Ludmila Shaposhnikova adds to the picture of those events an important detail: running in parallel to the Roerich Centre concept suggested by Roerich, there existed and was promoted another one, according to which the legacy was to go to the State Museum of Oriental Art.
And in fact, the editors have a letter confirming these words. Hardly three months had passed since the date of Svetoslav Roerich’s death, when the General Director of the State Museum of Oriental Art, V. A. Nabatchikov, sent a very open letter to First Deputy Prime Minister O. I. Lobov; No. 272-I/3. In this letter, the director, as a Doctor in Philosophy, does not even attempt to produce legal arguments to support his request: “In 1989, the former Soviet administration (the Gorbachevs. – Ed.) made an obvious mistake in its assignment of the Roerichs’ … legacy – establishment of the Soviet Roerich Foundation … concentration of all the materials and the Roerichs’ creations in the same hands – the State Museum of Oriental Art – appears the only right decision… The foregoing allows me to ask you, Oleg Ivanovich, to help transfer the Roerichs’ legacy and the Lopukhins’ estate into the hands of the State Museum of Oriental Art for permanent and uncompensated use. This will be a truly priceless gift of the Russian Government for the museum’s 75th anniversary upcoming celebrations this year.”
That is, long before the conflict reached its peak, the position of the party that wished to take hold of everything Roerich had bequeathed to a completely different entity “for permanent and uncompensated use” became very clear. To this day, the group of people represented by the Oriental Museum is acting in strict accordance to the plan formulated by Nabatchikov and is, thus, waiting for the “truly priceless gift”.
Thus, once the Centre-Museum by name of Nicholas Roerich had been registered as a public organization, in accordance to Svetoslav’s original idea, he came to Moscow together with Kadakin at the beginning of November, 1989. In the meantime, the problem with the premises had not yet been solved. Even though this was Roerich’s second main condition for the transfer of his parents’ legacy to Russia.
On the 4th of November, when the Roerichs were to meet Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev in the Kremlin, the representative of the Moscow City Executive Committee, Mr. Saikin, called Shaposhnikova to inform her that he had sent a car with his assistant. Shaposhnikova was to review a number of buildings as potential sites for the museum. Ludmila Shaposhnikova insisted on being accompanied by Roerich as well and subsequently they proceeded to review the buildings together.
Roerich’s choice fell on the Lopukhin estate, even though, at that time, the site was in poor conditions. The resolution of the Council of Ministers of the USSR “On the Soviet Roerich Foundations and the Centre-Museum by name of Nicholas Roerich” was issued on November 4th, 1989, on the day of the meeting of the Roerichs with the Gorbachevs. Similarly, the decision of the Moscow Council to provide the Lopukhin estate to the Foundation for redevelopment, following the the resolution, was made in a record time for its expedience – on November 28th of the same year. However, after the events of 1991, it became obvious that the USSR did not exist any more, and that the Soviet Roerich Foundations had become extremely vulnerable. The issue concerning the insertion of relevant amendments within the founding texts of the institution arose. On Svetoslav Roerich’s suggestion, the Soviet Foundations of the Roerichs was reorganized into the International Centre of the Roerichs. Subsequently, those opposing the public museum, who suggested that the legacy and the estate be all passed on to “the same hands,” conducted a long campaign with the aim of disowning the ICR of its role as the SFR successor. This occurred even though Svetoslav Roerich himself had confirmed, as found in his letter to Boris Yeltsin, that the ICR and the former Soviet Roerich Foundations were one and the same for him.
This is important, just as the fact that this very institution, irrespective of its name, had been established for the one and only purpose of the creation of a public museum. The latter, subsequently, was to provide a home for the legacy of the Roerich family and a base for scientific research under the ownership of Svetoslav. If the owner of the legacy himself (and actual SFR founder) confirms before the Notary that the ICR’s full rights for the legacy had been transferred to the SFR, then, who, apart from Svetoslav Roerich himself, is entitled to change his will? Furthermore, as is known, he never did changed it.
While Svetoslav was still alive, the ICR fought off all attacks directed to the person who, pursuant to the testament, maintained the right to reclaim any object from the collection, or even the whole of it, during his life time. But when the last of the Roerichs died in January of 1993, the conflict entered its decisive phase, with the ICR and Shaposhnikova leading one side, and the State Museum of Oriental Art, representing all opponents, on the other.
In the meantime, in India…
Now we will have to place to one side the chronology of the Moscow conflict. Its parties’ arguments cannot be correctly interpreted without understanding what was happening in the Indian state of Karnataka during Devika Rani’s last year. Since the Roerichs did not have children, or any relatives, or direct heirs, Devika, at the age of one hundred, only had Svetoslav’s personal secretary, Mary Poonacha, by her side. She was in charge of all servants and controlled all actiona of the formerly famous Indian actress. Only through her passed all the documents that Devika signed or, when she could not sign any more, certified with her fingerprint.
The evaluation of Mary Poonacha’s character is the only element that is not disputed by any of the witnesses to the events. Everybody claims that she was, on the one hand, a crook, and, on the other, had a great influence on Devika, whom she “wound round her little finger.” Let us give an example of a telling episode that vividly shows the methods to which the swindler, who is now under investigation, resorted to get what she wanted from D. Rani.
Shaposhnikova and Kadakin came to Bangalore in January 1993 to take Svetoslav’s ashes, since he had left instructions to be buried in Saint-Petersburg, next to his grandfather’s grave. Once Kadakin had arrived from Deli and had met Mary Poonacha in the center of the city, he asked her to tell Devika (she no longer left the hotel very often) that she should dress warmly: “It’s enough for us to have one dead body on the plane”. This attempt to a witty remark, albeit not very suitable for a diplomat, was passed on by Mary to Devika in the following way: “He said that he would bring your dead body to Moscow.”
The widow’s subsequent letters (or Mary’s letters, if one has to consider that was she the one who prepared them) to the President of Russia, made it seem that it had been Sahposhnikova who had threatened Devika, standing over her teacher’s body - something really impossible to believe. At the very last moment, Devika, finding herself under the influence of Poonacha’s words and her pressure, changed her husband’s will. The plane, which was once more warming up its engines in Vnukovo, was stopped and Russia lost the grave of the last of the Roerichs.
Rostislav Rybakov related one more visit to Devika’s, most probably in July of 1993. According to him, Devika personally gave him a letter of which we shall talk below. Rybakov confirms that Mary controlled all of Devika’s actions.
Since we have no other evidence, analysis of the available documents takes priority in our further investigation. Let us turn to selected excerpts from the Indian press (though some facts were published in Russia as well, in 1994, with a reference to personal correspondents in India).
The Times of India, June 2, 1994:
«…In the Indian Bank lockbox held by Mary Poonacha’s husband – Anil Poonacha, the police discovered golden necklaces, a casket with golden rings bejeweled with emeralds and rubies, golden ingots, and a time deposit receipt for the amount of 1,650,000 Rupees… The police decided to arrest Anil and Mary’s friend Nandakumar… People say that they brought the police to the house of Chandrashekhar, former owner of a wine shop, and Prabhakhar, the owner of a public telephone outlet, where the police confiscated gold, jewelry, weapons, and bank deposit documents. The jewelry included a golden belt and an amulet bejeweled with diamonds, a pearl necklace, a brooch, as well as pendants of rubies and pearls that belonged to the deceased Devika Rani Roerich”.
The Indian Express, June 7, 1994:
«…The police has at its disposal six “testaments”, the last of which was allegedly executed by Devika Rani in favor of Mary Poonacha on the 4th of March of this year. “We have reasons to doubt these documents’ authenticity,” police Commissioner Kodandaramayah said. He says that the two testaments executed by the Roerich couple in 1990 and 1992 look more convincing… The second and last will clearly states that all property must belong to the trust established that will conduct charity activities in the sphere of art… We found out that, in the last days of her life, her state became such that she could be forced to sign empty sheets of paper. One of her testaments bears her signature and he thumb print, Kodandaramayah said”.
The Indian Express, June 19, 1997:
”The central division of the criminal police of the city of Bangalore initiated a case against the former personal secretary of the former cinema queen Devika Rani, Mary Joyce Poonacha, as well as against her husband Anil Poonacha, and her principal Nandakumar. The 200-page document contains accusations of theft, forgery, and illegal appropriation, falsification of documents… Mary Poonacha managed the accounts of the Roerichs who, due to disease and old age, were not capable of doing so on their own. The accusation claims that the secretary, together with her husband and with Nandakumar, the hotel manager, caused unlawful damage to the elderly spouses and, by way of the falsification of their signatures, withdrew an amount of more than 20 million rupees from their bank accounts… Mary and Anil Poonahca also falsified Devika Rani’s signatures and transferred to their names two passenger cars, including a Maruti 1000, and falsified the testament dated June 1st, 1993. On January 25 of 1993, when Roerich was fighting his last battle with death and was in an unconscious state in the Manipal Hospital, both the Poonachas concealed his real state of health to commit a forgery against the spouses and to enter the ownership of their 456-acre Tataguni Estate. They sent telegrams on Roerich’s behalf to the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, to the former Prime Minister, P. V. Narasimha Rao, and to Sonia Gandhi, in order to make sure that there were no governmental decrees or resolutions on the issue of taking possession of the estate”.
India Today, April 1, 2001:
”…Presently eight cases are pending in courts. The main one of these is the one in which Mary Poonacha challenged the Government decree of 1996 (on taking control over the Roerichs’ estate in Bangalore. – The author.) and in which she claims to be the Roerichs’ lawful heiress… A former judge of the Supreme Court of the state says that the only way to complete these proceedings is to appoint a special public prosecutor who would be able to find solutions without protractions.”
The Telegraph (India), October 6, 2004:
”In 2002, the Supreme Court of the state allowed the state government, as an interim measure, to obtain ownership of the estate, the paintings, the jewelry, as well as the objects of material culture of the Roerich couple, claiming to be pursuant to the Deed of Transfer Roerich and Devika Rani Roerich’s estate… Courts of trial are holding litigation proceedings against Mary, her husband Anil and their friend B. M. Nandakumar… They were arrested in 1994, but let out on bail by a city court decision. The seized property includes the original bowl of Buddha for collecting alms (Buddhist relic), several golden necklaces, golden coins, ancient statues of gods, golden bracelets, antique golden spoons, pearl necklaces, ear-rings of precious stones, animal skins, artistic canvases, and two revolvers.”
In fact, the investigation against Mary Poonacha was commenced as long ago as February of 1993, following the application of a certain R. Devdas. The editors have this text: Devdas asserts that Mary was his sister-in-law, it was he who arranged her position at the Roerichs’. Initially, she was hired as a typist. Then, he writes, he resented Poonacha’s behavior after the death of Doctor Roerich, whom he loved. For this reason, he decided to apply to the police with a detailed description of all her unseemly deeds.
As Rybakov and Kadakin (who knew them both) remember, Mr. Devdas was quite a shady trader in the state of Bangalore. One can guess what were the grounds for the quarrel with his sister-in-law, whom he had “planted” in the Roerichs’ house: she was tempted by the precious stones and gold, and his purpose from the beginning was to get a hold of the estate with the unique grove of essential oil plants, which was resold to him by Mary (in accordance with the facts in the criminal case) through straw parties while the Roerichs were still alive, therefore abusing the Roerichs’ trust.
Even if the police had acted more promptly on the basis of Devdas’s application, those mysterious documents, which were executed on behalf of Devika Rani Roerich and were tied, inter alia, to the fate of the legacy transferred to Russia and the public museum, would hardly have appeared. And it bares very little worth to attribute any indisputable significance to them today either. But another thing is interesting: all this, even if without details, was known to anyone interested for the better or for the worse in the Roerichs’ legacy case since the very summer of 1993.
The secret of the Indian movie star’s signature
Let us go back to the interrupted Moscow story about the legacy of the Roerichs. The picture here is not as gloomy as in Bangalore, even if probably equally cynical. Beyond any doubt, we can mention certain forgeries that were committed by certain individuals when the conflict was raised at governmental level. Since we are aware of the gravity of our accusations, we shall continue to compare the documents and the interviews that, under different circumstances, could already be used as witness statements in a criminal case in Russia.
Two weeks after Svetoslav Roerich’s death, the collection, imported into the USSR in 1978 and kept in the State Museum of Oriental Art against Roerich’s will, was transferred by the museum’s director from the category of “temporary custody” and instead “placed on permanent record.” That is say that the collection was redefined as property of the museum. There were absolutely no legal grounds for such a move.
Similarly, on November 4th, 1993, without even inviting the ICR to discuss the matter, the Government passed the resolution ‘On Establishment of “the State Museum by name of Nicholas Roerich” ’ No. 1121. According to the resolution signed by Chernomyrdin, the new museum was being created as an affiliate of the State Museum of Oriental Art. On the other hand, the Oriental Museum was to receive (without any reference to the paintings it already held) the collection brought from India by Shaposhnikova in 1990 and owned by the ICR and the building on the Volkhonka street, chosen by Svetoslav under the guarantee of the USSR administration. In this manner, the public museum created personally by Roerich was being by all accounts liquidated, while, in its place, a state museum would have to appear.
Resolution No.1121 starts with the words: “Taking into consideration… Mrs. D. R. Roerich’s wish”… But Devika was not her husband’s heiress in so far as what concerned the property transferred to the Soviet Roerich Foundation in 1990 and subsequently bequeathed to the International Centre of the Roerichs. What was Devika Rani’s wish, which directly contradicted the will of her recently deceased husband, referring to? What exactly was shown to Chernomyrdin who was hardly informed about the conditions of Devika Rani Roerich in Bangalore at that time (see the previous chapter)?
Influential people in the Government supported the Oriental Museum. Nevertheless, the ICR was also supported by important people: on November 11th, 1993, the academic Likhachev forwarded a letter supporting the ICR to President Yeltsin. Yeltsin gave an order and shortly after a detailed note from Igor Shabrasulov, who was then in charge of the matters of culture in the government structure, lay on the table of Vladimir Shumeiko, the Government Chairman First Deputy. In particular, Shabrasulov wrote the following: “In accordance with the available information, S. N. Roerich’s widow, D. R. Roerich, who is the only heiress of S. N. Roerich’s property, believes that the conditions regarding the transference of the Roerichs’ legal property have not been complied with and he therefore intends to demand that the legacy be returned to India. This information is confirmed by Mary Joyce’s letter (Poonacha. – Ed.) addressed to R. B. Rybakov… In D. R. Roerich’s telegram copy (highlighted. – Ed.) addressed to President B. N. Yeltsin dated October 3rd, 1993, delivered by R. B. Rybakov to the Government’s Cultural Department, S. N. Roerich’s widow applied for a request to transfer all of S. N. Roerich’s legacy to the Roerichs’ State Museum which is being created”.
It is possible that this is not Shabdrasulov’s fault, but there are a lot of half-words and confusion. There is a telegraph copy, dated not October but July of 1993. In addition, only Poonacha’s signature (and not Roerich’s) is present on the fax that transmitted it. Devika’s signature can instead be found under a more detailed letter with somewhat different contents. This letter is dated in October, even though Rybakov now asserts that Devika signed this letter in his presence in July.
The original letter has never been seen by anybody, except Rybakov. He was the first to inform our newspaper that he had personally brought the letter to Russia. Taking this fact into account, one cannot help but ask the following questions:
Given the circumstances, why did Shabdrasulov’s letter to the Government (the one that formed the basis for fatal resolution No. 1121) dated 4.11.93 mention as the founding element for the resolution the copy (in fact – the fax) of the telegraph in the name of Yeltsin?
If there was an original letter, how come Rybakov did not remember it for 15 years?
Why the fax with idle threats “to take the legacy back to India” addressed to the President was not notarized? This kind of paper could have been sent from a neighboring room.
Why did the fax in the name of the President appear from Rybakov’s fax-machine? Why was it not sent directly to the secretariat of Yeltsin, or at least to the Government?
The most “childish and the most important question: why a one hundred year old widow on her death-bed should dispute the legacy of her husband’s parents bequeathed to Russia? What could her personal interest in this matter be?
The signature, which exists only in copy, gives rise to doubts in respect to its quality (this could be attributed to her age), but also due to the fact that Devika did not sign anything any more, but used her fingerprint instead. The one hundred year old actress of Indian movies would hardly be aware of the difference between state and public museums in Russia.
Rybakov states that, in July of 1993, Roerich’s widow was still capable of putting her signature and even of understanding what was written in the letter. However, the police Commissioner Ifant, who came to Moscow more than 10 years ago to take testimony in Poonacha’s case claimed that, at that time, D. Rani “was totally legally incapable,” that is, she did not understand anything any more. The Commissioner confirmed it once again to our editors during a telephone conversation. In July of 1993, Devika Rani could not possibly have talked personally with Rybakov (who had come to visit her) and have handed him the letter.
Moreover, she was not the collection’s heiress; the threats to return it to India were just bluff in this case. She would hardly get involved in such absurd blackmail schemes. In addition, all this appeared to be especially strange for those who were well informed of the situation at the “Ashoka” hotel in Bangalore. These people were present at the preparation of Government Resolution No. 1121, despite the fact that it was kept from the ICR as a secret.
The Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies also claimed that he had a video recording of the act of Devika signing the letter to Yeltsin, but it mysteriously disappeared from his safety box in the Institute. However, this record copy of the signature is purportedly preserved at the Institute of Cosmonautics where it was made when the record was being viewed. Nevertheless, Rybakov believes this record publication to be of an earlier period.
But how can an early production of a single proof confirm in court that the letter that was decisive for the fate of the legacy of millions of Euros is not falsified? If such a proof does even exist.
A video record, in which Devika is signing a certain text (which is not legible on the screen) at an unknown time, has already appeared on the Internet. We are already aware of this ourselves. However, the editors also have a copy of the letter itself, which made the basis for the resolution No. 1121. In addition, the document that D. Rani is signing on the tape on the Internet and the letter to which Shabdrasulov is referring are printed on completely different forms.
Those are simply different documents. And under the video placed on the website as the proof that Rybakov’s letter is authentic, there is a subtitle reading “Provided by the State Museum of Oriental Art”. Surely, no further explanation is needed.
Mystical events in the High Arbitration Court
Right after resolution No. 1121 was passed, the ICR applied to the General Prosecutor Alexei Kazannik. However, we all can call to mind what happened to him after the Duma’s decision to grant amnesty to the participants of the events of October 1993, and how the Prosecutor’s office never performed any investigation that would certainly have led to some hardly shocking results for anyone at the time. Nevertheless, under the democratic formation of that time, the High Arbitration Court of the RF took note of the complaint against those paragraphs of the Government Resolution by which it effectively liquidated the ICR public museum by name of Nicholas Roerich.
The court instances gradually saw that the resolution No. 1121 has no other basis except the telegraph copy without Devika’s signature, but with a strange postscript by Mary Poonacha addressed to Rybakov: “By the way, I have sent the coffee samples to S. Fyodorov (“Fydorov” in the message) from the Eye Hospital, get to this matter and specify, please, how soon we can get orders (for the export company).” What common plans between Rybakov and Mary Poonacha are implied? If the fax was “manufactured” by Poonacha, was she really going to start a hopeless battle in court at the distance of 6000 km, or was she just asked by someone from Russia “to help” seize the Russian part of the legacy?
In case of the latter, what is the role of Rybakov himself as the initiator of this story with the “letter”? Poonacha, even theoretically, could not get anything from Russia. She had absolutely no motivation to get involved in any trouble with the Russian part of the legacy, to send here letters without any prospect. And as we saw from the Indian newspapers and legal documents, she was a very practical lady. Maybe, it is in exchange for a series of business transactions, such as orders for coffee, that the swindler sent this fake telegraph?
Let us add here the following telling episode. Shaposhnikova parted with one of the SFR leaders, Zhitnev, at the end of 1990 at the Foundation Board of Directors meeting, in which he was accused of embezzlement of funds transferred by the world chess champion Anatoly Karpov to the foundation for the restoration of the estate (though Shaposhnikova managed to get back the funds).
The minutes of the Foundation bureau meetings contain specific figures, the accusations were not disputed on the merit. And Rybakov comments on this episode in a much milder way: “it is true, Zhitnev did some business and made the money work, but who did not do the same at that time?” Moreover, we have on hands documented correspondence on purported “common business” between Rybakov, who made arrangements for the seizure of a very precious collection from the International Centre of the Roerichs, and the woman who had falsified six of Devika Rani’s testaments. The woman who devastated the Roerich family’s property in India.
By that time, the Russian press had already published some information on the criminal case against Poonacha. The court could not admit newspapers as evidence. Nevertheless, in consideration of the fact that the “legacy case” was comprised of various facets, and by taking into account the will clearly laid out by Svetoslav Roerich, the High Arbitration Court tribunals consistently recognized the Government’s Resolution invalid in those paragraphs where it demanded to transfer the Lopukhin estate’s main building (which hosted the public museum by name of Nicholas Roerich) to the Roerich State Museum. As can be seen in the RF High Arbitration Court judgment dated September 30th, 1994.
On November 14th, 1995, a strange protest was filed through the High Arbitration Court Presidium, which was, strange as it may seem, sustained. The Ministry of State Property’s claim to transfer the Lopukhins’ estate main building to establish a state museum (in favor of the Oriental Museum) was now considered under the same number as the number of the claim of the International Centre of the Roerichs to hold as invalid the Government Resolution No. 1121 previously reviewed by the court. By reducing, quite artificially the dispute to a pure property issue concerning technical matters,the court this time ruled that the ICR should vacate the estate.
In order to do so, the High Arbitration Court Presidium, which was famous at that time for its informal approach to many matters, had to specify that the ICR references to Roerich’s will were “beyond the scope of its action” (its own action, to which the ICR had filed its own appeal). Having selected a series of violations at the time of re-registration (in fact, it was clear that the ICR and the former Soviet Roerich Foundation were the same organization), the Presidium delivered judgment that the estate (except the annex) be transferred to the Oriental Museum. At the same time, probably out of respect for the memory of the artist and philosopher Nicholas Roerich, the High Arbitration Court did take into consideration that the “restoration and reconstruction of the Lopukhin estate will be performed at the expense of the state”…
What came next appears to be interesting. Once the Ministry of Culture had won (with a certain strain and, probably, by using “administrative resources”) in 1995 the dispute “seemingly related to the estate” in the High Arbitration Court, it immediately seemed to have forgotten about it. “The State Museum by name of Nicholas Roerich as the Affiliate of the Museum of Oriental Art” was never created, except on paper. Maybe, the organizers of this decision were satisfied with such a situation.
For this allowed them to use resolution No. 1121 as an instrument of pressure on the ICR: if it continues to demand that the state should return the paintings held illegally, it will always be possible to enforce the resolution. According to the version which the ICR shares today, the new action for “dispossession” on behalf of the Federal Agency for the RF Federal Property Management, filed in 2007, became an asymmetric answer to the ICR claims to return the paintings from the Oriental Museum to the restored Lopukhin estate.
It is interesting that between 1993 and 1995, when the main struggle for the legacy between the International Centre of the Roerichs and the Oriental Museum arose, all was done for the sake of the paintings, the archive, and other rarities from the Roerichs’ legacy that had not only artistic value. The ruins stood in place of the Lopukhin estate at that time were perceived as an “encumbrance” by the group behind the Oriental Museum, since it would have been difficult to get a hold of the collection without the estate. It was not an empty ground, not even a building “scheduled for demolishment:” restoration of the ancient estate required a lot of effort and money, and the prices for real estate were far from being as high as they are now.
In July of 2007,fourteen years after the resolution No. 1121 was passed, and twelve years after the judgment in favor of the Museum of Oriental Art, when the former State Property Ministry was again ready for an action, the conditions of the Lopukhin estate on Volkhonka street were already different. One of the paragraphs of resolution No. 1121 was fulfilled: the estate was restored and looked like a new toy. But despite what was “taken into consideration” by the High Arbitration Court, it was not the state that did it, but the International Centre of the Roerichs thanks to the money earned and donated to it. This very aspect is already a “newly discovered fact” that allows us to return to the strange decision of the High Arbitration Court, dated November 14th, 1995.
Wishing not to enter all these complicated circumstances, the Moscow City Arbitration Court dismissed the action of the Federal Agency for the Property Management on the grounds of the expiry statute of limitations. What is the reason of their second thoughts at such a late date? At present, this seems reasonable. Why lift the dust and ashes of the past on they have settled? Let us see, however, what will come next – the dust and ashes have been lifted anyway.
The Commissioner’s story
“Novaya Gazeta” got in touch with the Deputy Chief Commissioner of the Bangalore police, Abdul Rekhman Infant, who was in Moscow in 1995 and interrogated witnesses for the case of the Roerich family’s property misappropriation in India. He confirmed that the accusation against Svetoslav Roerich’s secretary, Mary Poonacha, is still valid and added: “Now the case is pending in court. A few hearings have taken place; testimonies of witnesses have been heard. Mary Poonacha was arrested, then let out on bail by the court, but she has no right to leave the city. As to our investigation, in my opinion, we have managed to establish that Mary Poonacha has stolen Roerich’s paintings and, using Roerich’s and his wife’s falsified signatures, has got hold most of their bank deposits. She misappropriated a lot of precious stones and jewelry. The value of the stolen property amounts to millions of rupees. We have managed to return a major part of the stolen property, but about 20-25 percent were illegally exported from India. It is not my business to guess what the verdict will be, but we have produced very much convincing evidence before the court. Alas, judicial proceedings in India take a very long time…”.
In all likelihood, the process’ lengthiness is due not only to the peculiarities of the judicial system in India weighed down by the degree of its corruption, but also to the fact that the Governments of the states where the Roerichs’ estates are located are not interested in a swift verdict on Mary Poonacha. The completion of the case may require that they review certain decisions made by the RIMT in Kullu, in the absence of representatives of the Russian party. So far, the proceedings against Poonacha do not interfere with harvesting precious oil in the grove in Bangalore and relaxation in the valley of Kullu, the “Indian Switzerland”, where the Roerich Centre established by the Russian representative has the most comfortable hotel.
P.S. In comparison with the means of “Novaya Gazeta”, the means of the Russian state are great. The Government and the Ministry of Culture, in particular, can easily verify the facts that formed the basis for our investigation. For there is no statute of limitations when the fate of your own decisions is already set. To find out the exact circumstances under which RF Government Resolution No. 1121 was born (and if the newspaper is right, it would not do any harm to correct one’s own mistakes) is quite a feasible task for the officers. They would learn the many interesting things that our readers have learnt today.