The event was so extraordinary that Pravda anatomised it minute by minute, with an internet broadcast: “May 31 2003, 15.30 hours: Vladimir Putin and Gerhard Schröder arrive at the Catherine Palace outside St Petersburg and ascend the Monighetti Staircase.” Following them up the stairs were the first ladies, Doris Schröder and Lyudmila Putina. Behind them trooped 40 more world leaders, including Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi, Jacques Chirac, Kofi Annan and Romano Prodi.
The VIPs had assembled to attend a Russian-EU summit. However, their first appointment was a historic unveiling ceremony at the Catherine Palace, built by Peter the Great for his fiancée 15 miles south of St Petersburg in a place that became known as the Tsar’s Village, now renamed Pushkin.
The entourage was shepherded past cabinets displaying war-damaged cherubs, crystal teardrops and fragments of Sèvres, past black-and-white photographs of Soviet restorers gluing and binding everything back together again, and into the portrait hall – where a small sign indicated that the original furniture had been stolen by the Nazis.
Finally, for the climax of the day, the party was led across a floor inlaid with rare hardwoods into a curtained chamber illuminated by candlelight. Pravda reported: “15.35 hours. The curtains are swept back. Russia’s fabled Amber Room dazzles again. Twenty years of work by Russian craftsmen has returned what was called the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ to its place in the Catherine Palace.”
The original Amber Room – an entire chamber panelled and ornamented in amber – was presented to Peter the Great of Russia in 1717 by King Frederick William of Prussia as a gift to seal the friendship between their two states. At the time, amber was 12 times more valuable than gold. Fifty years later, the new empress, Catherine the Great, restored and augmented the Amber Room, which was by then installed in the Catherine Palace, where she entertained her legion of lovers.
There it remained, a marvel to visitors, until it was dismantled, the panels hacked from the walls, by German troops in the winter of 1941. The room was secretly transported west, to Königsberg on the Baltic Sea, then the Nazi capital of East Prussia. Since the war, it has been missing.
Hordes of treasure hunters from Europe, the US and Russia have spawned dozens of conflicting theories about the whereabouts of the Amber Room. A group of salvage experts have scoured the catacombs that run beneath the German city of Weimar, in the belief that the room was smuggled there by Nazi agents at the end of the war. Divers regularly explore the rusting wreck of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German liner torpedoed in January 1945 as it was evacuating 10,582 wounded Germans from Königsberg – and, so the theory goes, the Amber Room, too. Meanwhile Russian, American and British mining experts surmise that since the Nazis used mines and caves to conceal art works from Königsberg, the Amber Room, too, might be secreted in a subterranean tunnel somewhere.
Work began on the replica Amber Room in 1999, when a German company stepped in with a gift of £2m. At the grand opening in 2003, it being a Russian event, there was plenty of reading material available, including a 300-page catalogue listing artworks stolen or lost during the second world war and still being sought by the palace. The cover was illustrated with a large, hand-tinted photograph of the original Amber Room, said to be the most valuable missing artwork in the world, worth – in absentia – £140m. Professor Ivan Sautov, palace director, wrote in an introduction that, while delighted with the new Amber Room, he and his staff “are convinced that the [original] has not perished and will be found as a result of properly organised searches”.
We began investigating the fate of the lost Amber Room in December 2001. We flew first to St Petersburg on a grey and weary day, and made slow progress with our inquiries through official channels. Friends at the university suggested another, more lateral strategy. They helped us piece together a network of subordinate characters, Red Army veterans, old comrades, serving and retired museum curators. Gradually, we unearthed the stories of those directly involved with the Amber Room. A paper trail led us into the parallel worlds of the KGB and the East German Stasi, and finally, three years later – a few months after the grand opening at the Catherine Palace – we unearthed an audacious Russian lie: a cold war con trick that on May 31 2003, fooled the leaders of the world.
On June 22 1941, urgent orders arrived from Moscow: everything of value in the city of Leningrad (as St Petersburg was then called) was to be evacuated. The Nazis had invaded at 4am that morning without a declaration of war. Grinding across the Soviet Union was the greatest invasion force in history: four million German soldiers; 207 Wehrmacht divisions; 3,300 tanks. Collections from Leningrad’s palaces and museums had to be saved. But there were 2.5m exhibits in the Hermitage and hundreds of thousands more displayed in the Alexander, Catherine and Pavlovsk palaces located in and around the small satellite town of Pushkin.
Anatoly Kuchumov, a young curator working in Pushkin, scribbled in his diary: “22 June. Flown through the halls this evening, packing what we can.” But there was too much to do: “24 June. Not stopped for 24 hours. Comrades having nosebleeds from leaning over the packing crates. Run out of boxes and paper … Had to use the tsarinas’ dress trunks and their clothes to wrap up our treasures.”
By September 1, the Germans had surrounded Leningrad, isolating two million citizens who would not see the outside world for almost 900 days. Seventeen train carriages packed with palace treasures were heading for Siberia, but inside the Catherine Palace a handful of curators continued to work. Couriers carried their reports back to the city authorities. The last arrived at 5am on September 17. “The park and north of the town are battling hard. Everyone is moving to the west. We have taken even the typewriters. We will leave nothing for them.”
Except the Amber Room. Kuchumov had faced an appalling dilemma: “A trial moving of one of the panels has resulted in disaster. The amber facing has come off the mount and shattered completely. We cannot move the Amber Room. We dare not move it. What are we to do?” His solution was to hide it where it was, constructing another, plainer room on top of it. The amber walls were covered with gauze and wadding from the Pushkin sewing factory, then papered over. He hoped that if the Nazis managed to force their way into the Catherine Palace, they would be deceived.
The plan failed spectacularly. Within hours of capturing the Catherine Palace on September 17 1941, German troops unmasked the Amber Room, dismantled it and packed it into crates that were transported to Königsberg Castle in East Prussia – from where they vanished.
We had decided to begin our search with Anatoly Kuchumov, the last guardian of the Amber Room. Letters, faxes and phone calls went unanswered. At the state retirement homes outside St Petersburg no one knew him. Then we found an obituary in a back copy of Pravda. Kuchumov had died in 1993. We contacted the museum authorities in Pushkin, where Kuchumov had worked. A week later we were summoned to meet Professor Ivan Petrovich Sautov, director of the Catherine Palace.
Pushkin was muffled by snow as our mashrutki (shared minibus-taxi) pulled up. We jumped down into the soft, white powder and walked across the park. There were so many stories about Sautov in this city that it was just conceivable he started some of them himself. Could it really be true that on his 50th birthday he lined the long route to the palace with pageboys bearing cups of vodka? Ushered into his office, we stood to attention before photographs of Sautov taken with presidents Putin and Clinton and Queen Elizabeth II.
Sautov’s suit was glossy. His fountain pen, with which he tap-tap-tapped on his desk, had an amber clasp. A smiling woman in her 60s sat at the other end of the office, her face framed by a “Zsa Zsa” of platinum hair. She was Larissa Bardovskaya, the head curator. “What information do you require?” she asked. Are there any of Kuchumov’s papers in the palace archive? She leaned towards us, shaking her head: “What does the Catherine Palace get?” Sautov yawned and then he boomed, “We are not a charitable enterprise. Why should you make money from what we know? Precious knowledge. Expensive knowledge.”
“Everyone signs a contract,” Bardovskaya chipped in. “Steven Spielberg signed and paid half a million to hire the mirrored ballroom. Elton John threw a party and he signed for £140,000. We know better than anyone the cost of trying to find the Amber Room,” she said, pulling a buff envelope out of her handbag. She showed us material, including pages of black-bordered memorial cards with RIP scrawled over each one, sent to the palace anonymously, following a German exhibition about the missing Amber Room. On one sheet were grainy photographs of crime scenes, houses ripped apart by explosions, car crashes, a body lying under fallen birch leaves. Had people been murdered searching for the Amber Room, we asked. “It’s confidential material,” she snapped. “Not for publication.”
Two days later we received a letter: “Thank you so much for your interest. All the materials we have are the result of our own work that has taken years and years to pick up; crumbs of information. I find it beyond our physical powers to answer your questions or meet the scheme suggested by you. With respect …” We’d been snubbed. The Catherine Palace had no intention of sharing its material, if it had any.
Next, with the help of one of the elderly museum curators who befriended us, we obtained a reader’s ticket for the Central State Archive of Literature and Art. We were led up a broad staircase worn down by legions of clerks. ” Dobroye utro,” demurred a small elderly woman with sculpted hair. “Alexandra Vasilevna Istomina, archive director. I don’t think I can help you.” We had come forearmed. We slipped a letter of reference across her desk. Alexandra Vasilevna’s painted forefinger trailed every word. It was written by the head of a St Petersburg publishing house, whose company subsidised the printing of her catalogues, and he strongly recommended that we be allowed entry. The director looked up at us, smiling. She produced three cups of black tea and a box. Out of it tumbled chocolates wrapped in glittering foil embossed with Soviet symbols. “We still have to get used to letting people in – to this openness, as you would call it,” she said, adding the rider, “All files will have to have to be paid for.” Well, at least there were files. “Begin tomorrow,” she ruled cheerily. In Russia, it was never today.
A box file wrapped in ribbon sat upon our allotted desk. Our names were the first written on the readers’ record that had been stuck on it so recently that the spittle that moistened the glue was still damp. This was the first of a dozen boxes containing the private papers of Anatoly Kuchumov. We gingerly opened the lid to find a bundle of pages torn from a school exercise book, covered in rows of tidy Cyrillic letters. It was a diary extract from March 1944, Kuchumov’s thoughts upon arriving back at the Catherine Palace after the Nazis had occupied it for three years. Kuchumov wrote: “The sculptures are without heads. The parquet and fireplaces are smashed and broken. If only the walls could talk.” As he climbed over “heaps of burnt beams, bricks and iron”, Kuchumov must have held his breath. Where was the treasure that he had painstakingly concealed in June 1941? “Every step just kills me,” Kuchumov wrote. “These beasts made stables of the palace-museum, of our pride.”
The Amber Room had gone.
The next document was another diary extract written in purple ink, datelined Königsberg, March 1946. It confirmed that less than a year after the war ended, Kuchumov had been sent by SovNarKom, the Council of People’s Commissars, to investigate the fate of the treasure that he had failed to evacuate. The mission was top secret and Kuchumov was ordered to tell his colleagues he was taking a holiday.
On March 19 1946, having arrived in Königsberg, Kuchumov wrote, “The only buildings that were standing were single cottages at the end of streets, villas in the middle of the rubble that were now occupied by the Central Commandant and the Narkomats [representatives of the People’s Commissariat]. There were about 25,000 German refugees that we could see living in cellars and ruined buildings in the suburbs.” This was all that was left of a city of 2.2m. Hitler’s most vital eastern stronghold had been encircled and crushed by the Red Army in some of the fiercest fighting of the spring of 1945.
Kuchumov headed straight for Königsberg Castle, where a year earlier a Red Army colonel had found a Nazi ledger confirming that the Amber Room had arrived there in December 1941. Was it still there? Only one corner of the castle, with its medieval Knights’ Hall, had survived relatively unscathed. Kuchumov crawled in on his hands and knees over blocks of stone and wooden beams to find that, even here, there had been an inferno. He also discovered traces of the Amber Room.
Kuchumov reported to Moscow: “Covered in three layers of ash, totally burned and discoloured, we have found three stone mosaic pictures … that once decorated the Amber Room.” These small scenes depicted in coloured stones had been commissioned by Catherine the Great to hang on the amber panels. But there should have been four of them. The fact that one was missing gave Kuchumov hope that it had been stored elsewhere. He already knew from German newspaper reports that the panels of the Amber Room had been dismantled and packed into crates. Maybe these crates and the missing mosaic had been kept together and had escaped the fire.
Kuchumov wrote excitedly to Moscow that a cache of partially burned German letters recovered from the rubble revealed a Nazi plan to evacuate the Amber Room after the Allies began bombing the region in August 1944. One letter, to the Ministry of Culture in Berlin, dated January 12 1945, stated that the Amber Room was being packed and that a castle in western Saxony, far from the eastern front, had been earmarked. Did the Nazi operation go ahead? Kuchumov consulted maps and scribbled, “By mid-January the railway connections between Königsberg and the rest of Germany had been cut off. The last train left on January 22. Moving the Amber Room to Germany by air or sea could have been achieved until mid-March, but this was incredibly dangerous, taking into account the proximity of the front and the domination of our air forces.” He concluded, “If the Nazis had used the roads, they could have taken the clumsy and heavy crates only as far as some location within East Prussia.”
Four years later, in December 1949, Kuchumov obtained permission to excavate in Kaliningrad, as Königsberg had been renamed when the territory became part of the Soviet Union after the war. For the next decade he led teams that dug in secret, deflecting any inquiries by claiming they were prospecting for oil. But there was a myriad of potential hiding places: Teutonic ruins, bunkers and disused mines. Kuchumov could not survey them all. Apparently frustrated by his lack of results, he recommended a new approach – going public.
On July 6 1958, Kaliningradskaya Pravda, a densely written Soviet broadsheet, published a sensational story: “The Search Continues for the Missing Amber Room.” It revealed that covert Soviet search teams were hunting for the Amber Room, pursuing clues that the Nazis had concealed it in a secret bunker. All readers were urged: “Write in, write to us with all your information.” Within days several other newspapers carried the story. The Soviet public, who had been told nothing of the fate of the Amber Room, was enthralled. When a report appeared in an East German magazine Freie Welt, Amber Room fever spread throughout the eastern bloc. Thousands responded: Red Army veterans who had besieged Königsberg; Germans who had witnessed the fall of the city; civilians who claimed to have seen heavily-guarded trains or SS convoys passing through their villages in the dead of night. Lines of inquiry that led to Germany were to be investigated by the Stasi. Those that led to Russia would be analysed by Kuchumov, who now had a new team.
© Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, 2004
This is an edited extract from The Amber Room: The Untold Story Of The Greatest Hoax Of The Twentieth Century, by Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, to be published on June 3 by Atlantic Books at £16.99. To order a copy for £14.99 (plus UK p&p), call 0870 836 0875.