Clues lead to Russia

Valuable books have gone missing from university libraries in Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. Some of the stolen ones were found in a prestigious Russian antiquarian bookshop. Is this merely a criminal matter?

In early November, the Warsaw Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation into the theft of eight volumes from the University of Warsaw Library (Biblioteka Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego – BUW). But the scandal broke earlier, on 16 October 2023. It was discovered that the borrowed old prints hadn’t been returned in full. As a result, the director of BUW Anna Wołodko was dismissed on October 30, as was her deputy for special collections, Katarzyna Ślaska, the following day.

In mid-October, staff at the BUW’s Collection Access Unit discovered the theft of eight volumes of 19th-century Russian publications. A reader had left blank covers and dummy books at their workstation in place of the original publications from the library’s collection. A careful analysis of the nineteenth-century publications recently ordered for the BUW Reading Room revealed that the dummy books returned to the storeroom in place of the original objects were greater in number; to date, we have determined that this applies to approximately 80 volumes – wrote Wołodko on X (previously Twitter). It’s about luxury, often limited editions of Russian literary masterpieces, those of: Mikhail Lermontov, Nikolai Gogol, Alexander Pushkin…

Such cimelia are objects of desire for collectors, who are often not interested in the origin of the work. Their value is difficult to estimate, it may even exceed €500,000. An audit of the library is underway.

In response to the uproar caused by the dismissal of the two ladies as well as in response to the communiqué published on X, the rector of the University of Warsaw, Alojzy Nowak, issued his own statement, saying that the thieving practices had lasted for over a dozen months and were international in character. In December 2022, the Criminal Investigation Department of the National Police Headquarters informed BUW that, at the request of the Latvian Police, it was conducting activities in the area of “seizure with a view to misappropriation” of the collections of the Latvian National Library. The Polish National Police Headquarters indicated the owner of the library card holder and asked BUW to provide all data concerning this person.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE It turned out that the reader identified by the police visited the library twice on the day of registration – on November 8, 2022. They borrowed the books that a year later were deemed stolen.

Baltic liaison Rector Nowak has informed about negligence at BUW: it wasn’t checked out in December 2022 if there hadn’t been a theft of books by a person indicated by the Police Headquarters, no contact was established with the Latvian party. All this despite the fact, that the news of the theft attracted a lot of international attention – it was made public as early as April 2022. According to the Latvian police, the stolen items were: Alexander Pushkin’s poem “Poltava” from 1829 and a collection of poems “Vozropshchem” by Aleksei Kruchonykh from 1913. A likeness of the suspect was also published.

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A confusingly similar theft occurred at the University Library in Tartu. In April 2022, two men visited it. They claimed to be interested in the issue of censorship in 19th-century Russia. And in August, library staff discovered that books, including works by Pushkin and Gogol, had been tampered with – replaced with forgeries. In September 2023, one of the “readers”, a Georgian, appeared in court. He was accused of theft. Additionally, in May 2023, it was reported that valuable books had been stolen in Vilnius. There they were also “replaced with fakes”.

It appears that an international, organized crime group, probably acting on commission, is behind the thefts in Poland and the Baltic countries. So the question is: on whose orders: a ruthless bandit, an eccentric collector obsessed with the vision of “saving Russian cultural treasures”, or perhaps the Russian services?

Either way, the clues lead to Russia – to a prestigious salon with branches in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The antiquarian bookshop sells ancient Russian books, its offer includes paintings, graphics and objects of decorative and applied art. In December, for example, it put up for sale one of the first editions of Alexander Pushkin’s novel written when the artist lived in Boldino near Moscow. The book was most likely sold on December 22, 2022 for three million roubles. Much indicates that it was an item from BUW. How is it possible that the employees of the antique shop – experts of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, with extensive experience in the attribution of antiques – did not suspect anything and, what’s more, did not become suspicious over time?

The dark side of Russian collecting

The fact is that Russia’s vibrant collectors’ market has a dark side. There are allegations that this is where the oligarchs hide their assets. Commissioned thefts committed in the Russian Federation also occur.

Here are the most famous examples:

The global network of investigative journalists Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project revealed in October 2023 that oligarch Roman Abramovich, three weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, reorganized the Cypriot trust managing his art collection worth up to a billion dollars. The reorganisation consisted of giving the ex-wife a majority stake in the fund that controls the collection, which includes works such as Francis Bacon’s “Triptych” and Kazimir Malevich’s “Suprematist Composition”. The move was probably intended to protect the collection from sanctions.
Volumes from the National Library in St Petersburg also once fell victim to thieves. Photo: ANATOLY MALTSEV/EPA/PAP
The Dutch police are investigating the circumstances of the death of Alexander Levin, a controversial art dealer from Saint Petersburg. The man disappeared in 2013. In 1998, he was sentenced by a Dutch court to ten months in prison for smuggling drawings by the 17th-century French artist Jacques Callot and a rare maritime atlas by the Dutch cartographer from the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, Johannes van Keulen, from the collection of the Russian State Library in Moscow, founded in 1862 on the basis of the collections of Nikolai Rumyantsev, containing books, manuscripts, maps and drawings. Currently, the Moscow library is the second largest library in the world, storing approximately 47 million volumes. And among them was also a stolen atlas, found on the possession of a convicted trader.

– After this verdict, the Russian police searched Levin’s apartment in Saint Petersburg and found about 600 stolen icons. Works of art were confiscated, some of them transferred to the hermitages and the St. Petersburg Theological Academy. Levin was sentenced by a Russian court to another two years in prison.

– His time behind bars did not prevent him from amassing considerable wealth - the art dealer is said to have owned over ten properties in St Petersburg alone... In 2013, he went to the Canary Islands. He had a transfer in Amsterdam, where... he disappeared. In 2022, it turned out that he was most likely murdered. His plastic-wrapped torso floated near the docks in Amsterdam; however, for many years the identity of the body remained a mystery. It was only solved thanks to the missing persons database developed by Interpol.

In June 2014, a Moscow military court convicted three Federal Security Service agents of stealing a 15th century Gutenberg Bible. It was being kept in a safe at the Lomonosov Moscow State University. The two-volume book, printed on Italian paper, was a war booty taken from Leipzig. Agents tried to sell it for more than $1.15 million. They were caught during a controlled attempt to sell the world’s oldest printed book to a Moscow collector.

In 1994, Russia was shocked by the news of the theft of the century: some 90 manuscripts were stolen from the Russian National Library in St Petersburg, which had the status of a “temple of culture”. Their value was then estimated at over $100 million. The oldest of them came from the 6th century. These were Latin texts, writings on Chinese philosophy, and Indian manuscripts on palm leaves not available to the public. The FSB suspected that it was a commissioned theft and that employees of the oldest public library in Russia, founded by Catherine II in 1795, were involved.

Espionage, sabotage and subversion
The problem is that the books stolen in Poland and the Baltic countries are found in a prestigious antiquarian bookshop cooperating with the Russian Ministry of Culture. Moreover, at a particular time, during the war against Ukraine. Since our country firmly supported Kiev, relations between Warsaw and Moscow have been tense. In the spring of this year, former prime minister and president of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev announced that he “saw no point” in maintaining diplomatic relations with Poland, and Pavel Astakhov, a former Russian ombudsman for children’s rights, incited the murder of the Polish ambassador in Moscow in a propaganda television programme. The foreign ministry in Warsaw handed a note of protest to the Russian ambassador to Poland, Sergei Andreev.

On November 22, the National Prosecutor’s Office filed an indictment against 16 Russian spies. The group was to be used by the Russians to conduct intelligence activities, including monitoring railway lines, spreading propaganda against NATO, Poland and government policies, and spreading acts of sabotage.

The Baltic countries also have tense relations with Russia. There are many examples. The Latvian security services have charged several people associated with the Baltic Antifascists group with working to weaken the security of Latvia. The idea is to collect sensitive, confidential information about events in Latvia and pass it on to Moscow, justifying the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and calling for people to join the Russian offensive in Ukraine.

Estonian intelligence services also reported increased activity by Russian security services. In late 2022, Hanno Pevkur, Estonia’s defence minister, warned of sabotage and cyber attacks from Russia.

Lithuania is constantly attacked by pro-Russian hackers.

With all this in mind, can we rule out the hypothesis that university libraries have fallen victim to a Russian hybrid attack? And even if this is not the case, it may be worth considering in advance what the next potential targets of robbers may be. In order to anticipate possible attacks.

– Małgorzata Borkowska

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki
Main photo: Library of the University of Warsaw. Photo PAP/Rafał Guz
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