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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Going for Gold: Russia Seeks Treasures Back

To hear Mark Masarsky tell it, Russia bled gold during its civil war. In 1918, he says, the Bolsheviks secretly sent westward 93.5 tons of seized imperial gold in order to fund a planned German attack on pro-tsarist British forces. Another secret stream of the tsar's gold reserves flowed east to Japan, where White Army officers in Irkutsk sent seven tons in 1920 for safekeeping. Masarsky, who is director of the gold-mining company Rossiiskoye Zoloto and thinks of the tsarist treasure as a national resource, believes it is time to get the gold back. On Tuesday, Sergei Filatov, President Boris Yeltsin's chief of staff, seconded that motion. Filatov told Itar-Tass he would recommend creating a state commission to recover the gold from Japan and France, which seized the German gold after World War I. He also promised to pass on to the government documents on the treasure that Masarsky and historian Vladlen Sirotkin have spent years collecting. Western governments have rejected past Russian claims to the wealth of the tsars because the Bolshevik government reneged on the monarchs' debts after the revolution in 1917. But according to Itar-Tass, Filatov believes that because Russia shouldered all the legal obligations of both the Soviet Union and the monarchy in an agreement in 1992, "nothing stands in the way" of claiming the gold. According to Masarsky, Russia has claims on $2 billion worth of gold located abroad in France, Japan, the former Czechoslovakia, Sweden and other countries, and 37 properties worth $10 billion including a Russian Orthodox monastery in southern Italy, mansions in Paris and land in Israel. "We are shocked that our government is neglecting national property for the sake of good relations with Mr. Mitterrand and others," said Masarsky. But he said Filatov's decision showed the gold had finally captured the government's imagination. Masarsky tells the stories of the two caches like something out of Dr. Zhivago. He says that according to a secret agreement signed by Vladimir Lenin and Kaiser Wilhelm II on Aug. 27, 1918, German forces were to attack British interventionists at the Arctic ports of Murmansk and Archangelsk. But they failed to carry out the operation before they lost the war in November. Several wagons of gold bars and coins sent to Germany to fund the attack fell into French hands, Masarsky said. He claims to have documents showing that the Bank of France deposited the gold for "storage" in 1922. Meanwhile, he says, Pavel Petrov, a White Army general, in 1920 gave 100 boxes of gold from Siberia to a top Japanese officer stationed in Manchuria. Petrov's son Sergei, who lives in California, has provided a stamped receipt of the transfer, Masarsky said. Japanese and French embassy spokespeople said they could neither comment on the legitimacy of the claims nor confirm the existence of the gold. A Japanese spokesman, who asked not to be identified, said the Russian government had asked about the Siberian gold through "diplomatic channels" more than a year ago, but that the issue "died away" when Japanese efforts to track the gold proved fruitless. He said he could not confirm Masarsky's claim that in a court case dragging on from 1934 to 1941, the Japanese government acknowledged receipt of the gold but said it belonged to the tsar's regime and refused to return it to the communists. Filatov's expression of interest in the lost gold comes as Russian officials grow increasingly resistant to German pressure for restitution of German art seized by Soviet troops after World War II. "I think it is linked," said Tamara Zamyatina, who covers restitution for the state-owned Itar-Tass. "If other countries are asking Russia to return things it owes them, then why can't Russia ask for the return of its own debts?" Neither Filatov nor his spokesperson could be reached for comment. Throughout the chaotic first half of the century, toppling Eastern European governments stashed money abroad like frightened homeowners. One celebrated cache belonged to the Estonian government, which deposited gold in Britain during German and Soviet occupation. The gold's return in 1992 helped Estonia establish a gold-backed currency, the most stable in the former Soviet Union, said Estonian embassy spokeswoman Ehtel Halliste. Masarsky said the return was a precedent weighing in Russia's favor. "Estonia got its gold," he said. Russia, too, has been accused of holding onto treasures given it for safekeeping. After the Germans occupied parts of Romania in 1916, Queen Marie of Romania sent a train loaded with national treasures, artworks and gold reserves to Moscow. Most of those treasures, including "very substantial amounts of gold" have never been retrieved, said Dumitry Ceausu, an official in the Romanian foreign minitry's legal department. He said Russian officials have replied to requests only by saying that they are "studying the matter.