Icon depicting Our Lady of Kazan, 1894

Courtesy State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

‘A Knife in Our Back’

The full tragedy of the life of Hermitage Museum curator Larisa Zavadskaya may never be known, but more details are emerging about the final years of this middle-aged specialist in enamels at one of the world’s great museums. By all appearances a devoted custodian of art for 30 years, she had been the quiet keeper of thousands of artifacts in the museum’s Russian culture department. Anonymous in life—she lived in a communal flat with her family in Saint Petersburg and earned $500 a month—she became notorious after her death last year for her involvement in the ultimate inside job: the theft of 221 treasures from the collection in her care. What brought her to hawk stolen third-tier treasures in Saint Petersburg’s dubious world of antiquarians and pawnshops is still unclear.

Sometime in the last decade, Zavadskaya, a heavyset diabetic, stuffed an icon or a chalice into her purse and smuggled it out of the museum—to pay for insulin, her husband later said. This was the beginning of an odyssey that would involve her son, a Hermitage courier; and her husband, Nikolai Zavadsky, a university lecturer; and at least one mysterious figure said to be the Svengali of the enterprise. Her death ended it. Her heart stopped and she collapsed at her desk when an inventory of her collection began.


Read full article ‘A Knife in Our Back’ in ARTnews.