British experts have come up with a new version of the disappearance of the famous Amber Room from the Yekaterininsky Palace in Pushkin, the former residence of Russian tsars near St. Petersburg. Nazis stole the room in 1941.
On June 3, a new book on the room is being released in Britain. Its authors, Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, argue that in 1945 the Nazis failed to transport the room to Saxony as planned and that Soviet troops burned the treasure without knowing it after they took Koenigsberg.
The authors say that they used documents found in Russia's central state literature and arts archive, such as a journal of Anatoly Kuchumov, the former caretaker of the summer palace who supervised the search for the Amber Room.
According to the book, in 1946 Mr. Kuchumov was sent to Koenigsberg to investigate what happened to the room.
A bar manager at the Koenigsberg castle - the amber was stored in the Knight Gallery and was waiting to be taken to Germany - told the Russian that the treasure had been safe until Soviet troops took the castle.
However, some time later a fire broke out in the castle and the priceless amber panels were destroyed.
The authors maintain that Mr. Kuchumov did not report this to Moscow for fear of being punished for the destruction of the treasure he was responsible for and because he thought it would be better if a hope to find it remained.
Leonid Arinshtein, an advisor to the Russian Culture Fund's president, refuted the findings of the British researchers.
"I was in the Koenigsberg castle in the afternoon on April 8, 1945, even before the fire broke out. I believe I was one of the last to see the Amber Room or, more precisely, what was left of it," Mr. Arinshtein wrote in a letter to RIA Novosti.
"It is true that the castle started burning on the second or third day after the city had been captured," he continued. "It is also true that the room's panels, packed in boxes, were kept in the basement of the castle- a German caretaker who was there on April 8 told me this. I have always been sure that the Amber Room was destroyed during the fire in the Koenigsberg castle, but the Red Army has nothing to do with it."
According to him, Koenigsberg had been set on fire before the city was captured, because British and American bombed the outskirts of the city.
Along with regular bombs, the Allies used fire bombs, which Soviet troops did not have. These bombs caused the large fires on the outskirts of the city, Mr. Arinshtein argued.
It was impossible to distinguish them, as entire streets and quarters were burning, he noted. German troops had already left the center of the city and were mainly defending the port and almost all of the population had been evacuated.
"The tired Soviet troops that had suffered significant losses during the three-month advance in East Prussia were not able to fight the fire," he said.
According to the expert, on the second or third day the fire from the outskirts spread to the center, and the Koenigsberg castle caught on fire.
"So if we are going to talk about who is responsible for the fires during the hostilities, it is more correct to admit that the reason was the British and American bombings of Koenigsberg with fire bombs," he said.
Mikhail Shvydkoi, the head of the Russian Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema, described the statement that the Amber Room had been destroyed by the Red Army as "absurd."
"It is a very dangerous statement aimed at revising history," he said. "It aims at discrediting the role of Russia and the Red Army in the victory in the Second World War. Thus you can come to a conclusion that Nazi Germany fell victim to the Allies, that is, Russia, the United States and Great Britain."
German craftsmen created the Amber Room in the early 18th century. In 1717, Prussian King Friedrich I gave it to Peter I for protection from Sweden. For over 50 years the room has been considered the most valuable missing piece of art. Experts estimate its amber interior at $300 million, which is 12 times more than the same weight of gold.
In 1979, Russian restorers, guided by photographs, began making a replica of the room. In 1999 rich sponsors, Gazprom and its German partner Ruhrgas, donated a large sum of money to restore the masterpiece.
On May 31, 2003, during St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary celebrations, Vladimir Putin and Gerhard Schroeder unveiled the restored Amber Room.