Hands Off The Degas

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MOSCOW: If you want to see Edgar Degas's "Place de la Concorde," the impressionist masterpiece that was believed lost until recently, you’d better book a flight to Russia. Striking a blow for nationalism, the Duma today decided that "Place de la Concorde" and hundreds of similar art treasures seized by Soviet troops from wartime Germany are Russia's for good. While Germany can make petitions for the restoration of individual art works, the Russian parliament must approve each petition, and isn’t likely to do so. Don't look for help from President Boris Yeltsin either. The lower house of parliament overrode his veto of the bill Friday with little difficulty. Their reasoning is simple: the "trophy art" is justifiable compensation for the mind-boggling destruction of churches, industries, housing and human lives wreaked by Nazi German troops on the civilian Soviet population. The international art community disagrees. Many of the works displayed recently in exhibits at St. Petersburg's Hermitage and Moscow's Puskhin Museum actually came from private collections in Germany that were looted by Soviet soldiers. Pushkin Museum director Irina Antonova terms the Red Army's random art-snatching "an act of heroism." It is a presentation of history that sits well with most Russians, who speak of the war as if it happened yesterday. It sits less well with Yeltsin, who must explain to Germany why Russia, some 50 years after the Western Allies returned their art loot, still refuses to part with a single Cézanne.