Stolen in Bulgaria Museum Artefact Was Found with Russian Oligarch

The uncontrolled, illegal export from the country of valuable museum artifacts is not bothering the people in power

By searching the private museum of Vasil Bozhkov, the sector for combatting trafficking of cultural property at the State Agency for National Security (DANS) focused the public attention on itself. However, this is not its first noisy operation. On August 11 last year, there was an operation against an organized group of smugglers of antiques and historical weapons. The Agency then reported briefly that the investigation was related to the existence of an “illegal mechanism for draining funds of Bulgarian State museums and subsequent trafficking of artefacts outside the country and their sale to foreign collectors in Russia, Western Europe and the US. The name of Hristo Ninov, a gunsmith from Pleven, stands out in this scheme. But how did the work of the secret services on the case begin? As in a fairy tale.

Bulgarian museums – victims of cultural valuables’ mafia

An occasional visitor of the museum in the town of Byala noticed that the window, whose sign read that the especially rare rifle Baranov was on display, contained another rifle. The man logged a signal with the police that a valuable military relic from the Liberation War has been replaced with another, far more common gun – a Berdana. DANS needed several months to establish through the number of the barrel that the rifle Baranov, which was listed in the registry of the Bulgarian museum, is actually located in St. Petersburg, in the hands of a prominent Russian financier. After DANS’ discovery, the Ministry of Culture started an inventory of the museum in Byala. Inspectors found not only the absence of that rifle, but established that the museum has replaced dozens of artefacts with replicas and hundreds of cultural valuables were missing. The audit revealed a literally sinister-scale plundering of the museum’s collection. The Final Protocol has been signed by a nine-member committee.
Since the museum is municipal property, Mayor Nikola Kelerdzhiev hired external experts to resolve the crisis situation. These were the former supervisor of the inspector of the Ministry of Culture Bobby Pavlov and expert Alexander Traykov. Their analysis found that in the early twentieth century, all headquarters, where the imperial Russian body resided during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878, have been turned into museums at the request of Tsarist Russia. Emperor Nicolay II, himself, granted from his arsenal the inventory with which they were to be equipped. The House Museum in Byala was named “Alexander III”. The museum had a partly maritime profile, because of the forcing of the Danube. The uniforms of the Imperial Navy crew were exhibited there. The sailors were armed precisely with rifles under the system of Nikolai Mikhailovich Baranov. The history of this rifle itself is more than dramatic. After the defeat of Russia in the Crimean War of 1853-1856, the Imperial Army gave up the front-cartridge firearms and decided to modernize. Since the purchase of entirely new firearms proved too costly, they were modernized by the addition of closed mechanisms. For the needs of the Russian fleet 10,000 guns were altered under Baranov’s idea to cut off the rear parts of the barrels of the front-cartridge rifles and to fix a breech-bolt swinging onwards and upwards. There was a firing pin inside the bolt clutched with a spring. The mallet was to have a new form curved to the left. Four channels were cut through the barrel. The gun-stock, the sight device and the trigger mechanism remained unchanged (from However, the alterations cost over seven rubles, which limited the mass deployment of the prototype. Only the elite parts, guarding the Russian Emperor in 1878, were armed with Baranov rifles. To date, the limited batches of this weapon make it an exceptional rarity. It trades at between 30,000 and 70,000 euro, depending on the condition.

The House Museum in Byala had been operating uneventfully since the early 20th century until present day. Millions of tourists have visited it, including many Russian groups. And at one point, it suddenly emerged that the Baranov rifle, listed as a Bulgarian museum exhibit, is part of the collection of the famous St. Petersburg oligarch and financial tycoon Alexei Gnedovskiy. The serial number of the firearm (282) categorically proves that the Byala item and the one from Gnedovskiy’s collection are one and same rifle. The gun comes with a bayonet. For now, the authorities remain silent as to how the gun has ended in Russia. However, there is no lack of hypotheses.

DANS protects the criminal trafficking

The Baranov rifle was seized from the St. Petersburg collector by the FSB at the request of the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture. Then the oligarch’s lawyers requested from the museum in Byala to prove its ownership of this item. Lawyer Shamil Haziev asked Museum Director Tanya Yordanova to present a document with evidence of exactly since when the gun is owned by the cultural institution. Information on how the historical firearm has ended in possession of the museum was also requested. After the museum presented the documents of ownership, Mayor Kolyo Kelerdzhiev, advised by the experts, declared claims to the Russian oligarch Alexei Gnedovskiy for the time during which he has illegally possessed the firearm.
In reality, for ten 10 years, the rifle was part of his collection. Experts referred to the UNESCO Convention from 1970. The Mayor’s team proposed that the holder of the object – Gnedovskiy – gives 50,000 euro to the museum as a sign of good will and compensation. They offered to him to be presented as a sponsor of the museum on the occasion of March 3 (Bulgaria’s National Holiday – editor’s note) in order to smooth the embarrassing situation. All could have ended safely here, but the story turned out different. After an intense correspondence with the Russian Collector, Mayor Kelerdzhiev and his experts were summoned at DANS on a signal that they were financially blackmailing a Russian oligarch. Pavlov and Traykov visited DANS’ headquarter several times at the request of a Ruse prosecutor. It turns out that Alexei Gnedovskiy had filed the complaint that he was subject to blackmail. The former employee of DANS and of the Main Directorate for Combatting Organized Crime (GDBOP) Georgi Georgiev has already been working on the case in Ruse. During the questioning at DANS, the experts were asked questions such as “whose idea it was to propose a financial compensation”. The answer the agent received has been – “of the ancient Romans, because they have created the foundations of property law”. Naturally, Mayor Kelerdzhiev was outraged over being investigated for extortion of the Russian financial oligarch. Perhaps because of institutional pressures and threats he did not undertake further action against Gnedovskiy.

Who is financial tycoon Gnedovskiy?

Alexei Dmitrievich Gnedovskiy comes from the ancient capital of Russia – St. Petersburg. He is said to have been close to Anatoly Sobchak, when the former Mayor of St. Petersburg was still alive. Sobchak was the first mentor of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev at the KGB. He is the father of Ksenia Sobchak, who today, ironically, is among the fiercest political opponents of Putin. In the early 1990s, Gnedovskiy’s career began with the realization of commercial initiatives in the former Yugoslavia (whatever that means). Over the years, he rose to Director General of “Veles Capital” The main activity of the company is trading financial instruments. According to some circles in Moscow, “Veles Capital” serves the financial needs of Vladimir Putin, i.e. launders money. Once the problem with the Baranov rifle emerged, Gnedovskiy’s behavior changed dramatically. Until then he was a “quiet Russian patriot”, who published a collection of guns and firearms in luxury catalogs and organized exhibitions. However, after the FSB seized the Baranov rifle, the financial magnate from St. Petersburg began to donate to museums, mostly objects whose origin he could not prove – for example Georgian family daggers. They were supposedly looted by the Russian military during “The August” War of 2008. In Europe, the market of historical weapons and cultural values is saturated, but Russia is hungry for them, say sources familiar with the issue. In terms of historical weapons, this trend is particularly pronounced because in the 70 years of Communism in Russia, each weapon, even the most common rifle, has been systematically seized to prevent any threat to the people’s government,.

Our cultural values “flow” to European mobsters and Russian oligarchs

The case of Alexei Gnedovskiy and the Baranov rifle is not a precedent from the confines of the town of Byala or Bulgaria. It is pan-European. The lack of a common European Union (EU) policy on the conservation of cultural heritage allows violations. It was believed until recently and reasonably that criminally acquired artifacts from Bulgaria are exported towards Austria and Germany, where the trading of cultural valuables regime is more liberal. From 2000 onwards, the trends changed. Russia is becoming the preferred market for this “product”. Russian collectors currently buy or acquire through other channels artefacts that are related to Russian history, the Napoleon wars and World War II. The understanding that Moscow is the “Third Rome” and the “New Jerusalem” provoked many collectors to also collect Orthodox art. The EU’s financial sanctions against Russia even make people, who don’t have a passion for art, invest in cultural valuables that are convertible goods in Europe, Asia and the United States.


Currently, the historic Baranov rifle is stolen and illegally sold in Russia, and is located at the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation. It is stored there, awaiting diplomatic action by the Bulgarian State to be returned to where it belongs – in the collection of the Museum in the town of Byala. The main issue, however, faced by our society, is the inaction of the institutions such as DANS and the prosecution regarding the truly sinister dimensions of treasure hunting and cultural and historical mafia in the country. This organization has deeply engulfed a number of State institutions and benefits for years from the protection of key players from the Bulgarian backstage rule. In the years after the fall of the Communist regime, they became owners of huge expensive collections of artefacts for billions of euro, illegally acquired from Bulgarian lands. The trade of precious historical and archaeological artifacts is one of the most profitable sectors of the gray economy in our country, which enriches both the Russian and the local oligarchy, along with secret private collections in the West. The crime is lasting for decades, and it is commensurate with the plundering of national resources and has deprived the Bulgarian people and State in colossal proportions. A future independent and comprehensive investigation to inventory the exported and stolen national treasures by the so-called Treasure Hunters Mafia in Bulgaria at all levels is inevitable.


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