US returns stolen historical documents to Russia

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The United States returned 21 historical documents, some hundreds of years old, on Friday that were stolen from Russia's national archives more than a decade ago and tracked down to US auction houses.

The documents, including decrees signed by the last Russian czar Nicholas II and 18th-century empress Catherine the Great, were handed over to Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director John Morton in a ceremony at the Russian embassy in Washington.

"Today, quite simply, we right a wrong," Morton said, calling the return of the documents "a happy ending to a sad tale of the theft and the sale of Russia's cultural heritage."

Kislyak hailed the joint US-Russian operation that helped recover papers that "reflect important moments in the development of the Russian empire and the Soviet Union."

"Thanks to this wonderful cooperation between Russia and the United States, a big piece of Russian history is going back home," he added.

The documents are just a fraction of around 1,000 historical papers that went missing from Russia's national archives between 1994 and 2002.

ICE agents became involved in the operation to recover the documents earlier this year when the Russian government agency in charge of protecting cultural property contacted the US agency after tracking down several dozen of the historical papers to five US auction houses.

Another 10 documents have been located in the United States and will be returned to the Russians, said Morton.

Most of the documents were given up willingly by their owners when they learned they had been stolen, and the US auction houses were not party to the theft of the documents, Morton said.

Among the yellowing papers were a decree signed in 1792 by Russian empress Catherine the Great, written in old Russian Cyrillic script, two papers signed by czar Nicholas II in 1902 and 1914, and a typewritten personnel list signed by World War II Soviet military commander Georgi Zhukov.

© 2010 AFP

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