Amber Room mystery solved?

By Wayne Wirtanen

Those of us who have visited the restored Catherine Palace outside of St. Petersburg in Russia have seen the photos of the destruction caused during the World War II “900-day” (actually “only” 872-day) siege of the city then called Leningrad.

German troops occupied the Catherine Palace area during the siege and there was bitter fighting there as the Russians finally prevailed. The palace was in ruins by early 1944. Russians, of course, claimed that the Germans were responsible for the looting and burning of this national treasure — while a German version claims that the Russians themselves were responsible.

At the war’s end, one of the palace’s most valuable and unique treasures that turned up missing was the fabled Amber Room.

Common in Russia, amber is the “fossilized” or solidified, golden-colored transparent tree sap. (Some 10 years ago, I was able to pick up many rice-grain-sized bits of amber along the gravelly shore of the Amur River in the Russian Far East.) Jewelry has historically been made of this attractive substance, and samples that include trapped insects have always been especially valuable.

Expensive gift

In 1716 King Frederick William I of Prussia made a gift to Peter the Great of many amber panels covered with delicate engravings. Amber was then reported to be 12 times more valuable than gold. (Frederick William was nearly bankrupted by this extravagant gesture.)

In 1755 the famous Russian architect Rastrelli used the amber panels, in combination with gilded wood carvings, mirrors and mosaic pictures made of semiprecious agate and jasper, to decorate the walls of what became known as the Amber Room.

Elusive trail

Among the many palace treasures that had disappeared during the war, none has generated more interest over the subsequent 60 years than the mystery of the fate of the Amber Room.

Governments investigated; groups and individuals made careers of following the elusive trail; books were written, and when I punched up “Amber Room” today on Google there were 962,000 entries.

The Germans reportedly moved the Amber Room walls westward. Beyond this established fact, there have been numerous theories that the Amber Room was secreted in an old silver mine south of Berlin or dropped into a Lithuanian lake, but most trails ended up in the area of Knigsberg (Königsberg, now Kaliningrad), the Nazi capital of East Prussia.

Newest book

All of this mystery is detailed in a lengthy review of a new book in the May 29/May 30, 2004, issue of Financial Times. Amber Room researchers Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, in their new (June 2004) book “The Amber Room,” apply an entirely new and fascinating twist in their version of the fate of the Amber Room.

I’ve followed the continuing saga of the Amber Room mystery after visiting the Catherine Palace twice over the years. The title and subtitle of the review couldn’t help but catch my eye.

The review is entitled “A colorful lie preserved for posterity. The Soviets have been searching for their wondrous Amber Room almost since the Nazis were driven out of Leningrad in 1944. Or so we thought, say Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy.”

East German secret police, the Staci, had spent millions of donated American dollars digging for hard information that might lead to the recovery of the Amber Room treasure. However, their efforts were mysteriously “hamstrung by an unlikely source — its fraternal brothers in the KGB.”

Dossiers and documents Scott-Clark and Levy claim to have discovered in St. Petersburg indicate that the Amber Room had been stored in a cellar of Knigsberg Castle. Artillery elements of the Red Army that had occupied the castle after capturing it had knowingly either deliberately or inadvertently destroyed the remains of the Amber Room. Remnants have been found there, tending to confirm the story.

Most interestingly, the newly found documents indicate that a Russian commission, investigating the loss shortly after the end of the war, determined that this had in fact been the actual fate of the Amber Room. The information was covered up and the East German investigations were impeded because “The last thing that Stalin needed was a story to break, that heroic Soviet soldiers had destroyed the Amber Room.”


The Financial Times review concludes with the following: “And then the Russians unveiled a new Amber Room, on May 31, 2003, constructed with the help of a 2 million pound donation from Ruhrgas, a German company that had hoped to expiate wartime guilt.

“Forty heads of state, including Vladimir Putin, Gerhard Schroeder, Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi and Jacques Chirac, who traveled to St. Petersburg for a conference, attended the ceremony. The new Amber Room was heralded as an enduring reminder of Soviet loss.

“The leaders of the world had become unwitting participants in a state-orchestrated deception and the Amber Room lie was sealed forever like an insect trapped in resin.”

The authors of the new book claim that the archives recently found by them in St. Petersburg expose the Soviet lie and that the “sealed forever” comparison no longer applies. Whether the Russian government will now continue the alleged lie remains to be seen.

If you’re visiting St. Petersburg, don’t miss the new Amber Room in its original location in the Catherine Palace.

More information

If your subscriptions don’t include the peach-colored newspaper Financial Times and you’d like to see the full text of the Amber Room article which includes two photos of the new Amber Room, send me $2 for a photocopy. Write to Wayne Wirtanen, 4341 Shangri-la, Placerville, CA 95667. Of course, read the book for the full story.

The Amber Room” by Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy (ISBN 0802714242) is published by Walker & Company, New York, NY. It is 368 pages long and costs $26.

Happy trails!