This story begins in August 1916 when Romania was insistently requested by France and Great Britain to enter the WW1 in order to relieve the huge German pressure on the West front. On 17 August, Romania signed a treaty with the Entente Powers, according to which France and Britain pledged to launch an offensive in Greece, while Russia committed to send three divisions to the Danube River, to protect the rear from a Bulgarian attack. On that occasion, the Russian ambassador in Bucharest proposed to transfer the Romanian gold to Moscow, with the argument that it will be better protected, but the Romanian Prime Minister Ion Bratianu considered “the timing of the measure to be inopportune”.
Romania intervened in WW1 and crossed the Carpathian Mountains into Transylvania, where its soldiers were received as liberators. But there was no Allied offensive in Greece, and the military aid promised by Russia did not exist. The German High Command put on hold all other campaigns, throwing its main weight against Romania, while at the South of Danube Bulgarian and Turkish armies joined the German forces. Simultaneously attacked from three sides, the Romanian Government was forced to withdraw to the city of Iasi, in Moldova.
In Iasi, Russia’s Ambassador, General Mossolov, asked for the transfer of the Romanian gold to Moscow. Historian Ilie Schipor discovered into Russian archives Mossolov’s personal notes, which reveal that his task was “to take all the measures necessary to transfer the Romanian gold to Russia”, with the secret purpose “to get hold of the Romanian gold as a guarantee against a Romanian surrender”. Once again Prime Minister Bratianu “considered the transfer of the gold at that time to be premature”. Mossolov insisted: ”Sending the Romanian gold to Russia was meant to strengthen the alliance between our countries and considerably simplify the arrival of Russian reinforcements. The Russian Government guarantees the integrity of the treasure both during the transport and through its stay in Moscow”. (Ilie Schipor, “Destiny of the Romanian Treasury – Arguments from the Russian Archives”, Publishing House Oscar Print, 2021).
The Romanian Government explored the possibility to send the Treasure to UK or USA, but since the Central Powers controlled the main land and sea routes, the idea was abandoned. The transfer of the gold to Russia was finally accepted, and on 14 December 1916 the Russian ambassador, the Romanian Finance Minister and representatives of the National Bank of Romania signed a protocol stipulating that “Since the day it was entrusted to the Imperial Russian Government and loaded into wagons, the Treasure is under the Russian Imperial Government’s guarantee regarding the safety of the transport, storage and return to Romania”. Two days later, a train with 17 carriages containing 1,738 crates full of gold (1,735 with gold coins and three with pure gold ingots) of the National Bank of Romania, plus two other crates with the jewels of the Royal Family, departed from Iasi to Moscow. The train arrived in Moscow on 20 December 1916 and the Treasure was deposited in the Kremlin’s Arms Room. After the verification of the contents of the crates and their inventory, on 16 February 1917 a new protocol was signed in Moscow by delegates of the Russian Finance Ministry, the Russian State Bank, the National Bank of Romania and the Romanian Consul, confirming that “All verified valuables, inventoried or weighed, proved to be in terms of quantity and value, in full compliance with the elements of the National Bank of Romania”.
In the summer of 1917 Romania expected a massive military offensive by Central Powers. In such a tense environment, in July 1917 Russia’s Ambassador wrote to Romania’s Finance Minister that “the Russian Government had granted him full powers necessary to sign the Protocols on the evacuation in Russia of the securities belonging to the National Bank and other public institutions in Romania”. On 27 July 1917 another protocol was signed between Romania and Russia, and the same day a second train with 27 carriages departed to Moscow, taking the remaining gold reserve of the National Bank of Romania, valuables from Romanian Academy, House of Savings and Consignments, National Archives, national museums, national patrimony sites, religious institutions, ministries and private companies’ assets. The transport arrived in Moscow on 3 August and was deposited in the same Kremlin’s Arms Room. On 5 August 1917 a new protocol was signed in Moscow, mentioning that “the return of the entire treasure of Romania was guaranteed by the Russian Government”. It was the time when the Romanian troops succeeded in breaking the Austro-Hungarian front in the Battle of Marasti, and repelled German and Austro-Hungarian offensives at Marasesti and Oituz, prompting The Times newspaper to describe the Romanian front as „the only point of light in the East”…
But in February 1917 Russia had already entered into chaos. On 15 March Tsar Nikolai II abdicated, and in October Bolsheviks took power. On 13 January 1918, Russia’s Council of People’s Commissars severed diplomatic ties with Bucharest and arbitrarily confiscated the Romanian Treasure. The decision on the cutting of diplomatic relations with Romania, signed by V. I. Lenin, writes black on white the intangibility of the Treasure, its preservation and restitution: “The valuables of the Romanian government must be preserved with utmost care, so they can be safely returned to the Romanian people when the Romanian counterrevolution has been overthrown.”
The French Consul in Moscow, Eirick Labonne, was tasked to act as representative of Romania’s interests in Russia and to make “an approach to the People’s Commissars to signal that this treasury is under the guarantee of the Entente Powers”. On 1 March 1918 Bolshevik authorities told Labonne that “By the Decision of the People’s Commissars of Petrograd, the values belonging to the Romanian Government had been simply confiscated by virtue of the state of war”. This was both an illegal decision and a lie, because, according to the international law, “The state of war does not give any right to the aggressor over the goods of the attacked party. At the same time, in 1917-1918 Romania and Russia were formally allies in the coalition of Allied Powers, and in January 1918 there was no state of war between Russia and Romania.” (Viorica Moisiuc,“Romania’s Treasury – guarded by the Russian “ally”; new data and testimonies from the archives of the Russian Federation”, Publishing House Fundația România de Mâine, 2022).
From 1919 to 1924, several unsuccessful talks to recover the Treasure took place. The establishment of the Romanian-Soviet diplomatic relations in 1934 led to a first partial restitution in June 1935, when the Soviet Union returned 1,443 boxes with broken seals, filled with old archives, documents, rare books and religious objects (part of the second shipment in July 1917), but no gold. In June 1956, as a sign of goodwill towards the Communist regime in Romania, 39,320 artistic and historical artifacts were returned. Itwas only a small part of the Treasure and have not included the gold reserve of the National Bank sent to Russia in 1916-1917. Romania raised again the issue in 1965. After USSR collapsed, a Joint Romanian-Russian Commission was created in 2004 to discuss bilateral issues, including on the Treasure taken to Moscow. It had five meetings without significant progress.
The total amount of Romanian fine gold deposited in Kremlin was 93.452 tons, with a total value of more than six billion USD (in January 2024 the average price of fine gold was 66,000 USD per kilogram) but, as the President of the Romanian Academy, Professor Ioan-Aurel Pop, whoCo-Chaired the Joint Romanian-Russian Commission between 2012 and 2018, noted: “The 93.4 tons of unreturned Romanian gold represent an inestimable value for several reasons: first, it is a matter of the wealth of the Romanian nation, as the owner of that gold is the country’s central bank. Secondly, the intrinsic value of the fine gold deposited is greater than the weight of the metal, because the gold ingots represent 2.4 tons, and the various gold coins 91 tons. It is also about historical coins from previous centuries, with numismatic significance.” (Ioan-Aurel Pop, “The Truth about Romania’s treasure prisoner to Moscow”, 8 September 2016, oamenidepoveste.ro)
Legally and morally, a good entrusted to someone for safekeeping, based on official documents with precise provisions for restitution, is to be returned without any discussion. The Declaration of 13 January 1918 of the Soviet Government recognizes the existence of the Romanian Treasure in Russia and Romania’s property rights over it, as well as Russia’s commitment to preserve the Treasure and to remit it to its rightful owner. USSR and the Russian Federation never challenged Romania’s ownership of the Treasure.
The oldest fundamental principle of international law is the Latin formula “Pacta sunt servanda”, meaning “agreements must be kept”. This principle is included in article 26 of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. When Russia applied to join the Council of Europe (CoE), the President, the Prime Minister, the President of the Duma and the President of the Council of the Federation sent a joint letter to CoE giving assurances that “the Russian Federation shares fully its understanding and interpretation of commitments entered into, and intends… to settle rapidly all issues related to the return of property claimed by Council of Europe member states.” (CoE Parliamentary Assembly Opinion 193/25 January 1996 on “Russia’s request for membership of the Council of Europe”). Reports of CoE Monitoring Committee on “Honoring of obligations and commitments by the Russian Federation” mentioned these obligations until Russia was expelled from the organization on 16 March 2022, after the invasion of Ukraine.
As the Governor of the National Bank of Romania, Academician Mugur Isarescu, remarked: “The National Bank of Romania has invited foreign historians from countries with a similar experience of evacuating their treasures to foreign countries for safekeeping. We thus discovered that the case of the N.B.R. Treasure evacuated to Moscow is unique, as it is the only known case of a treasure entrusted to another state and never returned when requested. The archives show that the Russians did their best to persuade the Romanian government at that time to send the Treasure to Moscow. Archival documents make clear that guarantees were given that this Treasure would be kept safe and returned when requested; but in this case it was never returned. (“The Romanian National Bank Treasure taken to Moscow and never returned”, Foreword by Academician Mugur Isarescu, Publishing House Oscar Print, 2020).
At the time of the German invasion in 1939, Poland evacuated its gold reserve (about 80 tons) and artistic treasures through Romania, despite pressure from Germany on Romania not to accept it (Romanian archives reveal that the Soviet Union manifested a similar interest in the Polish gold). 51 crates with Polish gold were stored in Romania in absolute secrecy and returned in full to Poland after WW2. This episode is an invitation to reflection about honor and loyalty.
When the Trojan War ended, Odysseus homeward voyage to Ithaca lasted ten years, and his journey full of adventures inspired Homer to write “The Odyssey”, one of the most beautiful ancient epic poems. The Romanian Treasure taken to Moscow in 1916-1917 is still prisoner of a broken legal, moral and honor commitment. Let’s hope that its odyssey will not be a never-ending story.
Dr. Ion I. Jinga
Note: The opinions expressed in this article do not bind the official position of the author.