ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA
IT was an invitation-only mob scene at the former czars' palace, the Hermitage. About 1,000 smartly dressed dignitaries, officials, and art aficionados squeezed into gilt-edged rooms to see 74 paintings, many of them unearthed for the first time in 50 years.
These Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces have a troubled history that the eager onlookers tried to brush aside: They were whisked away from Germany by the Soviet Red Army at the end of World War II.
Germany now wants them back, but Moscow is balking.
''I won't talk much about the negotiations,'' says the Hermitage's director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, speaking at the foot of a grand marble staircase. ''The most important thing is that this art should be exhibited.''
The guests yesterday seemed to agree as they rushed to glimpse a long-lost Degas or Cezanne; this is St. Petersburg's cultural event of the season.
But Europe's two most powerful nations are deadlocked in a bitter struggle that goes far beyond aesthetic appreciation.
''The return [of the art] is no longer a side aspect, but is becoming a touchstone of the quality of Russian-German relations,'' German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel said in an interview with the Cologne Express newspaper.
On a visit to Moscow earlier this month, Mr. Kinkel insisted that the Kremlin honor two written commitments to repatriate artworks in 1990 and 1992.
''There is no room for giving in,'' news reports quoted Kinkel as saying in Moscow.
While the dispute over ownership intensifies, many of the works in question are just starting to see the light of day, after being kept out of public view for almost 50 years.
The masterpieces taken out of Germany, including works by Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Degas, belong to the third exhibit to feature disputed artworks in Russia. It follows an exhibit at Moscow's Pushkin Museum that opened a ''trophy art'' show in late February, and a 1992 exhibit at the Hermitage, which featured a series of drawings taken from Bremen, Germany.
Mr. Piotrovsky, the Hermitage's director, said his museum's exhibit is designed to promote a settlement.
''This exhibition is a continuing part of the restitution process, which began when the paintings were first brought to Russia after the war,'' he told a news conference. The opening ''should be a cultural event, not a political one.''
For the museum, which like many Russian cultural institutions has been beset by funding problems since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the show is a chance to attract Western support. And there is, at least, plenty of attention. Several visitors at the exhibit were Germans who have not seen their private collections in a half century.
In Bonn's view, the shows, especially the Pushkin Museum display, send a signal that Russia intends to keep the artworks. Moscow's failure to fulfill past pledges on repatriation would strain Russian-German relations, officials in Bonn say.
Just like Indy
The art dispute dates to the late stages of the war, and reads like an ''Indiana Jones'' sequel, says art historian Konstantin Akinsha, a Russian emigre in Cologne, who is one of the world's foremost experts on the art restitution question.
As the Red Army moved into Germany in the spring of 1945, special battalions spread out across the shattered Reich in search of art treasure troves, hidden for safe-keeping by the Nazis. After the Nazi capitulation, more than 2 million art objects were spirited out of Germany under the direction of the Soviet Union's Trophy Commission.
Many were returned to the former East Germany, a Soviet ally, during the 1950s and 1960s. But most of the top-notch objects remained in Soviet hands, kept in secret repositories. Soviet officials denied knowledge of the masterpieces' whereabouts until Mr. Akinsha, and his collaborator Grigorii Kozlov, blew the whistle in 1991.
Since then, Russia and Germany have haggled over terms of repatriation.
Negotiations have been hindered by the rising influence of nationalist forces in Moscow. The Russian parliament is currently considering a bill that would declare all art objects taken from Nazi Germany to be Russian property. Such a move would surely inflame the situation.
''I have the impression it [negotiations] will become more delicate,'' said Otto Graf Lambsdorff, honorary chairman of Free Democratic Party, junior coalition partner in the German government. He described the situation as ''a slippery slope.''
Another complicating factor is that, decades after the war, the defeated nation looks like a winner, while the victor seems like a loser. Germany is now the economic powerhouse of Europe, while Russians have seen the former Soviet superpower crumble.
Given Russia's current turmoil, the trophy art is one of the few remaining symbols that recall the glory days of Soviet achievement, Akinsha and other experts say. It has thus become a rallying point for Russian nationalists.
And many Russians, not just ultranationalists, see the art as rightful compensation for the cultural devastation of the war. St. Petersburg itself endured a 900-day Nazi siege. All three palaces surrounding the city were gutted.
Bonn argues that Germany should be given some leeway in Moscow since it is Russia's largest trading partner. It is also Russia's biggest foreign-aid donor, having given more than $50 billion so far.
But German officials have intensified the dispute by viewing the art-repatriation question mostly as a financial matter, some Russian observers say. To ease tension, the Germans need to show greater appreciation of the damage done to the Russian psyche as a result of the war.
''You can't throw money at this problem,'' says Yevgenia Petrova, deputy director of the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. ''Money now can't restore the damage done to us, or bring back the cultural monuments and objects that we have lost.''
In very narrow legal terms, Germany is the rightful owner of most of the artworks. But in moral terms, Bonn is on less solid footing, says Lyndel Prott, a legal expert for UNESCO's Division of Physical Heritage in Paris. During the war, Ms. Prott adds, the Nazis behaved in much the same manner as the Red Army, looting art collections in countries overrun by the Wehrmacht, the Nazi Army.
''One should have some sympathy for a country that is trying to turn its system around,'' Prott says, referring to Russia. ''This is a process that shouldn't be shoved ahead too fast. If the Germans push too much, too fast, they could make it politically inexpedient for the Russians to return the art.
''It would be a pity if this issue could be a factor in bringing down the democratic experiment in Russia, and it could be a factor,'' Prott adds. ''It's an emotive issue and given the climate in Russia, it can be used by politicians.''