Reporting from St. Petersburg, Russia — She was an unlikely bandit, one of hundreds of middle-aged, down-at-the-heel curators who shuffle through the former czarist palaces of the State Hermitage Museum.
But quietly, steadily, Larisa Zavadskaya was brewing a scandal that would shake the art world from New York to Paris. She stuffed her purse with hundreds of pieces of jewelry, icons and silverware, later farming them out to antiques dealers.
The thefts came to light in 2005 when inspectors arrived to inventory her department. Zavadskaya dropped dead of a heart attack on the spot.
Meanwhile, doubt swept the country's cultural elite. If Zavadskaya had stolen hundreds of pieces without being detected, what else had been stolen, in the Hermitage or elsewhere?
Nobody denies the confusion lingering in museums across Russia after a long history of painful political change, bureaucratic bungling and bad bookkeeping. But nobody can say for sure how much damage has been done.
Since the Zavadskaya thefts, Russian officials have struggled to take stock of the country's cultural heritage. A massive national audit, the first of its kind undertaken by post-Soviet Russia, was ordered by an enraged and embarrassed then-President Vladimir Putin.
Thousands of officials from all nooks of Russia's considerable state bureaucracy fanned out to check the warehouses, basements and display cases of more than 1,000 museums across the country.
As it turns out, there is plenty missing. The audit's findings are due for release any day, but Russia's cultural officials have already acknowledged that at least 87,000 pieces have vanished. Hundreds of those belonged to the Hermitage.
The Russian government is eager to downplay the findings. Many of the missing items were of minor interest, officials insist.
But in Russia, where skeptics are used to brushing aside the assurances of the government, some observers worry that the report reveals only part of the problem in the country's museums. International art experts, meanwhile, are incredulous at the auditing project's speed.
"As an exercise, it strikes me as fantastic," said Jon Whiteley, a Russian art expert at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University. "But to make it complete, I would have thought, would be nearly impossible."
That trail of doubt stretches here, to the city invented by Peter the Great in his eagerness to open Russia to the West -- and to the hallowed, art-lined halls of the Hermitage.
With its 3 million pieces of art and artifacts stored in the cavernous palaces of a bygone empire, the Hermitage has been the heart of Russian art ever since Catherine the Great bought troves of European paintings and sculpture, creating the core that would swell into today's collection.
This inherited splendor carries a heavy symbolic weight in today's Russia. Unlike many other institutions, the Hermitage has survived the blood and turmoil of revolution and collapse. Today it is acknowledged to be as good -- possibly better -- than any similar institution in the West. The Louvre is widely considered the world's only comparable collection, and few art lovers dare to pick sides.
For decades, the Hermitagestaff operated on the honor system. Only with the revelation of the Savadskaya thefts did the museum install a complete web of security cameras and metal detectors. The director is still grumbling.
Mikhail Piotrovsky is Hermitage royalty and a longtime political ally of St. Petersburg native Putin. His father presided over the collection for 26 years until his death in 1990; Piotrovsky ascended to the job in 1992.
Today he calls the museum a "police state."
"I think it's very bad," he said of the security cameras and bag checks. "It means we don't trust them. And the museum is a place of trust; it's a human place."
The discovery of the Savadskaya thefts drew angry calls for Piotrovsky's resignation, but he shrugged them off and blamed a shadowy conspiracy. The robberies at the Hermitage were "an inside and an outside job," he said, with the true goal not to seize items of relatively small value but to "make a scandal."
"Maybe it's paranoid," he acknowledged, declining to elaborate.
Many art experts defend Piotrovsky and his management of the Hermitage. Theft happens everywhere, they argue, and should be viewed with understanding.
"Art professionals think of the Hermitage as a professional museum with a sophisticated staff, with an intelligent director," said John Bowlt, a historian of Russian art at USC. "I don't think nuances of immoral behavior are detected at the Hermitage."
The security of Russian art, however, has been questioned for decades.
Viktor Petrakov, head of the federal department for the preservation of cultural property, has labored for years to keep Russia's collections intact. He acknowledges disorganization in many museums.