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LONDON (Reuters) - The Royal Academy unveiled a blockbuster exhibition of paintings from Russian galleries on Tuesday, relieved the show will go on despite an ongoing row over ownership of priceless art that threatened to derail it.
"From Russia" also comes at a time of strained diplomatic and cultural relations between Russia and Britain, and curators hope the exhibition, expected to be seen by hundreds of thousands of people, will help improve ties.
"We have to collaborate in order to survive, particularly in the cultural field," curator Norman Rosenthal told Reuters at the show, which explores cultural exchanges between Russia and western Europe between 1870 and 1925.
Earlier this month, Russia forced Britain's cultural centres in two Russian cities to halt operations, and Britain accused Russia of resorting to Cold War tactics.
Britain and Russia, linked in investments worth billions of dollars, have been at odds since the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned in London with a rare radioactive material.
The descendants of two great Russian collectors whose works were taken by the state shortly after the 1917 revolution, and which appear in "From Russia", were in London to highlight their case, which involves art worth billions of dollars.
"We are demanding a legal settlement in recognition of the labour and genius of my grandfather, a normal, negotiated compensation for the families," said Andre-Marc Delocque-Fourcaud, grandson of collector Sergei Shchukin.
The 66-year-old, who lives in France, told Reuters that his grandfather's collection of 258 paintings was valued "conservatively" at $3 billion (1.5 billion pounds) 10 years ago, and was worth at least twice that today.
It includes over 20 pictures in the "From Russia" show including Henri Matisse's imposing "The Dance". The exhibition will be open to the public from January 26 to April 18.
In December, Russian galleries contributing paintings to the exhibition threatened to pull out, concerned that legal action by descendants of original owners could see them confiscated.
Britain recently introduced legislation preventing seizure of disputed works, and assurances from the government that Russia would not lose paintings by the likes of Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cezanne were enough to save the exhibition.
"It was all a bit of a cliff-hanger from our point of view," Rosenthal said.
He added that he had had contact with the families claiming ownership of some of the works featured in "From Russia", but he had little sympathy for their cause.
"I'm not a great believer in these reparations," he said. "I don't feel grandchildren should necessarily own the property of their grandparents. History is history. In 1917 the Russian revolution took place. You can't turn the clock back."
Delocque-Fourcaud said it was unlikely his family would receive compensation from the Russian government any time soon, but his children or grandchildren may one day benefit.
In recent years Jewish families whose art was seized by the Nazis during World War Two have succeeded in having several valuable paintings returned, particularly from Austria.
"From Russia" draws heavily on the French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collections of Shchukin and Ivan Morosov, whose great-grandson Pierre Konowaloff also called for compensation for masterpieces his family lost.
"This is the first time I will be seeing some of these works," he said outside the Royal Academy. "It's very sad."