On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. On 22 June 2022, artist Yelena Osipova held a solo anti-war picket on Nevsky Prospect in Petersburg. On 22 June 2022, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the official Russian government newspaper, published a lengthy interview with Mikhail Piotrovsky, the longtime director of Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum,, in which he justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as part of his country’s greater historical and cultural “mission.” Ms. Osipova and Mr. Piotrovsky were born a mere eleven months apart, in November 1945 and December 1944, respectively. If Ms. Osipova’s bravery doesn’t bring honor on her hometown, it’s not for her want of trying. Despite having much greater resources at his disposal and a bigger bully pulpit, Mr. Piotrovsky has definitely brought shame on his city. As long it is run by people like him, Russia’s great “cultural capital” has no future. In any case, Ms. Osipova’s barely audible message makes a jarring juxtaposition with Mr. Piotrovsky’s arrogant, “learned” apology for Russian fascism. ||| TRR
Yelena Osipova, photographed in front of Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral on Nevsky Prospekt in downtown Petersburg on 22 June 2022. Photo courtesy of Irina Bogdanovskaya, as posted on the public Facebook page Yelena Andreyeevna Osipova. Artist. Citizen. Thanks to Maria Mila for the heads-up. The placard on the left reads, “To the unknown soldier, 1941–1945. He was buried in the earth.” The placard on the right reads, “22 June 1941–1945. In memory of the Patriotic/Second World War. Become a pacifist! Pacifism – pacificus – peaceable. Pacifists condemn all wars and campaign vigorously and publicly to prevent them.” On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, a massive invasion of the Soviet Union. Ms. Osipova was born on 11 November 1945, that is, six months after the end of the Great Patriotic War.
[Elena Yakovleva]: We have all been shocked by the fighting not only on the fronts of the special operation, but also on the cultural front, by all the attempts to cancel Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concerts, and the Russian language. What is behind “cancel culture”? Having ourselves escaped from the dictates of ideology, are we now witnessing its return in the West?
Mikhail Piotrovsky: The attack on us in the realm of culture is, of course, a semblance of what we had in Soviet times, when all connections were cut off by command, at a moment’s notice, at the snap of someone’s fingers. I have the sense that the Soviet Union, with its ideological dictates, has spread to the West. I did not expect that I would read in liberal Western newspapers such things as “The Hermitage is an imperial museum that preaches imperial ideology. It should not be allowed anywhere! The Hermitage’s [planned branch] in Barcelona should not be opened under any circumstances!”
I have been inundated with ultimatums. How dare you not speak out against the special operation in Ukraine?! Go out and protest immediately! Why are there no protests in your country?
But in this case we should understand that we have been subjected to such a powerful attack in the field of culture because culture is an area in which we are absolutely competitive.
We have the initiative here. We are trendsetters.
Are we an exporting country?
Mikhail Piotrovsky: Yes, and our cultural exports are more important than imports.
Our recent exhibitions abroad are a powerful cultural offensive, a kind of “special operation,” if you wish. Which many people don’t like, but we are advancing. No one can be allowed to thwart our offensive.
In response to calls to cancel Tchaikovsky, smart people in Russia have been saying, “We won’t cancel anything. On the contrary, we will continue to love the Europe that we learned about while studying at universities.” Is the asymmetry fundamentally important in this case?
Mikhail Piotrovsky: Of course. Given our cultural advantage, we don’t have to loudly announce that we are reneging on one cultural agreement or another in response to their bans. They can do it unilaterally. There is definitely no need for bilateralism — precisely because we are winning.
I think that under no circumstances should we succumb (and we shall not succumb) to the seductions of “cancel culture.” I believe we are immune to it because we have already been “canceled” six ways to Sunday. First, the entire culture of Tsarist Russia was canceled, and then Soviet culture was canceled. Monuments were demolished dozens of times. But we also know something else: monuments come back, everything is restored. The knowledge that memory and culture come back is in our blood. That is why we are not eager to overdo it when it comes to “cancelations.” Besides, you can’t cancel Tchaikovsky, except, perhaps, performances of Tchaikovsky by Russian orchestras. But this is just unfair competition.
Why is the West so passionate about “cancel culture”? And about the dictates of “public opinion”?
Mikhail Piotrovsky: I would not exaggerate the difference between the dictates of Soviet ideology and “public opinion.” Public opinion is bound up with governments or regulated by them.
As for “cancel culture” in the West, it is part of a large wave that was born amidst BLM, and linked to the culture of guilt and repentance for guilt. It suddenly surged: they began pulling down monuments and not standing for the American flag. They think that Voltaire is bad, and this guy, and that other guy. It’s a little ridiculous. How much can you repent for the terrors of colonialism, which in fact was so entirely categorical? Or for the unfortunate slave trade, which after all began not in Europe, but in Africa?
They seemingly had already begun to sense that this road leads nowhere, but then Russia turned up by chance. So let’s “cancel” Russia, they said. Although the glee with which they have rushed to condemn us, to tear us up and expel us, again speaks to the fact that we are strong in culture.
When the Bizot group boycotts Russian museums, it’s just ridiculous. I was one of the people who founded the group, and I know that we actually created it to help museums do cultural exchanges unencumbered by politics. But now it’s apparently been ideologized on the Soviet model. If this Soviet-style infection has gone so far, let them be sick alone. We don’t need to be sick too. We have historical immunity against this. I think we will spread it to others.
Since it hasn’t succumbed to the hype of cancellations, has the Hermitage keep its exhibitions abroad going?
Mikhail Piotrovsky: Not only the Hermitage. When the special operation in Ukraine began, exhibitions by Russian museums were everywhere. We have a Morozov [Collection] exhibition in Paris and exhibitions in Italy. Our most controversial exhibition, a Fabergé show, was in London. The Russian Museum had an exhibition in Spain.
This was our “special operation,” if you like, a great cultural offensive.
As soon as all the ideological sirens were turned on due to the special operation in Ukraine, we initially announced that we were pulling everything out immediately. But then we thought it over and said that we had been given guarantees. The organizers were quick to confirm them. We organized the Morozov exhibition in Paris in cooperation with the Louis Vuitton Foundation, and suddenly realized that this global commercial company was a much better partner in today’s “Soviet” Europe than government entities were. Having no freedom of maneuver, they were “ordered” to break off relations with us, while the business people who made promises to us did EVERYTHING to fulfill them. It was a matter of honor for them: they promised us that [they would send] everything back on time.
But then people in Russia started yelling, “Why did you take our treasures there? They’re worth so much money!” And all hell broke loss on the other side: “Since they’re worth ‘that much’ money, let’s impound them!” People with tormented mercantilist mindsets could not really understand the essence of the matter, so very provocative things were shouted on both sides. I must say that the provocation by the press was the main complication in this whole special operation. Yesterday, I was sent a copy of the FT featuring a discussion by journalists in their art (!) department on the topic of whether Russian paintings should have been impounded. It was due to such journalistic caterwauling that pieces from our museums were detained at the Finnish border. It was the weekend, and Finnish customs officers had read their fill of newspaper articles about how everything should be confiscated from the Russians. Although before and after that, ten of our truck caravans passed through their border post.
From our side, it was the bloggers shouted more. The journalists have been schooled by you.
Mikhail Piotrovsky: Only there are few real journalists left and just a couple of newspapers. Everyone is like a blogger now. And bloggers don’t understand that this is a cultural offensive, that the Shchukin and Morozov exhibition in Paris is like the Russian flag flying over the Bois de Boulogne. Do you know how everyone appreciated it in Italy? They said, “If the Hermitage can leave its paintings with us at a time like this, it means that they know what they are doing over there in Russia.”
It is also very important that the protagonists of our exhibitions were [Sergei] Shchukin and [Ivan] Morozov, Russian businessmen from the Old Believers community who largely defined the evolution of European culture. Matisse was once asked if he would have painted Dance had it not been for Shchukin. “And for whom would I have painted it?” Matisse said. Shchukin suggested things, commissioned things, was capricious, and great works were born. I was recently awarded the Demidov Prize, and it was an occasion to recall how Nikolai Demidov and the great French jeweler Pierre Thomire created this Russian style of malachite with bronze. They had such fights! Thomire said they should do things one way, Demidov said no, it must be done another way. But consequently, there is the Malachite Canopy in the Hermitage.
Does a producer [sic] have the right to interfere in an artist’s plans like that?
Mikhail Piotrovsky: He absolutely has the right. Yes, sometimes such interventions can be bad. But sometimes they can be good. In the case of Shchukin and Morozov, it was a good thing. They were the RIGHT customers.
Let’s not forget that it was the Old Believers who revealed to us the beauty of the old Russian icons. They were the first to clean them and preserve them. And Shchukin brought Russian icons to Matisse, in particular, to reverse the influence of Persian miniatures on him.
At the Morozov exhibition, we presented Russian paintings collected by him and showed art through the collector’s eye. Morozov collected Manet and [Valentin] Serov, and I would hear people say when they were leaving the exhibition, “You look [at their paintings] and you realize that Serov is no worse than Manet.”
The Fabergé exhibition made a very big splash. That is another Russian phenomenon that influenced the West.
So, we in fact did undertake a big cultural offensive. And we came out of it, having done everything we had planned to do.
Europe has long been a cultural model for us. The “RG” had a conversation with the writer Eugene Vodolazkin about attitudes to Europe. With reference to Dostoevsky, we talked about the fact it is almost dearer to us than to the Europeans.
Mikhail Piotrovsky: We recently held a round table at the Council of the History of World Culture at the Academy of Sciences, which we were going to call “Is Russia Europe?” but instead called “Is Russia Europe? Is Europe the EU?” The general sense of our debate was this: we are Europe, as much a part of it as France or Germany, and maybe more than the United States. If Europe were not us, Gogol would not have written Dead Souls while living in Italy. We recently held another round table on visual art, at which we recalled that Dostoevsky wrote about the Sistine Madonna.
This is our long-standing choice: we are inseparable from European culture and from Europe itself. The special military operation in Ukraine does not change anything. There have been plenty of disagreements and wars within Europe, from the Thirty Years’ War to the First World War. We are Europe and at some moments more Europe than many of its classic [sic] countries. And certainly more than the EU, which is now turning into the Soviet Union.
Of course, we also have an Asian aspect. But Peter the Great already knew how to balance all this wonderfully. We at the Hermitage understand this like no one else, because our main theme is world culture in the Russian context. I constantly talk about our right to be Europe, because in the south of Russia we have a Classical heritage — Chersonesus, Kerch, Taman. And whoever has a Classical heritage is Europe. In Norway, for example, there is no Classical heritage; there were neither Greek colonies nor Roman legions.
Therefore, it is all ours. We must dispose of it as our own, and not think that we are opposing Europe. Do we have different values? But they all have different values. Do we have special Orthodox values? But there are Orthodox values in Europe as well. In many ways they are consonant with Catholic values and not consonant with various secular ones. As an absolutely full-fledged and equal part of Europe, we will never be isolated. It’s just our sense of self. And the Hermitage is a symbol of this self-awareness. I keep repeating that the Hermitage is an encyclopedia of world culture written in Russian. The Hermitage’s Rembrandts, which have been in Russia for three hundred years, are Russian Rembrandts. The Russian Shakespeare is impossible without [Grigori] Kozintsev and [Innokenty] Smoktunovsky. Other doors — to Asia — are always open. But this does not cancel our presence in Europe.
Since people who value Russian culture have not yet gained the upper hand in Europe, must we now form a European model for ourselves?
Mikhail Piotrovsky: We must form this model now. And we are forming it.
Although there seem to be no Shchukins and Morozovs in Russia nowadays.
Mikhail Piotrovsky: Shchukin and Morozov shaped tastes. But now we are shaping, for example, international law. For many years, we have been carefully fashioning guarantees for the return of our paintings by changing international laws and creating immunity from impoundment. All this was first elaborated for Soviet exhibitions, and later, already in my own time, we constantly worked on developing it. The descendants of Shchukin and Morozov tried to sue us, so I urgently got the pictures out of Rome by plane. But every year we have strengthened our legal safeguards. We said, “Do you want our exhibitions? Then give us real guarantees. Spell it out in the contract: the exhibition will be returned on time even in case of lawsuits.” Europe accepted all these terms. The Americans didn’t, so we haven’t had any exchanges with the Americans for ten years. Although people who wanted to host exhibitions from Russia introduced a new law in the United States that enabled the government to give us guarantees and immunity. But it was too late; now it’s not enough. But with Europe, all the guarantees worked. In particular, when paintings from our Italian exhibitions were detained at the Finnish border, our diplomats and Italian businessmen helped us. They immediately sent all the paperwork to the Finnish government: “We gave guarantees, how can you not trust them?!”
At the last moment — even amidst the sanctions — our Western partners introduced a clause stating that prohibited luxury items do not include items that are in exhibitions of Russian museums abroad. It was even stipulated that Russian transport companies have the right to transport exhibitions throughout the EU. We didn’t take the risk — we transported [the exhibitions] in foreign vehicles — but this point was specially inserted. So, we not only look at Europe as a model, but also try and shape the international rules ourselves. This is quite important, especially now, when there are disputes about every [piece of art] in the world over who it actually belongs to.
Has the attitude towards the Hermitage changed among its Western fans?
Mikhail Piotrovsky: We’ve been getting stabbed in the back a lot lately. Outside the country, the Khodorkovskys of the world have been slinging mud at us, while here at home, as always, certain people have been calling for draconian audits. On the other hand, we have gotten a better sense of who our friends are and who are our enemies. The “society of friends of the Hermitage” have proved their mettle. In Israel, for example, they comported themselves brilliantly. They immediately spoke out. “How can we be friends of the Hermitage, using this honorary title, and then suddenly severe ties [with the museum]?”
We can see everything now. We see that there are people who break off their relationship [with us], but it makes them suffer and cry. But there are also those who happily took advantage of this opportunity. Apparently, they were friends solely due to the political conjuncture. Now we have a good “blacklist” of journalists and politicians This is very important. The world is not uniform.
Has your “blacklist” gotten a lot longer?
Mikhail Piotrovsky: It changed a lot. But besides those who have been writing maliciously about us, unexpected friends have appeared — for example, those French and Italian businessmen I mentioned.
What should we be doing in the field of culture?
Mikhail Piotrovsky: I think we have to do everything in such a way that we are seen, but we don’t have to travel anywhere at all to do this. After becoming director of the Hermitage, I announced a moratorium on exhibitions inside Russia because it was dangerous to transport things then: there were thieves everywhere, there was no money, no real insurance, either. So we didn’t send exhibitions around Russia for ten years. But now we are announcing a moratorium on exhibitions abroad.
I urge everyone now to look back at the experience of the Siege of Leningrad — at the know-how for saving things in an organized manner that was acquired then, at the understanding that when guns speak, the muses should not be silent. On the contrary, they should speak loudly. The experience of the Siege also taught us to address the world beyond the encirclement. During the Great Patriotic War, the Nizami and Nava’i exhibitions and evenings at the Hermitage were examples of this appeal. They showed the whole Soviet Union and the whole world that we remembered the great poets even in the midst of famine and war. Therefore, we are now, as part of the “Great Hermitage” program, going to be doing everything to make the whole world see us and, roughly speaking, envy us.
Now, for example, we are opening an exhibition of works by one of the most famous Danish artists, [Vigilius] Eriksen. He painted Catherine the Great and her court, and for the tricentennial of his birth he earned an exhibition at the Hermitage. We requested pieces from Denmark for the exhibition, but they were not given to us. Well, we have more of Eriksen’s works than they have in Denmark. So, an excellent exhibition is now opening in the Nicholas Hall featuring huge portraits of Catherine and the Orlov Brothers, accompanied by the amazing stories of how they were created, how they were repainted and the medals on the uniforms were altered. The exhibition is on the internet, including a lecture in English. We are broadcasting a message to Denmark: look, a small but very important piece of European culture is the great portrait painter Eriksen in the Hermitage.
What do you say to those who demand that you repent for Russian policy?
Mikhail Piotrovsky: Our country has now shifted into another time. The first period of the Scythian War is over. We retreated and retreated, now we are not retreating. A pivot has been made. And it is already clear that it’s the final one. Everything began in 2014 in Crimea. Crimea created a situation in which there was no other way, in which we had to pivot.
Our country is making great, comprehensive transformations. And we, respectively, are part of them and with her. Working calmly and normally is our stance.
The Hermitage has done exhibitions about war many times. What can you say about how it’s perceived? For example, a totally pacifist reaction is not something I find congenial. Apparently, I’m a militarist.
Mikhail Piotrovsky: We are all militarists and imperialists. (laughs)
First and most important, it is my country, and I must stand with it. I sometimes repeat the jingoistic formula: this is my country, such as it is. There are situations when it is absolutely clear that a person must stand with his country. In the West they understand that these are all substantive things — that we stand with our country. When a very serious issue is being resolved, there are no options.
I am currently reading Alexei Varlamov’s wonderful book about [Vasily] Rozanov, and [there is a section in it] about 1914 and his hyper-patriotic sentiments. This patriotism at the beginning of the 1914 war is [a phenomenon] known to everyone, but it has not been explained very well. We are somehow dismissive of it, but it was a quite important thing in fact. We, people of culture, must now understand our involvement in everything that is happening. A person involved in history, first of all, must do well what it is that he does [as a vocation], in keeping with the principle that when guns speak, the muses should also speak. And in keeping with the realization that culture, which for us stands above politics and everything else, will later ask us to account for what we did for it. As we were asked after the war, after the Siege: what did you do — on your own?
For me, the attitude to war is established by the great Pushkin in A Journey to Arzrum. Where is he rushing the entire book? To see the demoted Decembrists and then go into battle?
Mikhail Piotrovsky: Arzrum was also the only foreign land Pushkin visited. It expanded the world for him. There is nothing wrong with the fact that a person wants to have the most complete set of sensations. This is especially true when he wants to embody his deep feelings in something, to see and do something new. If he has grounds for it, he throws himself into it. It is an element of self-esteem. I always say that Russian patriotism is a sense of one’s own historical dignity. An individual understands that he must go to war, while another person understands that he must do something else, but which is no less important. Behind this is a sense of one’s own historical dignity, the desire to live up to one’s history and the mission of one’s country. It sounds quite dramatic, but we understand our country’s historical mission. This feeling that our country is changing world history, and that you are involved in it, is crucial now.
Nor are things so simple when it comes to attitudes towards armed hostilities. On the one hand, war is blood and murder, but on the other, it is a means for people, for a nation, to assert themselves. Everyone wants to assert themselves, and in their stances on the war, they undoubtedly assert themselves. We have all been brought up in the imperial tradition, and an empire unites many peoples. It unites people by finding things that are common and important to everyone. It’s very tempting, but it’s one of the good temptations, let’s say. Although we don’t have to succumb to it, ultimately, and we must be able to regulate it within ourselves. Nor should we forget the principle that a person should do what he must do, come what may. For museums, “doing what we must” means preserving and promoting culture. And keeping in mind all the time what is beyond the besieged territory. And speaking not only to people inside it, but also “outside” it.
Source: Elena Yakovleva, “Mikhail Piotrovsky explains why you have to stand with your country when it makes a historical pivot and choice,” Rossiiskaya Gazeta, 22 June 2022 (No. 33/8781). Translated by the Russian Reader, who omitted only the brief introduction and section headings, as printed in the original text. Mr. Piotrovsky, the longtime director of the State Hermitage Museum in Petersburg, located a short walk down the Nevsky from where Ms. Osipova held her anti-war picket on Wednesday, was born on 9 December 1944, that is, five months before the end of the Great Patriotic War.