Mikhail Piotrovsky – on how women from antiquity took revenge, about tsarist crockery and dirty royal laundry, on how Armand Hammer worked as brand manager for Faberge, about James Bond and the Cairo diet, and also about the dangerous profession of guardian of treasures.
Mikhail Piotrovsky, guardian of the Hermitage, internationally renowned scientist, recipient of numerous awards, orders and titles, is usually not very keen on giving interviews. Unfortunately, I was "lucky" to discover why with my first question. Our meeting practically began with an instruction. "Mikhail Borisovich," I asked, "Please tell me, who had a scarf first, you or the director of the Louvre?" My interviewee looked at me with disappointment, "Usually the Hermitage warns journalists not to ask me about the scarf and the Romanov service, these questions are asked too often... All right, let me tell you..."
– About the scarf.
– Pierre Rosenberg had the first scarf. Of course, he might think that
I am imitating him, but that is not the case. He wears a big red scarf,
– There is another established association, we say the word Hermitage and think nepotism.
– It is a very Soviet word and sounds like an accusation. In fact, the Hermitage is a family affair, not just for me. Our children practically grow up here, they go to museum groups and many of them get married and work together. Moreover, the special family spirit of very different generations is steeped with something in common, unique traditions.
My father brought me to the Hermitage as soon as I could walk. My parents
returned to Leningrad from Yerevan almost immediately after I was born.
We lived nearby, in the flat of the then museum director Joseph Orbeli
(Hermitage director from 1934
According to stories, I liked the Oriental Arsenal most, where I was allowed to play the drum. I remember well an exhibition dedicated to Suvorovís Italian and Alpine campaigns. Huge paintings and banners were hung in the Armorial Hall, it was all very beautiful. For many years I kept a set of postcards on my shelf.
In general, I donít remember the exhibitions as much as the people working in the Hermitage. And it is an absolutely fantastic collection, which is unique in the world!
Joseph Orbeliís generation were almost post revolutionary, they lived through all the political changes. Scientists, who despite this managed to rebuild science and the life of the Hermitage. They came to our house, I visited them, I was given different books to read, at first in Russian then later in English. And I knew that they were great scientists.
Then there is my fatherís generation. Leon Gyuzalyan, a Hermitage employee and a wonderful orientalist gave me my first razor, a Gillette which he had brought from England. It was very symbolic, a kind of initiation when you become a man. He was in prison for a long time and gave me his prison camp jacket. I wore it when digging potatoes, while understanding the giftís symbolism, just like mystics pass on their cloak to their student...
– Your father, an internationally known scientist and orientalist, led the Hermitage from 1964 to 1990. What kind of father was he?
– Simply wonderful. He loved me and my brother very much, he didnít even
make us stand in the corner. We stood in the corner
– Father digging, mother digging... Did you grow up on sandwiches or on dolmas? Was Hripsime Mikaelovna a good Armenian mother?
– She was a very good Armenian mother. We always had dinner. We ate dolma in Yerevan, we had dolmas every day. Actually, I didnít like them very much...
My mother knew how to keep a family, and this quality she probably inherited from her mother. Our grandmother was a very strong person. She was pregnant with my mother during the Armenian massacre in 1918. She travelled from Nakhchivan to Yerevan under fire from the Kurds, with two pistols and poison. In fact, her poison was later taken away, because women often poisoned themselves when attacked... Hripsime Mikaelovna was born in biblical fashion, in a manger.
My fatherís ancestors were mostly Russified Poles. Our grandfather was an artillery colonel. They were all in the artillery on my fatherís side. We have a good set of traditions rather than ancestors. We can always be Russian with Poles, Armenian with Russians and Russians with Armenians.
– Did Orbeli visit your home?
– He came to all household celebrations. And we visited him on his birthday. He had a car, and we all drove around in this car. Everything that he had was somewhat communal, which was widely exploited by his wives.
– They say that you had a spectacular dacha at Komarovo.
– My father bought the dacha when he was already old, when he first had enough money. Strictly speaking, it wasnít a dacha... Although, it wasnít a hut either... Wooden houses were built in Komarovo for academics, with several families in each. We had two rooms and two verandas. In a similar hut-town house, just opposite us, lived Dmitry Likhachev. When my son was small he was always running to see him. In a word, he grew up under the eyes of two wise academics.
– How did Boris Borisovich take to being appointed director of the Hermitage?
– Ambiguously. It wasnít an offer that could be turned down. He worked at the Hermitage all his life, and was deputy director under Orbeli. But his appointment coincided with the sacking of the director Artamanov. The reason was an exhibition of young artists, who worked in the Hermitage, an internal exhibition, which, as often happens, was seen by the public as some kind of nonconformist action. The authorities took this to be a challenge and took it out on Artamonov, accusing him of appropriating a cement truck...
My father did not want to become director under such conditions. He only agreed when Artamonov told him that he wanted him to take this position, and that he (Artamonov) had received phone calls from some high-ranking people with regard to his appointment. According to rumours, my father only accepted the directorship after Furtseva, once more bringing the conversation round to this topic, said "Do I have to kneel in front of you before you accept?" But our father only told us that she got very angry.
– Did Piotrovsky Senior ever regret this decision?
– I donít think so. However, it was always said that he would have written a lot more books if he hadnít been director. But, to be honest, he wrote almost everything he wanted to, including memoirs and descriptions of his travels. He had very strong will power. He even managed to cure himself from a terrible stammer. When he was young he didnít even read his own lectures, they were read for him. Later he had a slight stammer, which was even quite beautiful.
– In 1985 an insane vandal threw acid over Rembrandtís Danae. Was Boris Borisovich in the museum at the time?
– It was a Saturday, we were at the dacha. I answered the phone, it was Vitaly Suslov, my fatherís deputy. He said, "Misha, get your dad. Danae is no more". My father immediately rushed to the Hermitage, either someone drove him or he took the train...
It was a terrible tragedy. I remember a theft which left us in shock and turned us all grey, but that was nothing compared to what happened then. It felt as if everything had died. Straight away chemists got to work. They did everything absolutely correctly. They poured on water to dilute the acid so that it wouldnít destroy the whole canvas. Then there were difficult restoration works. Some said, "Letís paint over it, it will be as pretty as before." Others said, "donít touch anything, its ruined, take it away and forget about it." A lot of strength was needed from my father and Vitaly Suslov to preserve a normal quiet academic restoration. A government commission was set up, we were given money to buy whatever we needed and the restorers could work peacefully for many years and only during the daytime. They preserved and tinted the canvas so that everything that remained looked like a whole, so that it was clear what had been lost, was lost and what was preserved, was preserved.
Over the years of the restoration everybody from this commission died. When I took the decision to end the work, I only consulted Hermitage restorers and foreign specialists.
– By the way, what happened to the maniac?
– He went blind. His fate won. He was sentenced, then recognised as mentally ill and taken to Lithuania. When the time came to exhibit Danae, we contacted the local police through the Lithuanian embassy to find out what had happened to him. After all, people who carry out such acts, as a rule, often return. There is a famous story, when a man in Germany attacked, I think, a Durer painting with acid. He was sent to prison and released early, without the museum being told. He left and threw acid on the painting again. By the way, next to Rembrandtís Night Watch is a bottle of water. And when some idiot went and sprayed acid on it, they immediately poured water on the canvas. So this experience came in use for us. So we contacted the Lithuanian police, they told us not to worry, he is in a care home and under control, he is virtually blind...
– Was this the only case of vandalism at the Hermitage?
– Yes. There have been attempts to scratch things, but compared to other world museums fate has spared us.
– Mikhail Borisovich, as you have already mentioned the Romanov
service and promised to tell us everything, could I ask, did Romanovís
(first secretary of Leningrad communist party
– Nothing like that happened. We donít even have such services. There are the famous medallic ones, but they could only be partly laid out. Probably the wedding was held in the Tavrichesky Palace, where there was a party school and a huge canteen.
– You donít know exactly?
– I donít know, as this story was born much after the event. It seems like typical KGB disinformation. There was a battle for who will be first, Gorbachev or Romanov, and the person with the imperial surname was often attributed with corresponding behaviour. Although, in general he behaved quite commonly, he destroyed noble Petersburg, he wanted to make it a workers city. But lots of royal rumours attached themselves to him.
Many leaders tried to set themselves up in the Hermitage and not in the Smolny for receptions. So this black PR was quite apt. This had to be fought, by my father as well. Thank god, that the government left Saint Petersburg in 1918, or we would have had the same situation in the Hermitage as in Moscow.
...This disinformation was unusually enduring, everybody wanted to believe
it, despite Boris Borisovich denying it many times. People
– Meanwhile even specialists sometimes insinuate that at one time the Soviet government sold copies from the Hermitage abroad, pretending they were authentic...
– Yes, there is a myth that copies of icons, done by the Korin brothers, were sold instead of the original ones. I would love that to be true, but it is just a beautiful myth. Russian icons in Hillwood and in Washington are authentic.
– Were a lot sold?
– The Soviet government traded quite actively. It was only on Stalinís orders in the mid 1930s that this trade was halted. The sellers almost all died in the camps. By coincidence they all belonged to the Trotsky-Zinoviev block. Museum items were sold in two ways. Whole lists for auction or directly to the founder of the Washington National Gallery of Art Andrew Mellon. There are now 21 paintings from the Hermitage there. At first it was just sales, but then it was a kind of thank you for strategic goods and factories from America. Even so it was still a crime. No state or government has the right to dispose of cultural heritage. It belongs to the future.
This began to be talked about in the 1970s. At first quietly, then loudly.
I have personally appeared on television and written about it, as this
could repeat itself. Foreigners come to me asking me to sell them something
from the Hermitage. They say as you havenít got any money, sell! For example,
a collector of colts came and said, "why do the Russian people need
colts? Weíll give you five million dollars for the items which Colt personally
gave to Nicholas the First, weíll make copies." The first time I politely accompanied him out, and the
– It is said that Hammer illegally took away half the Hermitage...
– That is slander of poor Hammer. He did business with the young Soviet
Russia and helped break the trade embargo. He definitely bought up antiques,
but he never bought anything from museums, only in antique shops where
anything was sold. Andrew Mellon and Calouste Gulbenkian (billionaire
and philanthropist, ex head of Iraq Petroleum
By the way, Faberge became famous thanks to Hammer. It is clear that Cartier is no worse. But Hammer brought a lot of Faberge to the USA and began to sell these in department stores, this was a huge advert. Americans started to buy them and Faberge became famous. Hammer had his own collection, which we have exhibited. Later, he gave the Hermitage the portrait of the actress Antonia Zarate by Francisco Goya. The canvas wasnít very good and the restorers had to thoroughly repaint it. But we didnít have our own Goya. The government gave Hammer a Malevich. They wanted one from the Russian Museum, but Pushkarev pretended to be ill, so they gave him one from the Tretyakov Gallery. Hammer didnít really believe that it was genuine. He once flew to us with the Malevich and asked us to examine it in the Hermitage laboratory. He thought that he had been tricked. Our experts looked at it, everything was fine.
Museum items were never sold in US antique shops, unlike confiscated church icons. By the way, a lot of church property went abroad then. In 1922 we had an exhibition, and all the silver went abroad. We only managed to get a bit back. Groups of some rich people got together and suggested buying something. But, in fact, nobody sells valuables that have left the Hermitage.
– Is it true that during the Soviet period none of the heads of state visited the Hermitage?
– Thatís true. The Winter Palace is much more monumental than the Moscow Kremlin, imperial power blows from it. Communist upstarts suppressed this. Actually, Khrushchev once passed through the Hermitage when drunk and going to speak on Palace Square. Later it was said that he had been to the museum. But that doesnít count. The first was in 1996 when Boris Yeltsin came, after I wrote and invited him, especially as he was resurrecting state symbols and could familiarise himself directly with its history.
I showed Boris Nikolaevich the main halls. He signed a very important order in the Pavillion Hall. The Hermitage was taken under the protection of the president. He gave us a separate line in the budget, allocated money for exhibits and we were able to acquire a lot of very good items. Later we published a whole book on what we had bought.
By the way, Vladimir Putin controlled the execution of Yeltsinís order on allocating money for acquiring paintings when he was head of the Control Directorate. I believe that this is what guaranteed that the order was carried out. So we have items, which we obtained thanks to Boris Nikolaevich and Vladimir Vladimirovich, the only Sutin, Utrillo, Rouault, Dufy, Maillol in Russia.
– How did the museum get through Perestroika?
– Not in the best way. What makes the Hermitage wonderful? You enter another world. But at the beginning of the 90s the street entered. Battles, ambitions of those who believed that they hadnít been given what they deserved. This really got in the way, people were distracted. Also, as the museum had run out of money, it was necessary to build new relations with the authorities, with the world and with other museums.
– It is said that this all had a serious effect on the health of Boris Borisovich.
– To say so gives too much honour to those who were spinning their intrigues. Of course Boris Borisovich worried a lot. But the reason he left was an illness. He was one of those people who are never ill, but when they are everything collapses. He had problems with his legs and his eyes. His eyes were healed, his legs got worse and it all ended with a fatal stroke.
– When Vitaly Suslov offered you the post of first deputy for scientific work did you accept with a happy heart?
– To be honest, I never dreamt of working in the Hermitage. While my
father was director I couldnít work there, and, being
When I was a student I often went to the Caucasus, to Central Asia. Together
with my friend, the academic Ivan Mikhailovich
– Were you impressed?
– Oh yes! It was the real abroad. You could watch James Bond films, drink
beer from cans and buy any cigarettes. True, we were paid peanuts. We
bought food vouchers for the student hostel. One day buffalo, the next
chicken and the third vegetables. We fasted with everyone during Ramadan.
We walked nearly everywhere around the city. We were given 30 Egyptian
pounds (about 15 dollars) at the beginning of the month and the embassy
gave us another 5 pounds. Not much, but normal for students. Professionally
it was an extremely interesting place. I worked in Dar
– Then your candidate and doctorate...
– Science made me quite a respectable person, at least for myself. I could write and publish, it was in demand in Russia and in the world. My books were published three to four times in Arabic. The Institute of Oriental Studies, where I worked, was a great archive of eastern manuscripts and an internationally renowned centre for studying eastern culture.
When we were stuck in Afghanistan Evgeny Primakov, who became our director, forced through the Central Committee the decision on the need for fundamental study of Islam. As a result, everything we studied became more open, relevant and interesting. During those years I travelled a lot as translator for the Komsomol CC. In addition to visiting Cuba, I went to Sudan, Yemen, Iraq and other Arab countries.
I worked as translator in Yemen and lived in the fantastic town of Mukalla,
where I studied archaeology and ancient manuscripts at the same time.
Then I taught top ranking Yemenis modern history and ancient history of
Yemen in the School of social sciences. Then there was a complex Soviet-Yemeni
expedition, thanks to Evgeny Primakov. Political analysts, ethnographers,
anthropologists, linguists, archaeologists, historians and manuscript
specialists got together. We lived in a field, dug and read lectures.
Ancient temples, ancient towns, complete
After all, its a way of life. It was a shame to give it up. Also the USSR didnít look so bad from afar...
But, honestly, I didnít think about the offer to work at the Hermitage for long. I had the feeling that I was needed in this place. Especially as it was clear that this meant I would later become director.
After about six months I came to work and on the desk was a government order to allocate some money to the Hermitage and to appoint me director. I took this paper to Suslov. He just asked, "When?". I phoned the minister and asked, "What will happen to Vitaly Alexandrovich?" He answered in the Soviet manner, "Do what you like, you are the director now". The Soviet manner is from director to the street. I talked to my colleagues and we appointed Vitaly Alexandrovich Suslov consultant to the directorate, where he worked until his death. I am quite proud of this. After all when Orbeli was fired he never came here, even though he lived very close.