Interview in the magazine Novoye Vremya
- Looking over the work of the Hermitage, one begins to think that of all the arts you consider the museum itself to be the most important.
- I think this is a correct remark and it concerns not only the Hermitage. Among all cultural institutions, museums are the most democratic, because they present the material heritage of the nation. We say we are looking for a national idea, but here it is: in the halls of the Russian Museum, Peterhof, Tsarskoye Selo, the Tretyakov Gallery. This is all the more true when museums are situated in palaces. Then everyone finds it interesting to come to the museum, though the reasons will be different. Someone likes the furniture on display. Someone else is attracted by gilded volutes...And a third person likes the paintings, which he understands.
Museums acquire special importance now, because we not only live in a world where there is a lot of falsehood, but we live in a virtual world. Television, computers, the Internet, politics. One minute they are here, the next minute not. In museums, by contrast, there are real things: take something and look at it, think it over, try to figure out what it is and where it came from, then consult books...The mind begins to work as it contemplates something. People understand that others are trying to influence them from all sides, to force them to think this way or that, but there is an inner reaction in people against this and a need to sort things out for oneself. This in part is what makes museums ever more popular and madly important.
Moreover, when the museums were, so to speak, thrown in the water and instructed to sink or swim, they found ways of staying afloat while maintaining their dignity. I know all the museums in Russia fairly well, and I can say that practically none of them behaved in an undignified way these past several years, and they all invented various ways of staying alive. Plenty of museums have found the right way of behaving with wealthy patrons and corporations. They help the authorities to understand that museums are necessary and that the future generation of citizens is being brought up in the museums. They all, especially in Petersburg, have begun to live lives that are 100 times more active than in the past. And they do so not to serve themselves.
- As regards the next generation, it seems the government has its own plans. Now education is also moving into the "zone of monetarization."
I will not discuss the governmentís decisions, but I think we have, of course, confused things somewhat. The law which replaced privileges with money is remarkable. However, as we later learned, a whole assortment of articles in other laws automatically disappeared. The fundamental principles of the legislation on culture lost a phrase which said (and I am nearly quoting): "the state guaranty for the existence of cultural institutions is ensured by direct state financing." This point no longer exists. A state obligation has disappeared.
Another point which has been abolished stated that money earned by cultural institutions "cannot be used as a basis for reducing state subsidies." Very important principles have been taken away. This is very dangerous. In the world at large no one relies only on money. The market here in Russia resembles a Novgorod or Istanbul bazaar; there is no understanding of higher goals which are above the purely monetary one. When people tell us that we should go and earn money for the state, then I am ready to shout.
The state is a group of institutions created to ensure the functioning of society and maintain culture, which entails first of all the preservation of museums. But instead we hear: aha, you can earn money, so pay us up front, since you are making money off of state property. No one wants to understand that the state is not a machine for counting money which is not really its own.
We should try to create a scheme in which there will be a proper combination of earned income and state financing. And the fact is that such a scheme already exists. Itís worth mentioning that until recently France was the most "Soviet" country in the area of culture. The Louvre was nice enough to give up all its receipts to the state, and the government then gave money to the Louvre. How much it gave is another matter. Nonetheless, now all the major museums in France are allowed to keep a large part of their earnings for their own use.
This is precisely how we survived these last 10 years. We received a bit of state financing, but the rest we earned on our own. Now we understand that draft laws are being discussed which can violate this scheme. We earn what we can, but there is a moral limit. You cannot cast prudence to the winds just for the sake of money. This question is being widely discussed. People in the theater discuss it with emotion. Museum managers also are emotional, but we put together some concrete proposals. It is understandable that life changes and things should be different, but is that any reason to destroy something which was successful? We can earn our way and will do so, but the state also has an obligation; there is potential and action.
- But you are the deputy chairman of the Presidential Council on Culture and are someone he knows well. Perhaps you can do something?
- I was asked not long ago whether it was true I had been given the Presidentís mobile phone number. Yes, I know how to call him. But the times are not like in the Soviet period, when it may have been difficult to get through to the big boss, but if you did there might be a royal decree and everything was directed as you wished, even if it was all wrong. Another type of state mechanism is beginning to function. You donít just get worked up and shout. Issues have to be solved step by step. At one point a spanner has to be put in the works; at another point you have to help get the wheels moving.
Everyone has his logic and his interests. Some are interested in building up the system based on simple money exchange. Here our tasks do not coincide.
There is a lot of talk about monuments of culture. Should they be sold off or not. There are people for whom this is very important: if the architectural monuments are sold, they will tear them down and build their own houses. Then there are administrators who are in a panic and donít know what to do about the most decrepit monuments and are casting about for any solutions. Then there are others for whom it is important that these monuments be left standing, whatever their condition, because they are our collective memory, our heritage. Still others believe that we should find ways of saving the monuments, and they see their sale as only one of several ways of solving the problem. All of these people have their functions in society. The main thing is not to get them mixed up.
- But people are always trying to confuse us.
- They get themselves confused all the time, and they also confuse us. To put it mildly, the interests of the Ministry of Finance and my interests are not the same. We should find a way to participate in the writing of laws that affect us. We speak up in museum affairs. In the latest redaction of the law on cultural institutions changes have been introduced which correspond to what we asked for. When the ímonuments of cultureí have been discussed, we also wrote, putting forward our suggestions. The main idea is this: there is a whole assortment of people and organizations who can give reasonably good advice and they should be listened to. But bureaucratic routine is making a come-back, where for a time it did not exist. The functionaries think: why get upset and fray our nerves listening to all these advisers when we can do it all ourselves much more calmly since we are also not fools.
- Do you often have to make use of personal contacts?
- Infrequently. I am a bad director in the sense that I am a bad íbig boss.í I can have a conversation here or there to explain things. Thatís a good thing to do - to win people over with an idea. But I donít know how to walk the corridors of power and beg. I remember how when Yarov arrived at the Hermitage with some delegation at the very beginning. /Yuri Yarov was deputy president of the RF government from 1993-1996, - ed./ I met them. And he asked: "Where is the piece of paper?" "Which piece of paper?" I replied. "You mean a big boss has come and you havenít prepared something for me to sign...?"
I try not to ask for favors. Instead I tell them about what we are doing so they themselves can understand what is needed. But I never abuse my right to make requests, and I think this is most likely correct.
- Oriental wisdom. We can see in you a specialist in Arabic culture with 40 years of work experience. By the way, doesnít the word "Islam" in Arabic mean "obedience?"
-Islam is dedicating yourself to Allah. The main prayer of Moslems is about submitting to the Supreme Being, because man is nothing in comparison to Him. He only asks for a hint as to which direction it is correct to take. This is constructive obedience.
- Is the Islamic threat a fiction?
I think that it is a very bad invention. The world is tormented by a great many contradictions. In particular, contradictions between the poor and rich. This concerns both peoples and countries. There are a number of countries where these contradictions do not exist among the population. But there are loads of contradictions of all kinds between countries. They are in no way related to religion. Religion is about other things. Religion is not social. It is not about poor and rich. Rather, it deals with spiritual matters. What kind of religion was there in Chechnya? I know Chechnya and the Northern Caucasus. I worked there for many years on archeological expeditions. What sort of Islam is there? During the Soviet period, it didnít exist. That is why today so many Wahabis and outsiders are there now: they had very little real Islam in the past and it has been fanned up.
But it is always possible to give a religious coloration to social matters. That is a tradition around the world. Once upon a time in impoverished Europe they had to go off and conquer the wealthy Near East. They dreamed up the Crusades to recover the tomb of Our Lord from the infidel. Back then we see for the first time how a propagandistic image of the enemy was created; the army needed to have an image of the enemy. And in a manner also very characteristic of the Crusades, they went off to liberate Jerusalem, but on the way they staged pogroms in all the cities of Europe, beat up all the Jews they could lay hands on: all infidels were one and the same.
The same phenomenon goes on today. People say there is a conflict of civilizations. There is not one as yet, but we can come to a conflict. If you say the word íhalvahí often enough, you get the taste of a sweet in your mouth. If you keep on repeating in the same context "Islam and Islamic terrorism," then there will be a Moslem tint to terrorism; it begins to emerge. Already many more Moslems than usual see themselves in opposition to the world.
It is a terrible tragedy they way they killed the film director Theo Van Gogh. I have seen parts of his film. They were very offensive to Moslems. They were not at all about the difficult life of Moslem women. They were erotic jokes on the way women are sold into slavery and into prostitution. But this goes on among all the peoples of the world. And it happens in Holland itself. There are whites and blacks and greens. But this was served up as a Moslem phenomenon. There is no need to throw fat on the fire!
Now we see in the world a sharp politicization of religion. Here, there, everywhere. The people who initiate these conflicts find it very handy to raise the profile of political conflicts by adding a religious dimension. This is accompanied by a sharp intensification of the political role of religion. Yes, to be sure, there are fundamentalists among Moslems whose main task is not to fight against America but to put order in their own world as they see it. That means driving out all foreigners and overthrowing the rulers they have today. For this reason they go voluntarily to fight in Iraq: from there they can change the structure of the Near East, of all Moslem countries.
In America the strength of the "Bible Belt" is growing intensely. I mean all of Bushís supporters, all of these born-again Christians who are waiting for the end of the world and for the conversion of all Jews to Christianity. In Judaism there is an intensification of extremist attitudes. This is beginning to appear everywhere.
However, this is an historical tendency. It occurs from time to time. You have to understand this. Here is one instance where the intelligentsia should get involved. There is no need to crawl into politics or economics, even if you are an economist or expert in political affairs. But the intelligentsia should try to lower the level of intolerance we see around us, to help people understand one another.
- That is why you not only collect various cultures under the roof of the Hermitage, but also open museum branches all around the world. Do you have some plans for the Antarctic.
- Not for the moment, but thanks for the idea. You are right. We have a mission in oriental studies. We have a mission as a universal museum to explain that all people are similar, only some express mourning in black clothing and others express it in white clothing. We all weep in the same way.
Sometimes people say (and it is repugnant to read it!) that the Hermitage is a museum for foreigners, that it isnít ours, it isnít Russian. But the fact is that the Hermitage is a brilliant monument of Russian culture. It is an open museum where the Russian department is on a par with the others. We talk about Russian culture without frontiers and here it is. It is embodied in the Hermitage, in this passion for collecting, and it is the pride and joy of Russia. All of world culture is represented here and is accessible to us.
We also have another mission. We are a Russian museum, but we belong to the world and we should demonstrate this fact. The world is drawn to us and our exhibitions go out into the world. Our exhibition on Islamic art in London was hugely successful and was viewed as a political act. In London 30 years had gone by without an exhibition especially devoted to Islamic art. The position of the Moslem population in England is very complex, given that many Moslems have been living there as English for several generations.
We tell the world the story of the Hermitage and the idea of Russian culture. We present Russian history and our understanding of world history, all of which is very important. We talk about Islam and about other world cultures as we understand them. This is an ideological offensive that is stronger than many others.
-How do you feel about globalization?
-It is an historical process, and there is no reason to think that globalization has just arrived. There was an age of Hellenism and Hellenization extended across nearly the whole world. There was also a time when nearly all the monarchs of Europe were related to one another. There were great trade routes, for example the celebrated Silk Route. All of that once existed. Peter the Great took Russia into the world by force. This is a normal historical process.
-What we can say is different is the way that things are accelerating in this historical process thanks to technology and information media. It is different when globalization is implemented just for the sake of money or political might. Then the unpleasant aspects appear.
-There are primitive forces which propel this and try to erase the frontiers between cultures. In fact there is no need for that; the different cultures can co-exist just as they do in the United States. But for this to happen something also has to be done. It is not enough just to shout "down with globalism." You have to invest positive content in your message. You should develop a network of cultural exchanges, as we do with the Guggenheim or with the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. These are projects that are carried out jointly with people from several countries, and not only for the sake of those participating countries but for others as well.
Globalization advances in various ways including the Internet. The Internet is like a rubbish heap. There is no way you can control it by censorship. The only way to draw people away from what is bad is to give them better alternatives. Museum sites, of which there are many, are one of the remarkable alternatives for people who are not interested in money or in world hegemony but in fraternization, in communicating. These sites are a way that every artistic object can have "resonance" in many different places. And this resonance is heard variously at the different ends of the earth! This is true cultural globalism which will coexist perfectly well with cultural diversity.
- Surely the President helps you in this...
- There was a large article in the New York Times about how the importance of culture has declined in world politics. In past years Stalin listened to Shostakovich, Roosevelt did something or other, Thatcher did something else. Now when the intellectual Chirac arrives in London, they show him Les Miserables, a musical based on Hugo which is a bone in the throat for the French. But when Blair arrived in Russia, Putin took him to the Hermitage and then to the Mariinsky Theater to hear War and Peace. The article goes on to say quite correctly that the Russian president understands the political sense of culture.
No one intends to claim that our politicians only dream and breathe culture, though it is true they go quite often to the Mariinsky. The political importance of culture is that it facilitates correct discussions. It is our unexpended capital of which we can be proud just as we are proud of our oil. Formerly the heads of foreign governments came to the Hermitage accompanied by low level personnel. Now they come together with the president of the land, which produces a far greater effect. And I think everything will be fine.
- In December the Hermitage will mark the 240th anniversary of the museum and your 60th birthday. What do you consider your personal contribution to have been?
- Things are all done in a collegial manner and there are few areas where I can say I stand alone. The director who was here before me never left the Hermitage; he stayed on to work. That was my doing and it violated an old tradition whereby once a person is discharged from the Hermitage, he never sets foot in it again. That was the story with Orbeli and Artamonov. And I also was responsible for making the museum free of charge for children, which is something our accountants still reproach me for, saying "Now the kids run off and buy Coca Cola." That is about all.