Interview in the magazine L'OPTIMUM
- Would you agree that someone can determine how well organized a person is by looking at his writing desk?
- What do you think, I am well organized or not?
- In this interview, I am the one who asks the questions.
- Not so! In this house I am the one who poses the questions.
- Generally I have no doubts that you are not merely well organized but hyper-organized. But your desk....it is intimidating.
- It only seems to you that everything is piled into a heap. In fact, all these papers are "live," being processed. Some of them are moved on, others stay behind...This is a work desk and here order prevails.
-Why are there a laborer's trowels on the work desk of a scholar and museum director?
-╠asonic tools, of course. They are here on the desk to ensure that every visitor will ask about them. And write that I am a freemason...This is a souvenir of our first grandiose joint project...with the Dutch. It was called A New Roof for Rembrandt. When we signed our agreement on cooperation, the Dutch gave me a symbolic silver trowel as well as one real trowel. But the Dutch are a workaday people and they gave this to me without any hidden message. They don't have any obsession with Masons.
-I understand that people must also ask about this other item, but I cannot restrain myself. It used to be the case that in official offices there were portraits of Peter the Great. Now, there are portraits of the President. But you have a portrait of Catherine the Great. Why?
-Formerly Lenin's portrait was in all the offices. In this office as well. Lenin's face was very likable. It seems that they chose some atypical drawing, maybe by Brodsky. Then these were taken down and we got a photograph. Now that is somewhere in the warehouse. For a while the wall was empty. When I arrived, the portrait of Catherine was already hanging. She is for us the main personality, the founder of the Hermitage. This particular portrait is a tapestry; it is sewn. Catherine gave out ones like this as diplomatic gifts. Now that the monarchies have been reduced to fragments, we get by with photos.
-You have quite a few photos, I see. There are photographs of crowned monarchs. You often associate with princes and queens. Are they in any way different from ordinary mortals?
-It is interesting to talk with princes about household matters. Your man from the street thinks that in a palace everything should be as in films: it all should be shiny. Signs of wear and cracks are just not right. However, people who have their own palaces look at this question differently. They have to think how to repair them. For this reason monarchs can say a lot of useful things about repair work.
-Oh, what is going on in the next room? Are those birds singing?
-Parrots. One of our employees in the Hermitage's Foreign Department one winter went off to work and a parrot settled on her fur coat. He became a regular here. Then we bought a companion for him and now the two of them are chirping away. As you can see, they are very helpful to our discussions..
-How lovely. Don't you think that we are gradually losing all the nice things such as capacity for heart-to-heart talks, the need for correspondence with friends?..
-╬pen your computer. You will find there nonstop chat rooms. Take a look at the newspapers. The most interesting section of any newspaper in the world is the letters from readers. Yes, the kind of correspondence that took place in the 18th and 19th centuries now looks like a luxury to us. In fact it really wasn't such a luxury back then. They wrote about this and that. Of course, the conventions have changed. But the wish to communicate with others by letters and to express a personal style is being reborn right now. The art of conversation also has not been lost. Until quite recently people met and chatted quite well in kitchens. Now everyone is occupied with business, but it is also a form of communication and interpersonal exchange. In business you have to charm your interlocutor. Or deceive him. It is just that everything takes different forms. And the nice things of the past which we like so much are really not necessary in our life. I think people read Dostoevsky nowadays only because he is Dostoevsky. If he were living today, he would write in an entirely different manner.
-Do you read modern literature?
-Mostly something or other Western. But then do we really have something to read? Not much. Of course, some kind of literary process is going on, but it is not very exciting. There are no masterpieces. But then again we have not had any masterpieces in a long time. Maybe 50 years from now....
-Masterpieces do not emerge among the blind. Sometimes you get the feeling that maybe not all of humanity but the great majority of people have grown terribly stupid, have become impoverished in the last few years.
-Yes and no. People have not become stupid, rather society as a whole has become dumb. I recently read somewhere that we suffer from the syndrome of intellectual deficiency. The acute fall in the demand for intellectual qualities, the falling out of fashion of intellectual qualities, the absence in demand for intellectual products are a worldwide tendency over the past 10 years. People taken separately are good and smart. There is nothing terrible in their being satisfied with watching detective films or even stage shows on the television. But when there is nothing else in their lives...This is a sign of illness in a society which has no need for brains. And it can be a fatal illness if not treated..
-How do you understand the instruction to "Love your Fatherland?"
-There are things about which you do not ask. Have you heard of the old Anglo-American expression "My country, right or wrong". Well that is what"Love your Fatherland" means..
-Patriotism in its present form....
-In its present form there is nothing whatever of patriotism. There are many different political currents of the nationalistic type which are born of an inferiority complex. True respect for oneself has nothing in common with deficiencies. Why would a normal respectable person have an inferiority complex?
-And are we normal or respectable?
-We are all different. Journalists don't seem to suffer from inferiority complexes. But politicians do..
-You may not believe it, but journalists also are a varied bunch. Nonetheless, there are what may be called "national traits." And the result, for example, is that in Finland the streets are clean and here we always have some trash underfoot.
-The city of Helsinki is built on stone. And Petersburg is built on a swamp..
-But Moscow is also built on stone..
-But Moscow does not have to be clean. Moscow is an Asiatic city. It should be colorful, distinctive, decorated with advertisements and church cupolas and snow drifts... Therefore, it makes no difference how much dirt there is there. Best of all if the city is covered with snowdrifts. Otherwise the beauty is lost. And one more point: the trains in Germany and Italy were best at running on schedule during the time of Hitler and Mussolini. Wň should remember this. Some people do remember it, and with nostalgia. The trains ran better back then, they say. But what about us? We have a wonderful and great country. It is one of the few countries where life is interesting for people. Even our television, which today has become really awful, was the best in the world till not long ago. Of course, we will never have the sort of complete calm and orderliness that you see in Europe. But then we were never Europe. We are too big for that. We are a country without frontiers, an open country. This is why the national idea of "Russian" can never be the same as the national idea of a closed country. What does "Russian" mean? The sense is not clear. My own nationality is perfectly understandable: I am a hereditary Russian nobleman. Now that is Russian.
-With Armenian blood.
-With Armenian blood, with Polish blood, whatever. The entire history of the Russian gentry is opposed to nationalism and chauvinism. The merchant class Russians of the Okhotny Ryad and the Russian nobleman are two very different things. There is no Russian blood as such. The hereditary Russian noblemen, whether of German origin or Tatar or some other people are all Russians. The rest is very indistinct. Therefore our chauvinism is not very serious. Let the Germans sort out who is an Aryan and who is not. Here in Russia just try to figure it all out! This is why we have our own chosen path. We rush off in this direction, then in that. But we will follow a path and not get lost. Even if the path is sometimes rather bloody. Sometimes very bloody. Always extremist. Always a lesson to the whole world.
-One worthy son of the Fatherland, I don't remember who unfortunately, was filling out a government form in 1920 or so. In the blank for "class" he wrote "nobleman". The Commissar added the word "former. ""Sorry, Comrade," our hero said, "it's all the same if you write Ĺformer St Bernard,' but there is no such thing as a former nobleman." A nice story. But when you look in on present-day noblemen's assemblies....
-Yes, of course this is just a circus, a farce. Formally speaking the Russian nobility no longer has any special status or privileges. But a certain ideology remains. What does it mean to be a nobleman in Russia? This is people who are serving the country and doing so whatever the regime. This very service is the basis of the nobleman's ideology. One more thing: not to be greedy. The Bolsheviks seem to have tried to build their ideology on the same values. But somehow they didn't stick.
-What should a person preserve in himself whatever the cost and without regard to the circumstances or situations around him?
Self-respect, for sure. But this has to be founded on something. Although it may be enough just to be confident: "Generally I am good." This is also good, also important. But it is better if there is also further self-evaluation: "Yes, I am good because yesterday I did this or that and did not do something else. Without regard to personal advantage or risk..." We should try to justify our self-respect and preserve that. This is true not only of individuals. The single thing that brings us the respect of the whole world, without a doubt, is our culture. The people who sell oil are not especially respected. The arms merchants are certainly not respected. Even if people buy the one and the other from us. Those who perform ballets or play the violin better than others, now those are the people who command respect. And we should take pride in this and respect ourselves for it. We are suppliers of culture. That is a great thing.