Interview with the journal Telesem, Ryazan
- Now I know that I should download pictures for my mobile phone....
- Yes, you can say that you have used a service of our museum. I think that instead of pictures from "Home-2" it will be much more aesthetically appealing to have paintings of the great artists on a mobile phone. And by the way, this service has created a sensation. No one besides us has thought it up. Right from the start there was a big response, a lot of orders. Now interest has died down somewhat and in a while we will re-make the service. It doesn't bring in a lot of revenue, but some money does flow in and that is good. I don't agree with those who oppose any sort of innovation. In order for people to develop good taste, you have to fight with all available means. You have to tell them and show them what is good and normal and what isn't. Now every day our museum's site is visited by tens of thousands of people. The Hermitage in Virtual Space project received a government prize not long ago.
- Is this a family matter - to fight for good taste?
- I am continuing what my father did, although I personally never planned to work in the museum. At the time, continuing in the family profession was not considered proper. It is a very mystical sensation and I am always aware of it - that my father is somewhere nearby, here, and that I am doing everything with a glance in his direction, thinking how he would have acted. When the film director Alexander Sokurov in trepidation suggested I act out a meeting with my father in the film Russian Ark, I did not have to consider the idea very long, because for me such a moment of contact with my father was always quite natural. In general I grew up amidst excavations which my parents took me along to see and I very much wanted to be an historian, though at the same time to be busy with matters that my father did not know about and could not do. Among orientalists one always spoke with special respect of those who knew Arabic. There were very few such people. And so I decided to become a specialist in Arabian studies and did so. Later it turned out that the Arabian countries were...the very same Egypt that my father was busy with, and it all led to the same common denominator.
- Did you exert any influence on the choice of profession of your son and daughter? Did you want to prolong the dynasty?
- Only indirectly. The children were given the chance to look and choose on their own. Masha and Boris were more influenced by their mother, who is an orientalist and economist. Our daughter has made a career as a banker and works in Moscow in Dresdner Bank, while our son graduated from an institute specializing in economics and finance. At the same time, Boris has from early childhood spent a lot of time in the Hermitage, in the computer laboratory; and he helped create the museum's website. Children of Hermitage staff are always present in the museum and many decide to continue the family traditions.
- The Director of the Hermitage has an agenda that is full a month in advance. He has many business trips. Do you have much chance to spend time at home, to relax?
- Rarely, but some Sundays I can stay at home - though then I will be busy with office papers. Sometimes I think up university courses for my students. There are times when I go out for a walk or do some skiing, but mostly I spend time with a book.
- What about the beach? Rio-de-Janeiro or one of the Caribbean islands?
- I don't see that as relaxation. I have been in many places during my life. I traveled around all of Central Asia, the Northern Caucasus, part of the Ukraine and Moldova, the North of Russia. I often hitchhiked and traveled without having any money. For many years I worked in expeditions in Yemen, in the Arabian countries, and now once a week I fly somewhere on business. Therefore, I don't have any special desire to get away to some beach! It would be better to stay with my family and not see anyone other than my people at home.
- You are now living heart-to-heart with your wife Irina for more than 30 years. How did you two meet?
- It was love at first sight. We met in an airplane when we were flying to Baghdad to spend two months on an internship. And then we got married almost immediately afterwards. It was very romantic. Ira was living in Moscow, and even after the wedding we lived in different cities waiting to see who would pull whom in which direction. In the end I won out and you should remember that back then I wasn't the director of the Hermitage but just a simple Ph.D. degree holder.
- I just have to ask you this: your image and lifestyle is associated with...
- Just don't ask about my scarf. I wear it because I want to! Mainly I choose the scarves myself. Sometimes I simply buy them because the occasion presents itself. But it is also nice to get one as a gift Formerly, I only wore black scarves, but now I vary my routine. I like to dress this way. It feels nice and when there is frost, the scarf is also warm.
- Why does the director of a museum which is a kind of state within the state need to get involved in television?
- A great museum like the Hermitage should always talk about itself. Here, as in sports, you always have to show that you are the best and to set new records. You cannot show off the old medals forever. Our program on Kultura has been running for five years and more than 100 episodes have been filmed. Of course, the name is somewhat pretentious - My Hermitage. This does not mean that the museum belongs to me. The word "my" here means that it is the Hermitage as seen by me, by a person who grew up in it, by the director who is joyful over it. It is pleasant that the audience of the television channel Kultura is growing and often it happens that people recognize me as the presenter of the broadcast. That suggests that in our society not everything is as bad as it seems.
- They say that you read the Koran every morning. Is that so?
- Sometimes I do read the Koran. But I also have manuscripts with various prayers. I have a good 18th century Russian edition of A Thousand and One Nights. In the morning I begin with texts that I know by heart; they give me a feeling of calm. Here is a well known text, here are well known things which speak to you more than to others. After that you can already read anything: from material on Russia in global politics to my office correspondence on some pipes that have burst.
- Can you remember a favorite chapter from the Koran right away?
- Short passages from the Koran are captivating. I really love a phrase which may be translated as: "You have your faith and I have mine." This is from a conversation between Mohammed and his fellow clan members. Unfortunately, we always interpret it wrongly. The constructive sense is that we are people of different faiths and understanding, but we can nonetheless live together. And the sense has been distorted, accusing Islam of being bloodthirsty, though Christianity is no less bloodthirsty, as history shows. Every religion, unfortunately, can be politically thirsty for blood.
- What are you reading now for your soul?
- The Black Book, by the remarkable Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. Also the writings of Trotsky, which it is useful to re-read now, after so many years. To be sure, I first read Trotsky in Arabic. At the time you couldn't publish Trotsky here; he was published by some Arabian leftists and a copy reached me.
- In which language was he more interesting to read?
- You really can't read him in Arabic, especially his early works, when he still wrote like Lenin.
- Have you had a chance to see the little planet "Piotrovsky" that was named for you and your father?
- Unfortunately, no. You can only see it with a very powerful telescope and for a limited period of time. I never had the opportunity to travel especially for this and to look through a huge telescope at an observatory. To be sure, it was shown on a film: it looks like a large stone, essentially an asteroid...
- You have received a lot of awards, and which one of them is dearest to you?
- Please don't criticize me for lack of patriotism, but my Russian awards are not of very high rank and therefore I will say that I treasure most the Order of the Legion of Honor award. I have two degrees and both were given to me from the personal reserves of President Chirac for contributing to Russian-French relations. I received the first order when almost no one in Russia had it. In general, the Order of the Royal House of Orange-Nassau (Netherlands) was my first foreign order. My wife and I were the only Russians to be invited to the wedding of Prince Willem Alexander of Orange who, by the way, is a trustee of Hermitage in Amsterdam.
- As one duty of your office, you are constantly associating with the powerful people of this world. Who among them has left the brightest impression on you?
- They are all, of course, very different. President Chirac is a highly educated man and made a strong impression on me. Just imagine, he knows the particular features of the school of Thai architecture! There was an entertaining time with Bill Clinton. I took him around the halls of the Hermitage. We examined Biblical subjects, in particular the Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt. For some reason the journalists asked Clinton what he thought about religious persecution in Russia. And he asked in return whether they know what is depicted in these paintings when they are giving such sharp questions. And he then delivered a short lecture on this question. It is very pleasant that all the presidents, including our present one, prepare for their trips abroad, read something so as to understand what they will be seeing and doing.
- You are a person with impeccable education and high level of culture. What can make you scream? Somehow you have dropped the hint that only the stupidity of bureaucrats can do this to you...
- A lot of things can get me angry, but I certainly do not shout at bureaucrats. I only shout at my own people, at family members. Maybe once a year I will shout at a secretary, but then I will say: "You see, I am just human. I have that right." I can restrain myself, but a person should be emotional. That is also a sign of the Russian intelligentsia. As a member of the Russian intelligentsia you can use curse words, but you have to choose the right time and place to do it, and that is not so simple.